MESA, Ariz. -- Theo Epstein readily admits that the whole Yu Darvish thing was pretty unexpected. Let's go back to the beginning of the offseason: Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer and everyone else with the Cubs agreed that it was time to reinvigorate Chicago's pitching staff.
That is to say, they wanted to add "stuff."
What is stuff? It's such a baffling term that The New York Times did a whole story trying to come up with a definition, but Merriam-Webster does a pretty good job: "the movement of a baseball pitch out of its apparent line of flight; the liveliness of a pitch." Velocity plays a role in stuff, too. The Cubs' pitching has been very effective; they have baseball's second-lowest ERA over the last three years (behind only the Dodgers) and have been to three consecutive National League Championship Series -- but Epstein could see that the team was falling behind in pure pitching nastiness.
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"We've been pitching with more or less average stuff," says Epstein, the Cubs' president of baseball operations. "Because we have been executing -- command, good defense all those things -- we have been successful. But as stuff across the industry tends to get better and better each year, I don't think you want to fall too far behind the industry."
So the plan was to add more than one pitcher who could infuse the staff with strikeout stuff. Darvish, of course, has electric stuff, but Epstein thought he was likely to be so expensive that the Cubs would have trouble adding other pitchers without trading core players, something he absolutely didn't want to do. So when Darvish's people first approached the Cubs, Epstein said he was willing to talk, but "honestly, it's probably not a fit."
Beyond that, the Cubs -- like every team out there -- needed to know more. They saw how Darvish has dealt with injuries and inconsistency, and no one missed the fact that he had two disastrous starts for the Dodgers in the World Series. One of the biggest questions of the offseason was: How much should two bad starts at the wrong time matter when signing a pitcher? Was it a fluke? Was it a dangerous sign?
Epstein and the Cubs decided to wait before forming any opinions at all.
"'We have a lot of pitching needs we need to address this winter, and before we can even entertain signing him, I need to learn a lot more about the guy,'" Epstein says he told Darvish's agent. "And he said, 'Well, that's good because he's not going to sign with anyone until he spends a lot of time with them and learns all about the organization.' That was intriguing."
The more the Cubs talked with Darvish -- who insisted on speaking English without a translator for their initial 3 1/2-hour talk -- the more intrigued they became.
"He was open with us," Epstein says. "He was very open with how -- and I found this very interesting -- for the first years of his Major League career he wasn't all that interested in the team. Everyone would do that, 'Rah Rah, we're going to win the World Series,' speech from the first day of Spring Training, and he admits it didn't resonate with him. He didn't get it. He was like, 'I didn't dream of winning the World Series. I didn't grow up dreaming [of] getting to the World Series.'"
Instead, Darvish explained, he worried about representing a country, about representing all those people in Japan who were counting on him. He had taken a big chance coming to the United States in 2012. Think of the daily pressure -- by the time Darvish came, Ichiro Suzuki was already declining, Daisuke Matsuzaka was just struggling to stay in the big leagues and Hideki Matsui was in his last season. The spotlight of a baseball-mad nation was entirely on Darvish, and it was a white-hot spotlight.
"And so, he's like, 'I better strike guys out, I better put up numbers, I better be stamped as a success,'" Epstein says. "I think all of us would do the same in that position."
Darvish was stamped as a success. He led the Major Leagues in strikeouts in his second season with the Rangers in 2013. Darvish has made the All-Star team in four of his five big league seasons. But was he as good of a pitcher as he can be? Darvish told the Cubs that last year was eye opening for him. He had been part of some playoff-bound Rangers teams, but the Dodgers atmosphere felt a little bit different to him, maybe because they went all the way to the World Series. Darvish loved the way the clubhouse supported each other. He grew close to Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.
And then came the World Series and Darvish's dismal performances -- and while he felt terrible for letting down his team, he also felt his whole attitude about baseball change. He changed his diet. He changed his workout routine. Darvish was uninterested in taking the most money. He sought out a team that would have a great chance of winning.
"Ultimately, failing the way he did," Epstein says, "he is now at a point where he's dedicating the rest of his career to winning a World Series and being a significant part of a championship team. He's at a really stable time in his life -- he has a wife, kids, they have a home in Dallas, he just seems really healthy."
The Cubs paid Darvish $126 million for six years -- a bit less, perhaps, than some of the early projections, but it's a healthy investment. Epstein admits that whenever you make this big of an investment -- this big of a gamble, really -- you want to find as many reasons as possible that it will work. So he doesn't deny that he might be looking at the bright side. But he believes.
"I've been so impressed by how deeply he thinks about things," Epstein says. "He's an intellectual, really. You might say that's part of what can hold someone back, but I think he has always had so many things going for him. And now he really wants to win.
"There is nobody physically more talented in baseball. Nobody. Now, if his mental capabilities match his physical capabilities ... there's just no telling how good he can be. It sure seems like a lot of things are coming together for him. So let's just say, I'm happy. I think we're getting Yu Darvish at a very good time."