The Yu Darvish Effect: How he fits into Cubs rotation — and shapes the NL debate

Have Cubs fans come down from that World Series party yet? No, not the 2016 one. The 2018 one. Is it too soon to create a holiday named for Yu Darvish?

The addition of the dazzling right-hander to a team still squarely in its championship window sure kicked things up a notch. With spring training starting this week, Cubs beat writer Gordon Wittenmyer and columnist Steve Greenberg weighed in on five topics of much conversation.

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The Cubs haven’t looked this good on paper entering spring training since …

We know how good Yu Darvish was the last time he pitched at Wrigley Field, but what happens over a full season? (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

GREENBERG: Buckle in, lean back and allow me to transport you all the way back to 2016. You know, to when newcomer Jason Heyward had fans ready to chant like they did for Sammy Sosa and bow like they did for Andre Dawson. When John Lackey, Mr. Game 7, was going to put a rotation led by Jake Arrieta — the best pitcher in baseball? — over the top. When Kyle Schwarber was going to hit 30 home runs of the 450-plus-foot variety alone. And don’t get me started on those superstar corner infielders.

WITTENMYER: No doubt, that 2016 team went into the season as favorites, but even that team had more questions in the rotation going into the spring (Kyle Hendricks coming off an up-and-down year; Jason Hammel coming off a poor second half and postseason), not to mention a closer management didn’t trust. The 2008 team is comparable, but even after adding Kosuke Fukudome to address a left-side hitting deficit, that team wasn’t as tested and complete as this one. The Cubs haven’t looked as good as this in February since 2004, after adding Greg Maddux to a team that finished five outs short of a World Series. We’ll just leave October out of that discussion for now.

Speaking of October, what’s the real National League pecking order?

WITTENMYER: Look, let’s not get too giggly until at least March. The only thing we know for sure about the top NL teams right now is that nobody has an easier road than the Nationals, who not only are loaded with the likes of Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper but who also reside in the only division in baseball with four teams about as capable of winning the World Series as you. Say hello to the best record in baseball. That doesn’t mean the Cubs can’t beat them (see 2017), but the Cubs are in the next tier.

GREENBERG: I’m pretty sure this “you” you speak of could win a Nats-less East, so, OK, let’s call the Nats the favorites. We’re still heading for Cubs-Dodgers Part 3 — the rubber match — in the NLCS. It’s too good not to be true. The Dodgers wiped the schoolyard with the Cubs last October. How to stand up to a 100-win bully? By stealing its Darvish and its Brandon Morrow, that’s how. Now it’s a fair fight. The only question is who gets to take out the Nats (again) in the NLDS … unless either the Nats or Dodgers steal Arrieta, in which case the Cubs might want to find a good hiding place.

What if the Brewers or Cardinals sign Arrieta?

WITTENMYER: Then heads up. If the Pirates in 2015 or the Indians in 2016 — or the Dodgers in their only NLCS loss last year — thought beating Arrieta in a big game was tough, imagine the angry, bearded kale addict facing the Cubs when they need to beat him with a division on the line. After a winter of slow burn, one of the most competitive pitchers in the game in recent years will have the ultimate chip on his shoulder, making that team a major thorn for the Cubs and threat for the pennant.

GREENBERG: The Snake slithering off to a division rival? I’ll sign that petition just for the promise of so much tension and excitement. Unless Arrieta can turn a double play, run down a line shot in the alley and hit .300, it’s hard to see him improving the Cardinals’ inferior lineup. And aren’t the Brewers a Cubs farm team?

Better 2018: Darvish or Arrieta?

GREENBERG: Tough one. If Arrieta reverses his downward trend, we’ve already seen that he can be as good as anybody. Darvish is no slouch, an All-Star in each of the four seasons when he was good to go in April. Let’s go with Darvish. Why? Watch him be better — as he was a year ago — at keeping guys off the bases. He’s always going to be better at punching them out. And the kicker is he threw more innings in 2017.

WITTENMYER: Downward trend? Say what you want, but Arrieta has put together a Cy Young-caliber season against playoff qualifiers alone the last three years: 2.75 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 210 strikeouts, 13-11 record, 199⅔ innings in 32 starts against baseball’s top teams. Darvish, who missed half that time with injury: 5.26 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 88 strikeouts, 4-9 record in 15 starts against playoff teams. I’ll take the guy who was the Cubs’ best big-game pitcher since “Three Finger” Brown.

One game, win or go home: Darvish or Jon Lester?

WITTENMYER: Darvish fits nicely near the front of the rotation. But the last pitch this guy threw still hasn’t landed — a two-run homer that put his Dodgers in a 5-0 hole in a Game 7 World Series loss. It was the second time in the series that he didn’t get out of the third inning. There’s a reason Jon Lester has a 2.55 ERA in the playoffs, an NLCS MVP and three rings. Easy choice.

GREENBERG: Oh, it’s easy, all right. Go get ’em, Kyle Hendricks.

Follow us on Twitter @GDubCub and @SLGeenberg.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes, sgreenberg@suntimes