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.

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Why can't a trade be looked at as a win-win? 

There doesn't always have to be a clear winner and loser.

Prior to Jose Quintana taking the ball for Saturday's game against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field, Joe Maddon was asked about the players (Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease) the Cubs gave up to acquire Quintana as well as the deal with the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman in July 2016.

Gleyber Torres is absolutely killing it in New York, hitting .323 with a 1.014 OPS, 9 homers and 24 RBI in only 29 games. Six of those homers have come in the last week alone. 

With the White Sox, both Jimenez and Cease have found success in Double-A and Advanced Class-A, respectively.

Jimenez is hitting .331 with a .992 OPS, 9 homers and 35 RBI in 35 games. Cease is 6-2 with a 2.83 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 57 strikeouts in 47.2 innings.

As the Cubs work to get their offense settled into a consistent groove, some Cubs fans have been looking at what might've been with guys like Torres and Jimenez.

"You can't have it both ways, man," Maddon said. "I'm happy for Gleyber. When he left, we talked about it. And we talked about the kids that went to the White Sox. It's good stuff. 

"I'm really disappointed if anybody's disappointed in the fact we won the World Series in 2016 and the fact that the guy we're talking about that we had to give up Gleyber for was so instrumental in that happening. That's bad process if you're gonna get stuck on something like that. Be happy for Gleyber. Be happy for him."

Maddon has been a fan of Torres' since he saw him in spring training in 2015, Maddon's first year in the Cubs organization.

"This kid's 21, with high, high baseball intellect," Maddon said. "He's very similar to Javy on the field. I've had some great conversations with him in the past. 

"The first time I saw him in spring training, I thought this guy's for real. It was like one at-bat, line drive to RF, I said who is this guy? And then you have a conversation with him. He's solid."

Maddon's point is a great one — would Cubs fans prefer to still have Torres and NOT have the 2016 World Series championship? Because that title doesn't happen without Chapman, regardless of how you feel about him as a person or what the Cubs had to give up to acquire him.

"Don't play that game," Maddon said. "Be happy for [Torres]. I'm gonna be happy when Eloy and Dylan make it up here. All these dudes, I want them to get here and be really good. And the guys that we get, I want them to be really good. 

"I don't understand why somebody's gotta lose all the time. This is an absolute classic example of what was good for both teams."

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 12th + 13th homers in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 12th + 13th homers in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

An off-day did nothing to slow down the 1998 National League MVP as Sosa collected his second straight 2-homer game May 27 of that season.

He went deep in the eighth and ninth innings of a Cubs' 10-5 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field, driving in 3 runs. 

The first homer - off Darrin Winston - was an absolute blast, traveling an estimated 460 feet. The second shot was tame in comparison with only 400 feet as a recorded distance.

In a matter of two games, Sosa raised his season OPS from .930 to .988 and his slugging percentage from .521 to .577 thanks to a pair of 2-homer contests.

Fun fact: Doug Glanville - former Cubs outfielder and current NBC Sports Chicago analyst - was the Phillies leadoff hitter that day in 1998, collecting three hits and scoring a pair of runs.