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In raging Cubs debate, a vote for Yu Darvish over Jake Arrieta

Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish looks up at the sky as he leaves during the seventh inning of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series against the Cubs on Oct. 17 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Chicago knows Jake Arrieta. We know his strengths and weaknesses. We know more about his diet than we do about our own, possibly because we don’t pay attention to ours.

Chicago doesn’t know Yu Darvish. Well, we know him from afar and saw him struggle in the World Series last season. But we don’t know him the way we know Arrieta, or at least the way we think we know Arrieta. There’s an affinity around town for the bearded, ever-muscle-shirted pitcher.


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So it comes down to this for the Cubs and their fans: Would you rather have the known or the unknown in uniform in 2018?

I’d prefer the unknown, Darvish, for reasons that almost resemble a coin flip. It’s nothing against Arrieta, who had one of the greatest seasons in baseball history in 2015 and helped the Cubs win the World Series the next season. But team president Theo Epstein surely has asked himself which way the arrow is pointing with the former National League Cy Young Award winner. It doesn’t appear to be pointing up, even though Arrieta still wants a contract that will go through the roof.

There’s no doubt he has slipped, not just from 2015, when he had that crazy-good season, to 2016, but also from 2016 to 2017. The question is what the Cubs could expect from him in 2018. And the answer, while not “they haven’t the foggiest,’’ is that there are just as many indications that he’ll keep sliding as there are he’ll rediscover the magic of 2014-2016.

Even when Arrieta was going 18-8 in 2016, coming off the Cy Young year, there were unsettling signs. His control was an issue. He had 16 wild pitches, more than he had in the previous four seasons combined. He had a 3.10 ERA, which is good, though he had a great defense behind him that season.

His velocity fell off in 2016, and it continued into last season. What had been a 95 mph fastball in 2015 became 92 or 93 the next two seasons.

Darvish’s issues have to do with health. When he’s healthy, he’s very good. He was an All-Star in each of the four seasons he managed to stay in one piece, including last year. The bad? He missed the entire 2015 season after having Tommy John surgery.

Although the Cubs faced a very good Darvish in the NL Championship Series last season, he has not done well against better teams during his career. See his struggles against the Astros in the World Series.

What this comes down to is whether you believe more in Arrieta’s ability to recapture some of his former greatness than in Darvish’s ability to make it through a season without a major injury. Both pitchers are 31. Both have pluses and minuses. Darvish had 209 strikeouts in 186.2 innings last season, but his earned-run average was 3.86. Arrieta’s ERA (3.53) was better than Darvish’s, but there are those 30 wild pitches over the past two seasons, an indication of where his control is (or isn’t).

If this is a crapshoot, it’s a good crapshoot to have. Both are quality pitchers with question marks. A declarative sentence: The Cubs need another starting pitcher. Somebody needs to pick a lane. I’ll pick Darvish.

Arrieta’s agent, Scott Boras, was hoping to get his client a contract similar to the seven-year, $210 million deal that Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer signed in 2015. That’s not going to happen. It’s a different time, and Arrieta is a different pitcher than he used to be. How often have we been told that money is doled out on the basis of what a player can offer going forward, not on what he has done in the past?

Regardless of whether you believe there has been collusion among teams during this extremely slow signing period, the Cubs are fortunate that lengthy contracts aren’t in vogue right now. Arrieta reportedly is getting three- and four-year contract offers from a variety of teams, including the Cubs. Darvish has been getting similar offers. There has been a lot of sitting around, the hot stove giving way to the freezer. But neither pitcher deserves a seven-year contract, even in the best market, not with the questions that surround them.

For the Cubs, there’s no obvious right answer. The right answer might even be Alex Cobb. Or not.

Let’s apply former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quote to the Darvish-Arrieta debate:

“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.’’

Thanks for clearing this up, Don.