ARLINGTON, Texas — It’s the Cubs’ last chance to land a big-name free agent for this season.
That’s what Yu Darvish means to the team in this “year of reckoning” as he takes the mound for the first time in a fresh-start season, facing the Rangers on Saturday night at Globe Life Park.
It’s almost impossible to overstate that context for the big right-hander and this team.
“He’s an impact guy, and he wasn’t there for us last year,” team president Theo Epstein said before spring training even began. “I’m looking forward to him having a second crack at this.”
When Darvish signed a six-year, $126 million deal 14 months ago and followed it with the worst season of his career, it not only was tough on him but also paralyzed the Cubs’ front office financially in its efforts to improve the roster.
He underperformed for six weeks, then was out with injuries the rest of the year, compelling the Cubs to trade for Cole Hamels in July. And with Darvish’s 2019 projections anything but certain — not to mention the $38 million whiff the Cubs took on Tyler Chatwood — it left them little choice but to exercise Hamels’ $20 million contract option for 2019.
Even that move required trading Drew Smyly to the Rangers in a $7 million salary dump.
And just like that, the Cubs’ already tight payroll budget was all but tapped out.
But Darvish has looked like a new man this spring, laughing with teammates, smiling at strangers, walking with swagger and literally talking a different language.
He’s also throwing 97 mph, commanding a devastating slider and saying he feels like he has the best stuff of his career going into the season — with a blister at the end of camp apparently fully healed.
“I’ve always known he’s had absolutely amazing stuff,” said Hamels, a teammate of Darvish since their two years together with the Rangers. “And to be able to feel that he’s comfortable and confident, I know it’s going to show this season. I think that’s what everybody’s waiting for. I think that’s what he’s ready to show people.”
Darvish admitted this spring that “definitely I was feeling the pressure” to perform after signing the big contract. And he said he learned “a lot of things” from the experience of his forgettable 2018 season.
“I’d worry about the future,” he said. “I’d be scared for the future. [Now] I’m living like ‘now.’ So that makes me more confident, and more happy.”
In fact, he said, “I’m smiling more than I have in the last seven years.”
He’s also dropping one-liners in casual interviews with beat writers, in English, after using an interpreter throughout last year.
For six weeks of spring training, the transformation has been stunning, both physically and, it seemed, mentally.
By the time he talked to reporters briefly before the season opener Thursday, he said he’s healthy, confident and ready for 100 or more pitches Saturday in a ballpark that was his home for his four All-Star seasons.
“The real work begins now,” Epstein said. “Spring training is spring training, and we all together now start the work of competing day in and day out for the next seven months. It’ll be nice to see how he responds.”
It might be as decisive as anything a player does for the Cubs this year.
“I know what he’s going to bring as long as he stays well,” manager Joe Maddon said. “The big thing is to be healthy. Yes, the command of his stuff really matters also. But he’s such a strong man. I easily could envision him going six, seven innings when he’s on a good roll.
“Health, strike-throwing, lower pitch counts, going deeper into the games — we get that out of him . . . that could be a huge difference-maker compared to last year.”