Months ago, as Shohei Ohtani mulled which MLB club he should render his services to, we expounded in this space on why the Chicago Cubs, fresh off a second successive division title, ought to sign the Japanese phenom:
After finally capturing that elusive World Series title in 2016, snapping a century-plus run of futility, the Cubs faltered last season, stumbling through an ugly first half before turning it on following the All-Star break only to be ousted in the National League Championship Series by a demonstrably superior team. It was a crushing blow to their supposed dynasty, and offered some sobering insight into who really holds the seat of power in National League.
The Cubs were good in 2017, but they weren't nearly as good as the Los Angeles Dodgers, and while there was plenty of blame to go around - Addison Russell regressed dramatically; Javier Baez's development stagnated; Kyle Schwarber couldn't hit for the first three months of the season; Ben Zobrist started to act his age - no factor played a bigger role in their year-over-year drop-off than their historically excellent pitching staff morphing into a merely fine one. Ohtani, then, made a lot of sense, especially with some key starters likely on the move:
After leading the majors in both ERA and WHIP in 2016, the Cubs' starting corps took a significant step backward last year due to, among other things, Jon Lester's newfound home-run woes and Kyle Hendricks' finicky right hand. That doesn't necessarily portend continued decline for those two in 2018, of course, but the Cubs are still poised to lose Jake Arrieta and John Lackey to free agency, leaving Mike Montgomery and Eddie Butler to round out the back of the rotation. For a team with World Series aspirations, that won't work.
And, to their credit, the Cubs recognized that. Ultimately, Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Angels, but the Cubs - one of several finalists for the two-way star - were undeterred in their quest to improve their staff, signing Tyler Chatwood, a ground-ball machine, to a three-year deal with considerable potential for surplus value a few days before the Angels introduced their new star. (In anticipation of losing of closer Wade Davis, who landed a three-year, $52-million deal from the Colorado Rockies shortly before New Year's, the Cubs fortified their bullpen, too, adding Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek a couple weeks before Christmas, then re-signing Brian Duensing in late January.)
Still, though, without Ohtani to fill the presumptive Arrieta void, the Cubs didn't quite look or feel like the juggernaut they were in 2016, and their division rivals seemed to sense that vulnerability. A week after the Cubs signed Chatwood, the St. Louis Cardinals, now mired in their longest postseason drought in a decade, opportunistically pilfered Marcell Ozuna from the Miami Marlins, and the Milwaukee Brewers - who finished one game back of a wild-card berth last year - recently went ham, too, acquiring Christian Yelich from Miami a couple weeks ago, then signing Lorenzo Cain to the biggest free-agent contract in franchise history hours later.
Even after those deals, it should be said, the Cubs were still the best team in the division, the only one projected to win 90-plus games, but their cushion had been narrowed considerably. It wasn't hard, last week, to envision the Cardinals - perhaps propelled by their new center fielder or increasingly upside-laden rotation - dethroning the Cubs, who, just two years ago, looked poised to dominate the division for the better part of a decade.
Now, however, it is.
On Saturday, the Cubs destroyed any hope that the NL Central race will be compelling in 2018, agreeing to a six-year deal, $126-million deal with right-hander Yu Darvish, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, that not only grants them immediate re-entry into baseball's current upper class - unofficially comprised of the Dodgers, Houston Astros, and Cleveland Indians - but also insures against the possibility that their burgeoning dynasty, seemingly in peril, could be derailed. For less money than the San Francisco Giants gave Johnny Cueto two winters ago, the Cubs added an almost-ace who has never, in a qualified season, finished lower than 11th in his league strikeout rate, and has actually gained velocity since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2016. Just look at this rotation:
2018 Steamer Projections
(Projections courtesy: FanGraphs)
That is a stupidly good rotation, likely the best in baseball (the Washington Nationals, thanks to Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, are a close second.) Only five teams received at least that much WAR from their starters last year, four of whom won their respective division. The fifth team won the National League wild-card game. The eventual World Series champions, by the way, didn't quite make the cut. (And the Cubs have Drew Smyly for depth, as well, assuming he wraps up his recovery from Tommy John surgery without any setbacks.)
Now let's look at what the Cubs' rotation might look like in 2020, for which the sum of their current financial commitments, assuming club options on Quintana and Anthony Rizzo are exercised, total around $87 million.
|Pitcher (age in 2020)||Career WAR|
|Yu Darvish (33)||19.0|
|Jose Quintana (31)||23.4|
|Jon Lester (36)||41.6|
|Kyle Hendricks (30)||11.8|
|Tyler Chatwood (30)||5.3|
That's a pretty good rotation, too. A little bit on the older side, sure. But still good. (The Indians fielded the eighth-oldest pitching staff in the majors in 2017, after all, and they were still pretty good.) A lot can happen, of course, between now and then, but it's exceedingly difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Cubs, with that group of starters complementing their core of young stars, are bad in 2020.
And, this year, the Cubs will be elite, with Darvish ensuring that their "disappointing" performance in 2017 - they finished 92-70 after averaging 100 wins per season over the two years prior - was just an anomaly, perhaps caused by a World Series hangover, that doesn't at all reflect the direction the team is heading in.
Could they have won a second championship in a three-year span without Darvish? Maybe. But after more than a century of losing, it's best not to leave things to chance.