What Kris Bryant is to the Cubs’ offense, Yu Darvish is to their starting pitching staff.
It’s fair to say that the 32-year-old Darvish is the linchpin of the Cubs’ starting rotation for 2019. If he is healthy and back to the form that made him a four-time All-Star with the Texas Rangers, a lot of the Cubs’ problems will be solved.
The good news for the Cubs and their fans this spring is that it appears that Darvish is in fine form a year after he was limited to eight starts because of triceps tendinitis and an eventual elbow cleanup.
In three starts in the Cactus League, Darvish is 1-0 with a 2.45 ERA, having pitched 71/3 innings, giving up three hits and two earned runs while walking seven (four in his first start) and striking out eight.
In addition to throwing the ball free and easy, as pitching coaches like to term it, Darvish has appeared much looser personally, engaging with his teammates and speaking English (instead of his native Japanese) with the Chicago media.
In his most recent start, Thursday against the Rangers, Darvish worked four innings, allowing one run. If there’s anything the Cubs would like Darvish to do, it’s to speed up his tempo while on the mound.
“I don’t feel slow, but from you guys and the pitching coach [Tommy Hottovy], it’s different,” he told reporters after the start. “You can see I’m going too slow. [Hottovy] told me I should go more quick. So I tried that.”
Darvish struggled with his fastball command early Thursday, but he reported good results with the slider.
During his last full season, in 2017 between the Ranger and Dodgers, Darvish made 31 starts and went 10-12 with a 3.86 ERA. For his major league career, which began in 2012, he is 57-45 with a 3.49 ERA and a WHIP of 1.19.
Darvish’s overall track record was good enough for the Cubs to sign him to a six-year, $126 million contract on the eve of spring training last year. There is still time for that deal to pan out.
“The future, nobody knows,” Darvish told reporters. “I don’t want to think about the future. I just want to focus on today.”
Manager Joe Maddon, who must decide whether to start Darvish against his former teammates in Texas during the season’s opening series, repeatedly has said that Darvish looks like a different person this spring.
Part of it no doubt is Darvish being healthy. And part is being more comfortable and confident with this Cubs teammates.
“We all know him,” Maddon told reporters. “He knows us better. Definitely the self-confidence level seems to be soaring a bit right now. I just think the familiarity with the whole group matters to him. Plus he’s healthy. All those factors are pointing the needle in the right direction right now.”