Editor's note: This story originally ran on March 1, 2018.
It was shortly after the Cubs won the World Series in 2016 that Darvish and his agents added the Cubs, as well as their World Series opponent, the Cleveland Indians, to the list of teams the pitcher didn’t want to be traded to. But the decision wasn’t a slight to the Cubs: Darvish simply didn’t want to be dealt away from the Texas Rangers, and he thought Chicago and Cleveland were two franchises likely to try to make a move for him.
It was his free-agent-audition year in 2017, and he figured he would play one more season for the Rangers and then entertain offers. When the Los Angeles Dodgers provided a chance at a World Series ring just before the trade deadline, Darvish changed his mind and became open to a trade. Going to Los Angeles didn’t change his stance on free agency, though, so he listened when the Cubs came calling.
“It was the very first team I had a meeting with,” Darvish said through his interpreter at Cubs camp. “They were very serious about acquiring me. My agents told me how great the team is and how the fans are first-class. Just the whole environment is first-class.”
The Cubs’ pursuit of Darvish picked up after the winter meetings, as the front office realized an opportunity was at hand. With teams such as the Dodgers and New York Yankees slashing payroll instead of adding it, the Cubs thought they could get Darvish at a lower price than they'd previously envisioned. A face-to-face meeting in Dallas proved to be the key moment between the sides.
“As far as I can tell, he went into this process with a really open-minded, intelligent approach,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said this week. “He wanted to get to know people and learn as much as possible.”
Coincidentally, the Cubs weren’t far removed from selling their team to another Japanese pitcher, Shohei Ohtani, who ultimately chose the Los Angeles Angels. But the negotiations with Darvish had a different feel than the Ohtani pitch.
“Largely baseball-centric,” Epstein said in describing the pitch to Darvish. “We wanted to show him how we get our pitchers ready and how we put them in a position to succeed and our track record of doing that and the approach we would take with him. Another focus was just the culture here and how we make the players the most important people in the organization.”
When things were going well in the meeting, Epstein lightened the mood by pulling out the 150-page brochure the team put together for the Ohtani meeting. As a joke, Epstein put masking tape over Ohtani’s name on the cover and wrote "Darvish." The gag went over well, with Darvish getting to read about the organization from the same pages Ohtani did.
Darvish got back at Epstein for the gag a little this week with his deadpan answer to the question of why the Cubs were on his no-trade list last season.
“Because I never really liked Theo Epstein,” Darvish joked with a straight face.
Even though the reality was that the no-trade-list decision was a player-agent chess move, that comment is a good indication of a sense of humor that those close to Darvish describe as sarcastic and dry.
Communication between both sides helped make the pitcher feel comfortable enough to join the Cubs without visiting Chicago before signing.
“Only during the season I’ve been there,” Darvish said. “I didn’t need to go in the offseason. I have an idea what Chicago is like. They were really frequent with communicating. There were no gaps or anything. They were very approachable.”
The back-and-forth included emails directly from Cubs brass to Darvish, who stayed involved to the very end.
Once the Cubs were able to add a sixth year to spread out the annual salary of the $126 million contract, the sides came to an agreement, and the once-impossible thought of "Darvish" on the back of a Cubs jersey became a reality.
Now that Darvish is a Cub, the team is hoping to get even more out of Darvish by getting him to use his complete arsenal -- even when he’s uncomfortable throwing a certain pitch. Game planner Mike Borzello started that discussion with Darvish in spring training.
“I think at times he can talk himself into becoming a fastball/slider guy, only,” Borzello explained earlier this week. “Our conversations have revolved around him being open minded to use everything.”
That means you might see 98 mph on one pitch and then 67 mph on the next.
“If we can get him to realize that sometimes his third and fourth and even fifth pitch could be the best pitch at this moment, to this particular guy, it
could open up a lot of things,” Borzello continued.
It can get uncomfortable for a pitcher who would rather use his strength rather than attacking a hitter’s weakness with a secondary pitch. The Cubs often stress the latter strategy, which takes a mental adjustment by the hurler.
“He’s intrigued with all of our information,” Borzello stated. “He’s encouraged because we’re pushing him to use all of his stuff. It’s a process. He’ll be better at it a month from now.”