Cubs

Winter heat in I-94 rivalry: Cubs reportedly in 'active talks' with Yu Darvish after report of Brewers' offer

Winter heat in I-94 rivalry: Cubs reportedly in 'active talks' with Yu Darvish after report of Brewers' offer

Yu Darvish might have more suitors than just the Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers. But a frozen offseason might finally be thawing thanks to the I-94 rivalry.

Hours after it was reported that the Brewers made a contract offer to Darvish, one of the top free-agent starting pitchers on the market, a report from the Associated Press indicated that the Cubs are in "active talks" with the Japanese hurler.

The North Siders have been connected to Darvish — and most other available starting pitchers — throughout the offseason as they seek to plug the holes created by the free-agent departures of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. So far, those efforts have yielded the signing of Tyler Chatwood and the insertion of Mike Montgomery, not exactly replacements that would be expected to fill an Arrieta-sized hole.

But Darvish would accomplish that goal. He's been stellar since coming over from Japan ahead of the 2012 season, making four American League All-Star teams with the Texas Rangers and last season helping the Los Angeles Dodgers reach the World Series after a midseason trade out of Arlington. Darvish made nine regular-season starts with the Dodgers, posting a 3.44 in those contests. He shut down the Cubs in the National League Championship Series, throwing 6.1 innings of one-run ball in Game 3 of that series. He fared much worse in the World Series, however, surrendering eight earned runs in two starts that lasted just 1.2 innings apiece against that incredibly potent Houston Astros lineup.

Despite faltering in the Fall Classic, Darvish figures to be a top-of-the-line addition to the team that eventually signs him. He has a career 3.42 ERA in five major league seasons and has eclipsed the 200-strikeout mark in three of those, including last year, when his 209 punch outs ranked 12th in baseball.

To add Darvish to a starting staff that already includes Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and the aforementioned Chatwood would perhaps once more give the Cubs the best rotation in the NL. If it's the Brewers, it could go a long way in making them a serious challenger to the Cubs, something they almost accomplished in 2017 as their rebuilding efforts moved ahead of schedule.

Cubs president Theo Epstein said during the team's annual convention earlier this month that his front office planned on adding another starting pitcher, though he made sure to point out that the addition could fit a number of different descriptions. While fans and observers both have been waiting for the team to land one of the high-profile free agents — be that Darvish, Alex Cobb or even bringing back Arrieta — Epstein cautioned that a move could be made to simply add depth, something that doesn't really exist behind Montgomery, the guy currently figuring to be in that fifth spot in the rotation.

The Cubs also made a minor move that could have an impact on where Darvish decides to play, signing catcher Chris Gimenez to a minor league deal Monday. Gimenez and Darvish played together in Texas.

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

Albert Almora Jr. joins Kelly Crull on the Cubs Talk Podcast to weigh in on a variety of topics, including his budding bromance with rumored Cubs target Manny Machado, his expanded role and how he spends his time off away from the ballpark.

Plus, Almora has a surprise pick for the organization’s unsung hero, stating the Cubs would’ve never won the World Series without this guy.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."