Chicago Cubs

Yu Darvish signing in better line with Cubs’ luck for free-agent starters

By George Castle

CBM Historian

Any team takes a big risk with a long-term free-agent pitcher signing.

In the Cubs’ mind, Yu Darvish is a decrease in risk than, say, bringing back Jake Arietta.

With sabermetrics and hyper-analysis overwhelming baseball, the wild spending that used to predominate in free-agent starters is gone. That’s the big reason why the market moved so slowly going into spring training. The realization that pitching has a high mortality rate and being on the hook for three, four years of dead money after an arm has gone south keeps most big-league wallets locked with agents demanding as many as seven years.

Fortunately, fate has been kinder to the Cubs in the majority of their free-agent starter signings — much more so than for their closer acquisitions. So if you use as an omen and portent, Darvish won’t blow up in the face of Theo Epstein, who has one big misjudgment on his Cubs record for free-agent pitchers that has been more than canceled out by Jon Lester’s 2016 performance.

Looking back, we asked Al Yellon, managing editor of the popular BleedCubbieBlue.com blog, to rate all the major free-agent signings of Cubs pitchers in history. Amazingly, Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins was the Cubs’ first such acquisition in his return to Chicago in Dec. 1981 after an eight-season absence, as Dallas Green sought to remake the somnolent franchise from the Wrigley family regime.

Odds are with Yu Darvish in coming through on his free-agent deal with the Cubs.

“I had a lot of firsts with the ballclub,” said Jenkins, who is the only Cub to ever win 20 games six years in a row and led the NL in strikeouts with 273 in 1969. He added one more whiff to his total in 1970 to hold the team’s season strikeout record

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Peter Bourjos must untangle outfield logjam to make Chicago Cubs

You can root as hard as possible for outfielder Peter Bourjos, possessing firm Chicago roots coursing through his veins, to make the Cubs in spring training.

Problem is, you can’t wish away the logjam of competition in front of him. And the likelihood of Bourjos continuing his wandering ways after being cast out of Angels (Los Angeles type) paradise remains.

A year after the White Sox seemed poised to bring Bourjos back to his family’s roots as at least a backup center fielder, the personable speedster signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs. At first glance, you’d figure Bourjos is a commodity the Cubs don’t have in abundance — a swift man on the basepaths who can come in for defense in the late innings.

Peter Bourjos has another, albeit iffy, chance to play in his family’s hometown.

Check the latter. The Cubs already have an under-utilized gifted gloveman in center in Albert Almora, patiently waiting his turn to claim a regular’s job while Joe Maddon experiments with others in the outfield.

Here’s Bourjos’ dilemma: the Cubs already need to thin the herd a bit in the outfield. Maddon is already five deep there.

Many armchair GMs wanted Kyle Schwarber traded for pitching in the off-season. Such a move was never likely to take place. Schwarber’s left-handed power bat is too appealing to just deal away. In a season where Schwarber had to fight for five months to push his average above the .200 Mendoza Line, he still slugged 30 homers. The only other home-grown Cub to accomplish that feat since Billy Williams was catcher Rick Wilkins, a one-hit wonder in 1993.  Realizing the pressure was on, Schwarber worked like a madman in the off-season to shed excess weight and come in semi-svelte, better to have more mobility in left field since his catching days appear over.

If Maddon wants to spell Schwarber against lefty pitchers, he has switch hitters Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ to play left. Zobrist, pride of downstate Eureka, Ill., will have to outright retire to not get at least some playing time from old Tampa Bay patron Maddon. But the manager also knows Zobrist’s second-base opportunities are also diminished due to Javy Baez’s emergence as an elite defensive infielder.

Almora has more than earned the majority of starts in center, even if he is still weaker against right-handed pitchers. Maddon can always slide over Happ for starts against the tougher right-handers, but Almora is deserving to prove his worth against those pitchers, too. Jason Heyward is yet another center-field option.

Heyward’s overblown contract — Theo Epstein is a fallible man, after all — ensures him the majority of starts in right. Again, Zobrist and Happ can be used for right-handed switch-offs if Heyward continues his offensive flame-out and needs to sit against southpaws.

The outfield gets even more crowded if Maddon follows Cubs legend Randy Hundley’s advice and gives Willson Contreras, a potential big run producer, a break from catching with a few left-field starts against southpaws.

The only way Bourjos breaks through this logjam is through injury or slump. A surprise 24-homer producer in 2017 who forced his way into center-field duty, Happ is not beyond being demoted to Triple-A if he has a cold spring. Schwarber accepted a short demotion with class in mid-season in 2017.

Early projections have Bourjos competing with infielder Tommy La Stella for an extra spot. But La Stella has a built-in advantage batting lefty — crucial for pinch-hitting duty — while being able to play second and third. Multiple-position versatility is a near-must with Maddon. Bourjos can play all outfield positions, but they seem covered. Although not as swift as Bourjos, La Stella still can pinch-run.

I’m allowed a bit of personal advocacy. I went to a community college with Bourjos’ father, Chris Bourjos, a longtime pro scout who once had a cup of coffee as an outfielder with the San Francisco Giants. Peter was born in suburban Chicago before the old man got tired of winters and moved to Scottsdale. Smart man, if you can tolerate 110 to 120 in the summer.

Bourjos earned a slew of web gems with impossible catchs and home-run thefts in center for the Angels. But then a gentleman named Mike Trout arrived. Torii Hunter was still locked into big money in Anaheim, so Bourjos became the odd-man-out. He went to the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies before seemingly landing with the White Sox last spring.

But he ended up traded to Tampa Bay before Opening Day. The Sox went with rookie Jacob May in center out of the gate. He did not last long. Charlie Tillson, a north suburban product, would have taken over, but got hurt. Adam Engel could catch anything in center, but had Schwarber-style problems at the plate. Bourjos would have been a short-term hole-plugger for the rebuilding Sox and would have come home. But fate always seems to have only Plan B or C for Bourjos.

Sounds like Plan C with the Cubs. So that’s why I’m breaking Jerome Holtzman’s admonition of “no cheering in the pressbox” with another Holtzman-ism, “a doff of the chapeau” for Bourjos.

 

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The two faces (and hairstyles) of Oscar Gamble with Cubs, White Sox

Ballyhooed top prospect promoted prematurely vs. rent-a-free-agent.

Close-cropped hair in a conservative organization vs. baseball’s most luxuriant Afro playing for original rebel Bill Veeck.

Perceived speed demon center fielder vs. locked-in designated hitter.

Oscar Gamble belts home run for ’77 South Side Hit Men Sox team. Leo Bauby collection

Over a span of eight years, Oscar Gamble dramatically changed how he was presented to the public as a raw rookie Cub and veteran White Sox. The 18th player from the fabled 1969 Cubs and surprisingly the second middle-of-the-lineup staple (after Jim Spencer) of the equally storied 1977 South Side Hit Men to pass away, Gamble made news for the final time the other day with his death at 68.

For two franchises just eight miles apart but stereotyped as being light years distant in so many other ways, the Cubs and Sox have shared almost too many players to list here. Gamble is on that last, and impressive compared to most others. His even 200 homers, including a team-leading 31 for the ’77 Sox, prove some of the initial overheated evaluations as a teen-age Cub were correct. Gamble was yet another talented player snared by the keen scouting eye of the legendary Cubs scout and Negro League icon Buck O’Neil.

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