Imagine the Cubs built around Yu Darvish


Imagine the Cubs built around Yu Darvish

KANSAS CITY As Theo Epsteins front office continues to assemble building blocks like Jorge Soler and Albert Almora, imagine Yu Darvish in a Cubs uniform.

A star in Japan, Darvish has answered the questions about how he would adjust over here. The flashbulbs will be popping all around Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday night when hes introduced at the All-Star Game.

The Cubs were determined to win the Soler sweepstakes, and outbid everyone for the Cuban defector. Some 30 million spread over nine years was nothing for Soler, a 20-year-old outfielder whos supposed to be an athletic specimen at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds.

This was the time to go for it, a final spending spree before the new collective bargaining agreement put a cap on international signings this month.

Throughout the organization, there was little doubt that the Cubs were going to sign Almora, the first pick (No. 6 overall) of the Epstein administration.

Sources said Monday that Almora had agreed to a deal with a 3.9 million bonus pending physical. Team officials and super-agent Scott Boras declined to comment while Almora retweeted multiple messages saying congratulations on his personal Twitter account.

The stakes were much higher for Darvish, who had to go through the posting system, and it was unclear just how seriously or aggressively the Cubs bid on the pitcher.

The Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays were among the most visible teams scouting Darvish last season. A recent report indicated that the Cubs actually finished second, though they were at least 35 million away from the more than 51 million the Rangers paid for the right to negotiate with Darvish.

The reason I wanted to get posted was to pitch over here, Darvish said Monday through an interpreter. Whether it would be Chicago or anywhere else who bid the highest (and) won, yes, I would have probably gone to that team and probably be pitching for them right now.

You cant blame anyone for having sticker shock. The Rangers ultimately invested another 60 million to sign Darvish.

You wondered how much Epsteins thinking was influenced by the more than 100 million it cost to import Daisuke Matsuzaka for the Boston Red Sox. The Cubs certainly swung and missed on Kosuke Fukudome.

Last season with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, Darvish had also played with ex-Cubs Bobby Scales and Micah Hoffpauir. They described him as a good teammate with freakish gifts who got the rock-star treatment everywhere.

Im aware of the GM (and) Fukudome and all that, Darvish said. But still that didnt make me anticipate or speculate that they were going to do it (or) that they might be winners. If they did win, Im sure Bobby and Micah would probably help me out and I would ask a lot of questions.

Darvish, who will turn 26 next month, is 10-5 with a 3.59 ERA through 16 starts. Hes notched 117 strikeouts in 102.2 innings. He should be in his prime around the time the Cubs are supposed to be contending again.

Ive always felt comfortable, even from the beginning, Darvish said. Aside from baseball, there isnt too much Ive struggled with culturally or had a hard time adjusting to. Even off the field, things went pretty smoothly.

It no doubt helps that the Rangers have shielded Darvish, who gets to pitch for a team built to win the World Series.

Hes come over to the United States under some very tough circumstances, Texas manager Ron Washington said, not knowing anything about the league, not knowing anything about the players, having to adjust to the baseball (and) the mound and the different culture shock.

Because hes a tremendous athlete and a tremendous young man, hes made adjustments faster than we expected.

Remember that Fukudome was an All-Star during his first half-season on the North Side, and Matsuzaka won a World Series ring in his first year in Boston. So this is only a snapshot. But it makes you wonder what the Cubs would look like with a rotation built around Darvish, Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija.

Still, the front office is feeling pretty good behind the scenes, even with a 33-52 record. Between Soler and Almora and the development of Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, there are signs.

I dont think theres one ounce of doubt in that clubhouse where the Cubs are headed, said Bryan LaHair, the All-Star first baseman turned outfielder. Theres definitely an understanding of who makes the decisions and where the teams headed and what style of baseball were going to play.

I definitely think were a lot closer than people think. (There are) obviously a few pieces we may need. I dont know what those pieces are (or) how they want to do it. We have underachieved a little at this point, (but) we know whos running the ship. Were all onboard.

Anthony Duclair regrets not making most of opportunity with Blackhawks


Anthony Duclair regrets not making most of opportunity with Blackhawks

Anthony Duclair knew what kind of opportunity he had in front of him when he was traded to the Blackhawks in January. The first day he stepped into the locker room, he admitted he was a little "star-struck."

But the marriage didn't last very long. 

After recording only two goals and eight assists in 23 games, the Blackhawks chose to move on from the restricted free agent by not extending a qualifying offer. Duclair later latched on with the Columbus Blue Jackets on a one-year, $650,000 "prove-it" deal.

"I wasn't surprised," Duclair said before Saturday's game against his former team. "I knew that I didn't perform as well as I did when I was there. I think I was there for only 20 games and didn't live up to the standards. As soon as I didn't hear anything from my agent I sort of got the message. But it was time to move on."

Duclair made no excuses for what went wrong in Chicago and accepted responsibility for not taking advantage of his opportunity, even though a leg injury sidelined him for the final month that prevented him from giving the Blackhawks a larger sample size.

"I just didn't perform well," he said. "It's going to be one of my regrets, to get that opportunity in Chicago and not perform in the way I did. It was something I had to look in the mirror this summer and move on obviously, but at the same time whenever a team comes next I think I'm going to take that opportunity and run away with it."

It's obvious that Duclair's got the potential to be an effective offensive player in the NHL. But we've only seen that in flashes, which is a large reason why it didn't work out in Chicago and why, entering his fifth season in the league, he still finds himself trying to play for a long-term contract.

"Just being more consistent," Duclair said. "Thats comes up a lot and my agents talks to a couple GMs around the league and it's something I'm trying to work on. It's not something you can work on in the summer, it's more preparing mentally and physically and that's what I've been trying to do."

So far, so good in Columbus.

Duclair has two goals and two assists through six games and is averaging 15:22 of ice time playing in a top-six role, on track to shatter his previous career high in that category (14:23) when he did so as a sophomore in 2015-16 with Arizona. He even made headlines on Thursday after scoring a highlight-reel goal against the Philadelphia Flyers, saying his "phone blew up quite a bit."

How he scored it is what stood out and his perspective after it is encouraging for his overall growth, as well.

"I've already put it behind me to be honest with you," Duclair said. "I'm just focused on Chicago now. I want to be consistent throughout every shift. Look at that goal, [it was] second and third efforts. That's what I want to bring to the table every shift, especially with the guys I'm playing right now. I just want to be having the puck whenever you can and being big on the forecheck."

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Patriots

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Patriots

1. Good games from Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan. Here’s a sampling of Pro Football Focus grades for primary middle/inside/will linebackers against New England this year: 

Reggie Ragland (KC): 60.1
Anthony Hitchens (KC): 30.2
Zaire Franklin (IND): 48.6
Najee Goode (IND): 47.1
Kiko Alonso (MIA): 63.9
Raekwon McMillan (MIA): 62.5
Christian Jones (DET): 59.7
Jarrad Davis (DET): 29.8
Telvin Smith Sr. (JAX): 64.1
Myles Jack (JAX): 61.0
Bernardrick McKinney (HOU): 68.7
Zach Cunningham (HOU): 43.2

Think what you will of Pro Football Focus’ grades, but the average here is 53.2. Interestingly, though, the average grade for these 12 players over the course of the 2018 season is 51.5. So maybe the issue is the Patriots have faced a bunch of mediocre-to-bad linebackers, allowing them to take advantage of those soft spots with Sony Michel running the ball and James White catching it. Smith’s PFF grade is 62.3; Trevathan’s is 64.3, so by this measure, they’re better than any of the interior linebackers the Patriots have faced but still are the weak spot in the Bears’ defense (only Jonathan Bullard has a lower PFF grade among players with 100 or more snaps). 

How Smith and Trevathan play will be key in determining how quickly Brady is able to get the ball out (with passes to White), and how many times they get into third-and-less-than-five situations (with Michel running it). Both those factors will be critical for the Bears’ pass rush, which brings us to our next point.

2. Pressure Tom Brady without blitzing. Brady is a master of beating blitzes, completing 23 of 21 passes for 314 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and only one sack when blitzed, per PFF (that’s good for a 138.4 passer rating). When he’s under pressure, though, he has his lowest passer rating — which is still 87.2 — but the point here is that the Bears can’t afford to have to send blitzes to try to get pressure on Brady. The Bears were one of the best teams in the league at pressuring opposing quarterbacks without blitzing before the trip to Miami, and how healthy Khalil Mack really is will be a critical determining factor in those efforts. But when the Bears do earn their pass-rushing opportunities, as Akiem Hicks put it, they need to at least affect Brady and not let him comfortably sit back to pick apart their defense. 

3. Convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns. This was a point Taylor Gabriel made this week about the state of the NFL in 2018: You can no longer afford to settle for three points or, worse, come away from a red zone possession with no points. Scoring is up league-wide, and the Patriots have scored 38, 38 and 43 points in their last three games. One of the biggest reasons the Bears lost that shootout in Miami was two turnovers from inside the five-yard line (Jordan Howard’s fumble, Mitch Trubisky’s interception). Stopping New England’s offense will be difficult, and the expectation should be for Sunday to be a high-scoring afternoon. If that’s the case, the Bears will have to get in the end zone every opportunity they get. The good news: New England’s defense is allowing a touchdown on 68 percent of their opponents’ possessions inside the red zone. 

Prediction: Patriots 31, Bears 27. The Bears’ defense sounded properly motivated after getting gouged by Brock Osweiler in Miami last weekend, but that only goes so far when one of the best quarterbacks of all time rolls into town. This winds up being a back-and-forth affair, but the guy with 54 game-winning drives in his regular season and playoff career makes it 55 late in the fourth quarter at Soldier Field. A close loss to the Patriots wouldn’t dampen the positive vibes around the Bears, so long as they respond with wins against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills in the next two weeks.