Thinking warm thoughts as Cubs sign Yu Darvish, White Sox build momentum
It was snowing heavily outside my office Friday, the flakes making a furious cross-stitch as they fell. Every once in a while, the wind would huff and puff at the massive accumulation on the roof, and I wondered if anyone below had thought to pack an avalanche beacon. Or a dog-sled team.
Bad weather in February in Chicago is no surprise, but it can’t be emphasized enough that good weather in February in Arizona isn’t a surprise, either.
Rule No. 1 in life: If you have a choice, regardless of your affinity for snow shovels and heart attacks, always choose the place that has cacti.
Rule No. 2: If you don’t have a choice, adding Yu Darvish is a nice way to get warm.
The Cubs made a huge splash Saturday by signing the talented right-hander to a six-year, $126 million contract, giving them the top-tier pitcher they needed and taking a hammer to Major League Baseball’s free-agent impasse. The length of the contract tells you all you need to know about how important the Cubs think Darvish is to another title run. They suddenly look a lot stronger than they did a day ago and a year ago.
Spring training has a way of putting a spring in your step. While we in Chicago ponder our unfortunate meteorological lot in life, the Cubs and the Sox will push heat our way via daily dispatches from our faithful correspondents in Arizona. Funny how a story about Kris Bryant’s swing, Jose Abreu’s workout routine or Darvish’s just-about-anything can make summer seem a bit closer.
Pitchers and catchers report Tuesday for both teams, and the first workouts are scheduled for Wednesday. Warmth will emanate from Mesa, where the Cubs train, and from Glendale, where the Sox train, but for different reasons.
The Cubs are excited about the possibility of a fourth consecutive deep playoff run, and the Darvish signing is a big step toward making that happen. The Sox are excited because their rebuild has momentum and seems to have the support of the fan base.
Clouds? Maybe on the very edge of things, but nothing threatening at the moment. Unknowns? Absolutely.
We don’t know if a healthier lifestyle will help Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber forget last season, when he forgot how to hit. We don’t know if Darvish can stay healthy. He has been an All-Star in the four seasons when injuries weren’t a factor. He has missed an entire season to Tommy John surgery.
For the Sox, there really is just one issue: We don’t know how fast — or, gulp, if — their young players will progress.
The teams that are tanking this season — almost a third of major-league clubs — are using the Cubs as a template. They’ve sold their fan bases on the idea that stockpiling young talent will translate into future success, the way it did for the Cubs all the way to a World Series title. But what those teams don’t tell their fans is that almost anything that could go right for the Cubs during the rebuild did go right.
Cubs president Theo Epstein wanted to take pitcher Mark Appel with the second overall pick in the 2013 draft but had to ‘‘settle’’ for Bryant when the Astros took Appel first. Appel hasn’t pitched in a major-league game and announced Feb. 1 that he was taking an ‘‘indefinite break’’ from baseball. A twist of fate is all that separates the Cubs from that.
Bryant became a star almost upon arrival in the big leagues. Addison Russell was steady at shortstop almost immediately. Schwarber was good before he stumbled last season. And so on. None of that was a given when they were just a twinkle in Baseball America’s eye.
The Sox don’t need every top prospect to be a success, but they need a lot of them to be.
Until there’s a definitive answer, there’s hope. That’s where the Sox and their fans find themselves, and it’s a fun place to be. There’s belief, there’s promise and there’s second baseman Yoan Moncada, whom the team expects to take a big jump in 2018. On tap are Michael Kopech, Eloy Jimenez, Alec Hansen, Dylan Cease and Luis Robert. They are household names in Sox fans’ households. Time will tell if they turn into more than that.
Baseball Prospectus’ algorithm has the Cubs winning 89 games this season and the Sox 73. You know what that means? Nothing. The forecast in Arizona next week calls for warm and sunny conditions, with the chance of both teams going 162-0 this season close to 100 percent. Cubs fans giddy about the Darvish signing will wonder if 163-0 is unreasonable.
That’s how spring training works, even if you’re 1,000 miles away. Everything looks better in the daylight. Everybody looks like a player. That’s the effect of secondhand sun.
Both teams will be interesting in 2018. The suddenly better Cubs will battle the improved Brewers and Cardinals in the National League Central. The Sox will look for better than their 67-95 record last season, but mostly they will look for patience from everyone.
Cubs fans are rooting for no slippage after three NL Championship Series appearances in a row. Sox fans are rooting for the calendar to spin faster.
I’m rooting for heat.
If you’re lucky enough to go to spring training, consider yourself blessed. If you’re stuck in Chicago, consider layers.
Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.