Cubs

Yu Darvish proud of Year 2 with Cubs: 'This organization is perfect for me'

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USA TODAY

Yu Darvish proud of Year 2 with Cubs: 'This organization is perfect for me'

ST. LOUIS - At first, Yu Darvish couldn't point to just one thing that led to his midseason turnaround in Year 2 with the Cubs.

"I have a lot of reasons - like 20 or something," Darvish said, smiling.

But when pressed for the top reason, he summed it all up pretty simply:

"Because of the Cubs," he said. "The organization - not only Joe [Maddon] and Theo [Epstein] and Jed [Hoyer] and the other guys were patient and they were always helpful for me."

He particularly credited Maddon for sticking with him after an injury-marred 2018 season and a slow start to 2019.

"He's a great person, not only a great manager," Darvish said. "Especially last year and the beginning of the year, he was so patient with me. So that's why I feel really good right now - because of him."

With the Cubs out of playoff contention and already focused on Darvish's workload even before September hit, they decided to shut down the 33-year-old righty and not push him to make one more start in St. Louis. That means the last time he got in a game was the final contest at Wrigley when he smashed his cleats and water bottle into his locker following a frustrating loss.

Darvish finished the season on an incredible roll, asking for the ball to start the Cubs’ second half and posting a 2.76 ERA, 0.81 WHIP and 118 strikeouts against only 7 walks in 13 starts since the All-Star Break. He racked up at least 12 strikeouts in each of his final three outings.

From Day 1 of spring training, the narrative surrounding Darvish was how much more comfortable he was in his second year with the Cubs after signing the six-year, $126 million pact in February 2018. That comfort and confidence really started to shine through in the final couple months of the season.

"The second half, even I was so surprised what I was doing, especially command-wise," Darvish said. "I'm so happy."

He admitted feeling totally different this season compared to 2018.

"Last year, I had an injury and I didn't talk to a lot of guys," Darvish said. "But now I'm talking to a lot of guys and I know who they are. This organization is perfect for me."

When asked why the Cubs are such a good fit for him, Darvish again pointed to how they were patient with him during the long onboarding process and made him feel confident and comfortable despite an inauspicious start to his Chicago career.

"He's a very sensitive young man and he's very sensitive to his environment. That's OK. We all are," Maddon said. "And I think once he got settled in here, that's when you saw the real Yu. First of all, he got well and then he got settled in and then all of a sudden you saw this dynamic run that he's been on.

"I think they're all contributing factors. I don't think you can point at one thing. He wasn't well last year overall. But once he became well - 'I'm a Cub, I'm into it, I like Chicago, I love my teammates' - then you saw the result."

Darvish actually could become a free agent this year, as he has an opt-out in his contract.

But would he really want to pass up on $81 million guaranteed over the next four years and all the momentum he's built up with the Cubs to test the unknown of the market again?

"I'm not decided yet," he said. "But I have to talk to my family and agent, too. My kids and my wife love Chicago - especially the kids, who only care about the Cubbies. So I don't think [I'll exercise the opt-out]."

Right now, he's more worried about trying to figure out a way to carry this level of confidence over to spring training 2020.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Nick Castellanos leaves and the Cubs tough off-season continues

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Nick Castellanos leaves and the Cubs tough off-season continues

The long off-season for the Cubs continues as they haven't made any significant moves so far and have watched players from last year's roster move on. Host David Kaplan is joined by NBC Sports Chicago producers Jeff Nelson and Nate Poppen as they discuss the lack luster off-season, expectations fans should have, Kaplan gives an exclusive update on the Kris Bryant grievance and the chances that the NL adopts the designated hitter.

(1:21) - Cubs have done nothing but watch players leave this off-season

(5:49) - The current roster is still pretty good

(8:55) - Kaplan gives exclusive update on Kris Bryant grievance

(11:12) - The Cubs still have a chance to win the division

(13:56) - What should Cubs fans expect this season

(16:12) - How does the designated hitter in the NL in 2021 effect the Cubs?

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Cubs looking to unearth core relievers with low-cost, high-upside acquisitions

Cubs looking to unearth core relievers with low-cost, high-upside acquisitions

The Cubs bullpen is going to look a whole lot different this season.

Gone are the reliable Steve Cishek (signed with White Sox) and Brandon Kintzler (reportedly signed with Marlins). Pedro Strop remains a free agent, though a recent report said the race to sign him is down to the Marlins and Rangers.

Assuming Strop doesn’t return, the Cubs will have lost three of their four most frequently used relievers from 2019. Replacing the trio will be no small task, considering a bulk of their appearances came in late-inning, high-leverage spots.

Cishek and Kintzler didn’t sign back-breaking deals (one-year, $6 million; reported one-year, $3.25 million), but the luxury tax has been a factor in the Cubs offseason. They aren’t in a position to commit big money to top-of-the-market arms and have instead been stockpiling low-cost relievers with upside.

“It’s become such an unbelievably important and difficult part of our job,” general manager Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention of assembling a bullpen. “It wasn’t that long ago that we’d go into a season and our goal would be ‘Hey, can we get a thousand innings out of our starting pitching staff?’ You think about your five starters, if you could get some combination of close to a thousand innings, that was always a goal, out of roughly 1,400 innings.

“And now, that’s gone away. You realize to get through a season, it's not a matter of going up on a whiteboard and writing up your eight relievers. It's a matter of [needing] 15, 20, 25 good relievers over the course of the summer to really get through it.

"You've got to take a lot of chances. There's no more volatile aspect of the game than the bullpen, and that's league wide. You’ve got to constantly take chances on guys and realize that sometimes, what appears to be a guy that’s struggling may just be simply a bad seven innings or bad 10 innings.”

Volatility was a main theme of the Cubs bullpen in 2019. Strop is one of the best relievers in team history, but early season hamstring injuries impacted his performance — a 4.97 ERA and 1.27 WHIP were the worst figures of his Cubs career. Strop finished the season strong (2.00 ERA in September), though he was largely a low-leverage option by season’s end.

Meanwhile, the additions of Kyle Ryan and Rowan Wick last offseason didn’t make waves among the fanbase. The former signed a major league deal after a solid 2018 season with Triple-A Iowa, and the Cubs acquired the latter in a low-key November trade. Both emerged as key contributors in 2019.

“Rowan Wick was a good example,” Hoyer said. “When we traded for him and we got him into the pitch lab and we improved his curveball, I think that had an enormous impact on his year last year. Brad Wieck, we traded for and immediately made some adjustments. Our pro scouting staff does a good job with that.”

Ryan and Wick are two of only three locks for the Opening Day bullpen, along with closer Craig Kimbrel. Wieck, acquired at the trade deadline for Carl Edwards Jr., is potentially another. That leaves five, maybe four spots up for grabs in what will be an open competition in spring training. Incumbent options include:

-Adbert Alzolay
-Tyler Chatwood
-Alec Mills
-Colin Rea
-Wieck
-Dillon Maples
-Duane Underwood Jr.
-James Norwood
-Brandon Morrow (reportedly re-signed on a minor-league deal)

Morrow and Chatwood are the most tenured options of the group, though the former has battled injuries throughout his career and hasn’t pitched since July 2018. If he’s healthy (and pitches well in spring training) Morrow will likely claim a bullpen job.

Chatwood is a candidate for the final rotation spot, along with Alzolay, Mills and (potentially) Rea. Mills and Underwood are out of minor-league options. New reliever candidates include:

-Dan Winkler — signed to one-year, split deal
-CD Pelham — claimed off waivers from Rangers
-Trevor Megill — Rule 5 pick (Padres)
-Ryan Tepera — signed to one-year, split deal
-Casey Sadler — acquired from Dodgers
-Travis Lakins — acquired from Red Sox
-Jeremy Jeffress — reportedly signed to a one-year, big-league deal

Winkler, 29, spent the previous five seasons bouncing between the major and minor leagues with the Braves. Last season, he posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 MLB appearances and a 2.93 ERA in the minors (30 appearances). He made 69 big-league appearances in 2018, sporting a 3.43 ERA in 60 1/3 innings while tallying 69 strikeouts.

Winkler isn’t a flamethrower — his four-seam fastball averaged 92.1 mph last season — but it ranked in MLB’s 93rd percentile, meaning he generates swings and misses. Sadler ranked in the 90th percentile and posted a 2.14 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 33 games. The 29-year-old struck out 31 batters in 46 1/3 innings between the Dodgers and Rays, though he sported a whopping 12.3 K/9 in Triple-A (38 2/3 innings).

Pelham, 24, was recently outrighted off the 40-man roster and sent to Iowa. He didn’t pitch in the big leagues in 2019 and struggled with command in Triple-A (18.3 walk rate) but throws hard. Megill, 26, throws a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and sported a 12.7 K/9 in Triple-A last season.

Worth noting: Pelham (6-foot-6, 235 pounds) and Megill (6-foot-8, 235 pounds) are big dudes.

Tepera holds a career 3.64 ERA and 1.16 WHIP and made 73 and 68 appearances in 2017 and 2018, respectively. The 32-year-old missed a chunk of 2019 with a right elbow impingement, finishing with a 4.98 ERA in 23 games.

Lakins, 25, is a former sixth-round pick who posted a 3.86 ERA in 23 1/3 last season and holds a 4.45 ERA in parts of five minor-league seasons. His curveball ranked 66th in spin rate league-wide among pitchers who threw at least 50 last season.

Jeffress reportedly agreed to a one-year deal Tuesday worth close to $1 million. He’s coming off a rough 2019 with the Brewers in which he sported a 5.02 ERA, dealing with a shoulder injury out of the gate. The 32-year-old also hurt his hip in August and was released on Sept. 1.

Jeffress is a season removed from posting a 1.29 ERA and 15 saves in 73 appearances. He’s another example of the budget-driven moves the Cubs have made this winter, and while he struggled in 2019, his career 3.16 ERA makes him a prime bounce back candidate.

There’s a lot of positives in the group, and the Cubs will use their pitch lab to make any necessary adjustments. They also realize not every guy will be as successful as Ryan or Wick, and some options won’t pan out. Their goal is to unearth as many contributors as they can.

"That's the kind of shot we have to take, and that's the kind of shot every team has to take on capturing that lightning in a bottle,” Hoyer said. “Buying really high on relievers and signing them after they have a breakout year is really expensive and really difficult and doesn't have a great success rate. We try to find those guys that we can catch lightning in a bottle, and that's been a big part of our strategy." 

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