Cubs

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

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USA TODAY

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.

19 for '19: What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?

19 for '19: What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: What can the Cubs expect from Yu Darvish?

Yu Darvish's inaugural season in Chicago obviously didn't go well. But despite a minor blister issue, Year 2 seems to be off to a much better start.

Darvish has been different this spring - from his physical shape (he's added more muscle) to his health to his confidence and comfortability.

He said he now feels like part of the family in the clubhouse and has been holding court with reporters without a translator, even cracking jokes on the regular. He was confident enough in his English skills last year to interact with teammates and understand the media questions he was asked without a translation, but he still responded in Japanese, which created some miscommunication at times.

The blister issue Darvish had a few days ago caused Cubdom to hold their breath momentarily, but it doesn't appear to be anything serious and he may not even miss a start because of it. The forearm bone bruise is completely gone and Darvish had a procedure to clean up his elbow right before the offseason started, so he should enter 2019 as close to 100 percent as somebody with a blister on their pitching hand can be.

He also doesn't have to answer any questions about his performance in the World Series or try to determine if he was tipping pitches - two issues he had to discuss last spring coming off a couple of nightmare outings in the 2017 Fall Classic.

On top of that, there's something to an increase in comfortability in Year 2 of a megadeal, which Jon Lester has talked about in detail the last few seasons. Lester admitted he was pressing in his first year with the Cubs, trying to live up to his big contract and the lofty expectations that came with it. But he also said he felt a lot more comfortable in the second year of his deal, especially during a season in which the Cubs had World Series expectations.

Maybe Darvish follows that same path. He doesn't have the same pressure or burden he had a year ago and the Cubs don't need him to be their ace - they already have a rotation filled with proven veterans.

Remember, this is still the same pitcher who has whiffed 11 batters per 9 innings over his 872.1-inning big-league career. Prior to 2018, Darvish had never posted an ERA over 3.86 or WHIP over 1.28 in a season (last year he was at 4.95 and 1.43, respectively).

Nobody can guarantee health for a full season, but if Darvish is able to throw even 120-150 quality innings, that would be a huge boon for the Cubs in 2019.

- Tony Andracki 

It feels like Darvish's decline has become a bit overstated at this point. He was bad last year, but also clearly hurt and only has a 40-inning sample size. He had gotten to at least 100 innings in each of his prior five seasons and was averaging 166 IPs per season until 2018. 

If he's healthy, there's no reason not to expect the Darvish that's a 4-time All Star and Cy Young runner-up. What looks like a dip in production during the 2017 season -- when he was traded from Texas to the Dodgers -- is actually somewhat misleading - Darvish's K-rate, BB-rate, and velocity all returned to career norms when he joined the Dodgers. Pitching in Texas can be a disaster, and all of Darvish's park-adjusted numbers suggest that the Globe Life Park wasn't doing him any favors. No one's confusing Wrigley for say, Safeco (or T-Mobile I guess), but it beats the launching pad in Dallas. 

Much of Darvish's value stems from the fact that he gives the Cubs' rotation something they don't otherwise have: a high-volume strikeout guy. No other starter comes close to piling up strikeouts the way that Darvish can - his K/9 rate is almost three batters more than any other starter on staff. 

A bounce back season from Darvish and he's probably in the conversation to be a hypothetical playoff Game 1 starter. Leaving Spring Training games is always a little bit concerning, but given Darvish's injury history, it could have been much worse. Overall, there are a lot of signs pointing towards a really good 2019 for Darvish, and the Cubs could use all the good pitching news they can get. 

- By Cam Ellis

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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Cubs designate Brian Duensing for assignment, sign reliever Tim Collins

Cubs designate Brian Duensing for assignment, sign reliever Tim Collins

The Cubs Opening Day roster is not finalized, but it appears the bullpen will be without lefty Brian Duensing.

Sunday, the Cubs announced that they signed left-handed reliever Tim Collins. To make room for him on the 40-man roster, the team designated Duensing, 36, for assignment.

The Cubs could retain Duensing, though he has to pass through waivers first. However, it's unlikely any team claims him; Duensing will make $3.5 million in 2019 and has struggled in spring training following a disappointing 2018 season.

In eight Cactus League appearances, Duensing has allowed eight runs on nine hits in seven innings, surrendering two home runs. It's worth noting that he allowed no runs and just two hits in his first four appearances (four innings), though he has allowed six runs in his last two appearances, managing to record a single out on each occasion.

Duensing had a successful debut season with the Cubs in 2017, posting a 2.74 ERA in 68 games (62 1/3 innings). The Cubs re-signed him to a two-year contract ahead of the 2018 season, though his ERA ballooned to 7.65 in 48 games (37 2/3 innings). NBC Sports Chicago's Cam Ellis analyzed Duensing's 2018 struggles here.

Collins signed a minor league deal with the Twins in February, though they released him on Friday. The 29-year-old has pitched in parts of five MLB seasons with the Royals (2011-14) and Nationals (2018). After four-straight seasons with a sub-4.00 ERA, Collins did not pitch in 2015 and 2016 after undergoing multiple Tommy John surgeries. He finished the 2018 season with a 4.37 ERA in 38 games.

Collins presents the Cubs with left-handed bullpen depth. That "position" is one of the team's bigger question marks right now, as Mike Montgomery is the only lefty certain to make the Cubs Opening Day roster. 

With Duensing designated for assignment, the Cubs could elect to put one of Allen Webster, Kyle Ryan or Randy Rosario on the Opening Day roster. Ryan and Rosario are lefties, for what it's worth.

Here is what the bullpen could look like when the team breaks camp:

Pedro Strop (if hamstring strain is healed)
Carl Edwards Jr.
Steve Cishek
Mike Montgomery
Brad Brach
Brandon Kintzler
Tyler Chatwood
Webster/Ryan/Rosario

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