Darvish healthy, excited to face former team

Blister healing, righty to start second game; Hoerner to Double-A

March 28th, 2019

ARLINGTON -- Throughout the spring, tried to downplay his desire to pitch against the Rangers in this opening series. The decision ultimately was in the hands of Cubs manager Joe Maddon, and a blister on Darvish's pitching hand threatened to disrupt the rotation's schedule.

Standing at his locker in Globe Life Park's visitors' clubhouse on Thursday afternoon, Darvish no longer deferred to Maddon. The right-hander is healthy, his ring finger is healing fine and come Saturday he will take the mound in Arlington for a start he is greatly anticipating.

"I grew up in Japan," Darvish said. "But, at the same time, I feel I grew up here, too."

After pitching professionally in Japan for seven years, Darvish signed with the Rangers prior to the 2012 campaign. He spent parts of six seasons in a Texas uniform before being dealt to the Dodgers at the Trade Deadline in '17. Darvish said he is looking forward to facing Elvis Andrus, Rougned Odor, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo, among others.

The righty also said he will enjoy pitching at the ballpark one last time, as the Rangers plan to move into a new stadium across the street in '20.

"It means a lot," Darvish said. "This stadium has a lot of history, and I'm so happy to throw here in the opening series."

The start will mean a lot for the Cubs, too.

Two winters ago, Chicago invested $126 million over six years to sign Darvish as a free agent -- only to have the pitcher derailed by arm issues last season. He underwent a right elbow procedure in September, but arrived at Spring Training healthy and motivated to move on from last year's trials.

"It was a good Spring Training for him, for sure," said Theo Epstein, the Cubs' president of baseball operations, "with his attitude and his work. I'm glad that his blister healed up in time. But, the real work begins now. Spring Training is Spring Training. We all, together, start the work of competing day in, day out for the next seven months. It'll be nice to see how he responds."

Hoerner to Double-A

The Cubs are taking an aggressive approach with shortstop prospect Nico Hoerner to start this season. After appearing in only 14 games in his first professional campaign last summer, Hoerner will open this year with Double-A Tennessee. The 21-year-old Stanford product was selected in the first round (24th pick) in last season's MLB Draft.

"We think he deserves to be at Double-A," Epstein said. "It is an aggressive placement, but he is uncommonly mature and advanced for his age, both with his game on the field and the way he handles things off the field. So, we believe he can handle it, but we expect him to be at Double-A for, if not the whole year, the great, great majority of the year."

In 13 Cactus League games this spring, Hoerner hit .533 (8-for-15) with six extra-base hits and a 1.811 OPS. He is ranked second on MLB Pipeline's Top 30 Cubs prospects list.

Worth noting

• One change this year for Maddon is that he is giving players the planned lineups (subject to change) ahead of each series. For the first series in Texas, for example, the manager informed Kyle Schwarber that he would not start on Opening Day, with the Rangers starting lefty Mike Minor. Schwarber will be in the lineup for the Saturday and Sunday games in Texas.

"We spoke. He got it. He had no issues," said Maddon, who gave Mark Zagunis the nod in left field for the opener. "It's something we've really been trying to hammer home this offseason, and now is the buy-in from the whole group, and that some days it's going to be somebody else. The conversations have been very transparent, and everybody's on board. It was a very easy exchange between me and him."

• Left-hander Brian Duensing, who is under contract for $3.5 million this season, cleared waivers and has been sent outright to Triple-A Iowa. Epstein noted that Duensing was working on some mechanical adjustments late in camp, so this will give the veteran lefty a chance to continue that work in the same organization with the goal of returning to the MLB bullpen.

• Right-hander Kyle Hendricks is currently in line to start Monday's series opener on the road against the Braves, but the Cubs have not announced the starter for Wednesday. Lefty Jose Quintana is the fifth starter, but with team off-days on Friday and Tuesday, Chicago could have Jon Lester pitch the second game against the Braves.