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.