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Pursuit of Darvish underscores Cubs’ renewed mu$cle since lean years

It’s a far different Cubs organization that met Monday with free-agent right-hander Yu Darvish than the one that pursued him six years ago. Almost as different as Darvish himself.

Whether the Cubs acquire Darvish this time around, their three-plus-hour meeting with him was a reminder of the vision they had for him in 2011, when incoming team president Theo Epstein didn’t even have the means to compete to negotiate.

Darvish, then 25, was one of several international free agents Epstein envisioned becoming part of the Cubs’ rebuild until he discovered they were hamstrung more than he originally thought by the Ricketts family’s leveraged purchase of the team.

Since then, Epstein shifted tack, won a World Series and helped increase revenues to the point that the Cubs’ only limit on payroll now is related to their strategy on how to navigate annual luxury-tax thresholds ($197 million in 2018).

Darvish beat the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Oct. 17 for a commanding 3-0 series lead in the NLCS.

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Might Darvish become part of the Cubs’ next competitive pitching core as they try to sustain their three-year run of unprecedented franchise success?

It’s anything but certain that they’ll land the one that got away with this second shot six years later. But one thing’s for sure: They’ll have more to say about it this time than they did when the Rangers won the Darvish sweepstakes with a $51.7 million posting bid for the rights to negotiate, then a six-year, $60 million deal.

The Cubs, who targeted free-agent right-hander Alex Cobb until his asking price turned them away, have been linked in trade talks with the Rays and Indians for starters such as Chris Archer and Danny Salazar in addition to their free-agent efforts.

Darvish, who missed the 2015 season because of Tommy John surgery, rebounded to become an All-Star again in 2017 — his first full season back — and, after a trade, pitched especially well for the Dodgers in his last three starts of the regular season and through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Darvish made two ugly starts in the World Series against the Astros, who said they took advantage of him tipping his pitches.

The Astros now are thought to be one of his top three pursuers, in addition to the Cubs and Twins. Darvish met with the Astros on Tuesday. Three other teams could be involved, based on reports. Twins general manager Thad Levine — the Rangers’ assistant GM when they signed him — has called Darvish ‘‘a priority’’ this winter.

The Cubs also continue to look for bullpen acquisitions as they pursue another starting pitcher for 2018. Taking into account current commitments and estimates of controlled players not under contract, they appear to have roughly $35 million to $40 million in payroll space before hitting the luxury-tax threshold.

Darvish, an All-Star in all four seasons in which he made more than three starts before the All-Star break, widely is considered to be the top unrestricted free agent on the market this winter, possibly commanding five or more years at $25 million or more each.

Darvish, who acknowledged via Twitter on Monday his ‘‘very good meeting’’ with the Cubs (translated from Japanese), has the added free-agent value of having been traded during the season. That means the Cubs wouldn’t lose draft-pick compensation to sign him, as they would if they signed Cobb.

He also tweeted he held the meeting without a translator, calling it a tiring process.

The Cubs haven’t confirmed the meeting publicly.

Darvish was 39-25 with a 3.27 ERA and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings in 83 starts before his surgery. He’s 17-17 with a 3.70 ERA and 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings in 48 starts since.

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com