MESA, Ariz. — One player can't solve all of a team's problems. But he can go a long way toward solving the biggest ones.
The Cubs entered the offseason with big-time questions in their starting rotation, expecting the free-agent departures of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey to throw a wrench into the starting staff. While Tyler Chatwood looks like a good addition — and definitely one the Cubs are very happy about — the prospect of replacing Arrieta and Lackey with Chatwood and Mike Montgomery didn't sound too promising to many.
Enter Yu Darvish.
The Cubs introduced their latest big-money addition Tuesday as spring training started out in the desert and with that swept away any questions about their starting rotation heading into a 2018 campaign, one in which they are as promising World Series contenders as anyone. Worried about the Arrieta-sized hole in the starting staff? Darvish plugs it.
"He’s an elite arm within major league pitching," manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday. "When this guy is right, and he normally is right, he’s the strikeout guy that he is, he’s got multiple pitches, he doesn’t walk a whole lot of folks, he’s going to be out there sucking up some innings. He just provides so many positives for us. It’s wonderful to have him on your side. When you’re game-planning against him, you watch that first and second inning and all of a sudden … you think, ‘Oh my god, it’s going to be a long day.’ Now he’s on your side.
"When he gets on a roll, that’s that contagious component where you’ve got him, you’ve got Jonny (Lester) and Kyle (Hendricks) and the entire group working out there. It’s going to be fun too watch. But he’s a different cat. Not many guys that tall, that delivery, that command, not many people combine all those elements. I think when our guys get to watch that in person, it can be contagious in a positive way."
Lester, Hendricks and Jose Quintana already formed as good a 1-2-3 punch as there is in the National League. But there was a strong feeling that the Cubs needed something more to capture the same kind of magic they did in the past three seasons, all of which featured trips to the NL Championship Series and one of which ended in a World Series championship. The extra oomph from Darvish gives the Cubs what is arguably the best rotation in baseball.
Some questions still exist, and they're ones that Darvish can't solve. Will Lester return to form after 2017, his worst season, statistically, in a long time? Will Jose Quintana bounce back after his 2017 campaign, which featured a career-high 4.15 ERA? Will Chatwood be able to do better than his 4.69 ERA and 15 losses, an NL high, from last season?
But Darvish's mere presence solves the biggest riddle of all, even bigger than the apparent need for another top-of-the-rotation guy: What would the Cubs have done had one of their starters been injured?
Montgomery has certainly paid his dues and deserved a shot in the starting rotation, but his value as a swingman out of the bullpen remains incredibly high. Had he been entrenched in the fifth-starter role, who would have stepped in in case of an emergency? Montgomery's played that part in each of the past two seasons, but there were almost no viable options behind him. Now he'll likely to return to the same role and provide the important insurance every contending team needs.
"It’s all going to play out well by the end of the season," Maddon said. "Stuff happens. Guys are needed, people are thrust into different roles. Right now, on Feb. 13, this is what it looks like, but things change, sometimes rather quickly. And baseball has a cruel way of answering questions. So let’s just play it like this, keep the conversation open, and it’s all going to work out well."
General manager Jed Hoyer spoke Tuesday about the team's offseason mission to address the pitching staff, both in the starting rotation and the bullpen. Between Darvish and Chatwood and the relief corps adds of Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek and the re-signing of Brian Duensing, the Cubs can consider that mission accomplished.
And Darvish's six-year deal means some important things for a team eyeing long-term success, too. With many of the Cubs' young position players under team control for the next four seasons, the addition of Darvish keeps that championship window wide open for at least that long.
"That’s who we are, it’s a big part of our identity, is this position-player core," president Theo Epstein said. "We knew all along we’d have to find a way to build great pitching around them. And if you look at the last three years, we’ve had the best pitching in baseball. Hasn’t always been perfect. We haven’t done a great job developing homegrown pitching, it’s something we hope to improve. But we’ve had the best pitching in baseball the last three years. And now you look at our starting five, we couldn’t be happier with this group. As Joe said, we’ve got to go out and do it, but what a pitching staff to be able to put with this position-player group."