Cubs

The new Yankees? High-priced Yu Darvish joins Cubs and makes World Series expectations even bigger

The new Yankees? High-priced Yu Darvish joins Cubs and makes World Series expectations even bigger

MESA, Ariz. — Face it, folks. The Cubs are the new Yankees.

That, of course, is no bad thing if you’re a Cubs fan. After all, the Yankees built a dynasty in the 1990s that brought four championships to the Bronx in a five-year span. Seeing something like that on the North Side would be quite the polar opposite of a century of lovable losing.

But that’s exactly what the Cubs are built to do.

After winning that curse-smashing World Series title in 2016, the Cubs’ young core now has a brand-new, high-priced addition in Yu Darvish, who officially joined the Cubs on the first day of spring training Tuesday. One of the top two starting pitchers on this winter’s glacially paced free-agent market, Darvish signed up for a lot of reasons — 126 million of them, if you're counting at home — but one big one jumps out: He wants to win the World Series.

“Obviously,” Darvish said when asked what his main goal for 2018 was, “to win the World Series as a Cub.

“My priority in selecting a team was a team that had a great chance of winning the World Series, and the Cubs obviously have more than a great chance of winning. So I’m really honored to be here.”

And that is why these Cubs are so much like those old Yankees teams. The annual monster contracts are one reason: Darvish signed up two years after Jason Heyward’s franchise-record contract and three years after Jon Lester’s megadeal. The homegrown core is another. But the annual expectation of a world championship is really what’s transformed the Cubs into what they are today.

Last season, the Cubs advanced to their third straight National League Championship Series. And it was a disappointment, no matter how much Joe Maddon argued Tuesday. The 2018 edition of Cubs camp got underway with an understood expectation: World Series or bust. That's a pretty crazy thought for fans who suffered through that championship drought.

But winning changes everything. Darvish is the latest big-money piece of the Cubs' championship puzzle, and somehow the expectations are now even higher in Wrigleyville.

“Yu was our primary target,” team president Theo Epstein said Tuesday. “We think this is a great day for the Cubs organization to welcome a pitcher of this caliber. He’s probably the preeminent strikeout pitcher of our generation, incredible physical abilities. And I think we’re getting him at a wonderful point in his career, where he’s really matured and is ready to go out and do some special things, winning a World Series being his top priority. That’s also our top priority as an organization.”

It’s a tough game to play, obviously, as it’s really, really hard to win the World Series once, let alone multiple times. But the Cubs’ window is undoubtedly wide open.

Darvish brings stability to a pitching staff that had some question marks after the departures of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey and Lester’s less-than-ideal 2017 campaign. That stability — helped along by the team-friendly contract of Jose Quintana — should propel Cubs starting pitching for years to come.

And of course the young core of position players, almost all of whom are under team control for another four years, will remain intact and continue to grow together. Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Willson Contreras, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ. It was believed one or multiple of the team's young position players would need to be moved for the sake of the starting staff. But now Darvish is here, and those guys don't seem to be going anywhere any time soon.

“It makes us stronger, obviously,” Maddon said. “Outside looking in, it looks better, but we still have to play the games. We have to play the games, we have to perform. It’s not just about one guy, but obviously he makes us better, there’s no question about it.

“I am not one to count the chickens and all that stuff in advance. You still have to play the games. It’s all theory right now. Right now, overall, the attitude of the group could not be better. … When you sign Yu Darvish, obviously it lends to that moment. We’ve still got to play the game on the field, and I’m really excited to see our product.”

All that makes the Cubs look capable of the kind of success that those Yankees teams had dominating the postseason for so many years. Darvish isn’t the guy who’s vaulted them into that stratosphere. The Cubs were among the World Series favorites before he signed. But his addition is a gigantic statement in baseball’s ongoing arms race. The Cubs’ gain is the Dodgers’ loss. And it helps the North Siders keep pace with the defending-champion Astros, who have built their own super-rotation in Houston.

After 2016, the mission is no longer pie-in-the-sky dreaming. These Cubs have the potential to run roughshod over the game not only this season but for the next four. And they know it. They expect it. The Cubs have reached the stage those Yankees teams of the past stood on for so many years. It’s a matter of fact: World Series or bust.

Willson Contreras commissions heart-warming painting commemorating his relationship with Joe Maddon

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USA Today

Willson Contreras commissions heart-warming painting commemorating his relationship with Joe Maddon

Joe Maddon’s time with the Cubs may be over, but the memories made in his five years on the North Side will live on in Chicago sports lore forever. No matter how frustratingly his tenure may have ended, the outpouring of support and appreciation from management, fans and players alike throughout the process of Maddon’s departure are evidence of that.

“I love him like a dad,” Anthony Rizzo said

“I personally never could have imagined having such a wonderful partner,” Theo Epstein later added, standing beside Maddon as they delivered joint reflections on the end of the era.

Maddon touched the lives of so many within the organization and without in his time with the Cubs, but not many more so than catcher Willson Contreras, who burst onto the scene as one of the best young sluggers in baseball under Maddon’s guidance. Maddon — a catcher himself in his short time as a player — never shied away from criticizing Contreras in times he thought it earned, but it’s clear that the two forged a real bond over the last four years. 

Sunday afternoon, artist Austin Ploch revealed that Contreras reached out to him shortly after the end of the 2019 season to commission this heart-warming piece, commemorating the mutual respect and adoration between mentor and pupil:

The painting is derived from a photo of the two that Contreras posted to his Instagram account after it was officially announced that Maddon would not return as the Cubs manager:

Ploch has commissioned work for Contreras before, but now Willson will have a tangible memento to remember his first manager (along with his 2016 World Series ring). We’re not crying, you’re crying.

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Cubs to reportedly conduct second interview with Joe Espada for managerial opening

Cubs to reportedly conduct second interview with Joe Espada for managerial opening

Astros bench coach Joe Espada has two days off before Houston hosts Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday, but it looks like some of that time will be spent in Chicago.

According to multiple reports, the Cubs will interview Espada a second time for their managerial opening. MLB Network's Jon Heyman reports that the interview is happening on Sunday.

Espada is one of the more sought after managerial candidates this offseason, as he's spent the last six seasons with two of baseball's leading franchises. The 44-year-old has been Astros bench coach since 2018, and prior to that, he spent four seasons with the Yankees — 2014 as a front office assistant, 2015-17 as third base coach.

David Ross was the presumed favorite for the Cubs' opening, when the process got underway. However, by landing a second interview, Espada has clearly given the team something to think about. In fact, NBC Sports Chicago's David Kaplan reported on Thursday the Cubs came away "exceptionally impressed" from Espada's first interview on Monday. 

MLB prefers teams not to make managerial announcements during the World Series. So, it might be a few more weeks before the Cubs announce their decision, unless they do so on Sunday or Monday.

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