Cubs turn starting-pitching questions into starting-pitching certainties with Yu Darvish signing

Cubs turn starting-pitching questions into starting-pitching certainties with Yu Darvish signing

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."

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been


Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.

Anthony Rizzo declines role as an activist, says trip to Florida 'was the hardest thing I've ever had to do'

Anthony Rizzo declines role as an activist, says trip to Florida 'was the hardest thing I've ever had to do'

MESA, Ariz. — Anthony Rizzo’s gone above and beyond for his community in the wake of one of the worst mass shootings in United States history, when 17 people lost their lives last week at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, Rizzo’s alma mater.

His actions and words have carried plenty of weight in the last week, but Rizzo’s comments upon returning to Arizona were more focused on the general need for change rather than specific actions related to the issue of gun violence in America.

The Cubs’ first baseman, who returned to spring training on Monday after spending several days being with his community in Florida, repeatedly voiced the opinion — though it’s ridiculous to think there’s a counter argument that could actually qualify as someone’s opinion — that these mass shootings need to stop happening with such an incomprehensible amount of frequency.

But he stopped short of taking a full step into the national debate on the issue, clarifying that his comments made on Twitter the day of the shooting were not referencing gun control or that specific debate at all.

“Obviously, there needs to be change,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know what that is, I don’t get paid to make those decisions. I can sit back and give opinions, but you just hope somewhere up the line of command, people are thinking are thinking the same things that a lot of innocent kids are thinking: ‘Why? Why am I scared to go to school? Why am I scared to say goodbye to my son or daughter?’ God forbid someone was in an argument with someone they loved that day, how bad — it’s a bad time right now in the country with what’s going on with all these shootings.

“My opinion is my opinion. I don’t think it’s fair to my teammates and everyone else if I come out and start going one way or the other. I think, my focus is on baseball. My focus is definitely on Parkland and the community there and supporting them and whatever direction that they go. But for me it’s hard enough to hit a baseball, and it’s definitely going to be hard enough to try to be a baseball player and a politician at the same time.”

Rizzo has no more of an obligation to be a spokesman on this issue than any other American does, and his presence at his old school last week, his words at a vigil for the victims of this tragedy were powerful. Rizzo has established himself as a remarkable member of his community in Chicago, and he won the Roberto Clemente Award last season for his charitable efforts off the field. His willingness to leave Arizona and be with members of his community was reflective of the type of person Cubs fans and Chicagoans have gotten to know.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Just going back, you don’t what to say. There’s nothing you can say,” Rizzo said. “When people get shot, you’re grateful that they’re alive. When they pass away, you’re grateful that you knew them, to look at the bright side of things if you can. But just to see how real it is, it’s sad.

“The more I just sat and thought about it, I felt helpless here. That’s where I grew up, in Parkland. I got in trouble there, I succeeded there, I learned how to be who I am because of Parkland, because of Stoneman Douglas. So to be across the country and not be there and then to find out some very close people have lost loved ones, to be there to help them and support them was very important to me.”

Rizzo repeatedly said how proud he is of the students of Stoneman Douglas, who have been outspoken on social media, directing their comments toward the president and other members of the government and sharing their opinions that gun control is necessary for the violence to stop.

But Rizzo refrained from wading into that debate and even chastised those who mischaracterized his Twitter comments as a call for gun regulation.

“To be very clear I did not say the word ‘gun’ one time,” he said. “Anyone out there who wrote gun control, saying I called for gun control, I think is very irresponsible and I did not say that once.

“I don’t know what needs to be done, I don’t know. I don’t know enough about it. I know there are a lot of shootings. I know they are done with a specific make, but I don’t know what needs to be done. But something, some type of change needs to happen for the better because I’m sure people in here have kids. No one right now feels very comfortable on a daily basis sending their kid to school and not knowing if they’re going to see them again.”

That kind of message might not be as declarative as some would have hoped. But it remained a powerful one, showing that even if he wasn’t ready or willing to declare himself an activist, Rizzo shares the feelings of many Americans who are simultaneously numb to the news of these shootings and completely and entirely fed up with their frequency and the lack of action taken to stop them.

“As a human being, probably everyone in here when they first the initial (reports of a) shooter, I took my next golf swing, because that’s how numb this country is to it,” Rizzo said. “Until something crazy happens, when you hear ‘open shooter’ nowadays, it’s like, ‘OK,’ take your next breath and keep going. Then I found out it was at Douglas, you get a little more concerned, ‘OK, what’s going on.’ At first it’s a few people injured, then you found out it was what it was, and it’s just — it’s gut-wrenching. You just go numb.

“I stand behind my community, and I’m really proud of how everyone’s coming together. Obviously I said there needs to be change, I don’t know what the change needs to be. I’m just really proud of those kids and how they’re coming together and becoming one in Parkland. It’s really inspiring to see, and it makes me proud.”