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Gimenez deal indicates Cubs serious about Yu

Adding right-hander's preferred catcher could be strategic move
MLB.com @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- The Cubs' headline move three offseasons ago was signing Jon Lester. It's worth noting that shortly after they got him under control, they returned to the free-agent market to pick up David Ross, Lester's personal catcher in Boston.

That move had been discussed -- if not promised -- while they were pursuing Lester.

CHICAGO -- The Cubs' headline move three offseasons ago was signing Jon Lester. It's worth noting that shortly after they got him under control, they returned to the free-agent market to pick up David Ross, Lester's personal catcher in Boston.

That move had been discussed -- if not promised -- while they were pursuing Lester.

They've reversed the order this time around. The Cubs agreed to a Minor League deal with catcher Chris Gimenez as they try to land Yu Darvish, the top arm on the free-agent market.

Video: Yu Darvish actively talking with Cubs

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Not to slight the 35-year-old Gimenez's attractiveness, but it's probably not a coincidence that the Cubs left the job backing up Willson Contreras open until talks with Darvish got serious. A report from The Associated Press says there are "active talks" between the sides, and Gimenez just happens to be Darvish's favorite catcher.

Video: MIA@TEX: Gimenez on Darvish's first career shutout

Theo Epstein is as brilliant as he is thorough in finding advantages in recruiting and empowering players. While the Cubs have resources that most other teams envy, he doesn't count on simply money-whipping them. Epstein finds ways to let them and those around them know how badly he wants them to be part of the clubhouse family.

Gimenez is from the Crash Davis school of catching. He was drafted by the Indians in 2004 and reached the Major Leagues in '09, and he has stuck around for parts of nine seasons. Gimenez had never had more than 130 plate appearances in a season until he reached his mid-30s, stepping up his playing time on playoff teams in Cleveland in 2016 and Minnesota last year, but not exactly establishing himself as essential.

Gimenez wasn't on the Indians' World Series roster two Octobers ago, and he backed up Jason Castro in the American League Wild Card Game last October, entering to catch the bottom of the eighth in the 8-4 loss.

If the lifetime .218 hitter has distinguished himself in any role, it's been with his willingness to pitch in blowouts. Gimenez had done it nine times in his career, including six times last year for the Twins.

Video: CWS@MIN: Gimenez escapes trouble in the 9th inning

Gimenez was with the Rangers in 2014, when Darvish delivered his third consecutive All-Star performance before an elbow injury caused him to be shut down in August (he had Tommy John surgery the next March). Gimenez started the season in Triple-A, but he was promoted in May.

Darvish went seven innings to beat a loaded Tigers team in Detroit the first time that Gimenez caught him. He threw eight one-hit innings to win a pitchers' duel at Washington the next time out.

Gimenez then caught Darvish 12 times in a stretch of 13 consecutive starts, including a shutout of the Marlins and a start in which Darvish threw eight scoreless innings against the Twins. That's the kind of magic the Cubs would love to tap into as they look to add more gravitas with Jake Arrieta in free agency and Lester entering his age-34 season.

Video: Free-agent aces Darvish, Arrieta still available

Epstein was busy adding pitching in the early part of the offseason, with Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek among eight arms he added through signings or waiver claims. But the Cubs have long been viewed as front-runners to sign Darvish or re-sign Arrieta, and they have been frustrated by their slow-to-develop market.

As much as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and the spectacular defense, starting pitching was a key to the championship season in 2016. The Cubs had a Major League-best 2.96 rotation ERA, with Kyle Hendricks and Lester leading the way as Arrieta took a step back after his National League Cy Young Award-winning performance the year before.

The Cubs' starters were fourth in the NL with a 4.05 ERA last season. They added Jose Quintana in July, and he helped them win a second consecutive division title and secure a third straight spot in the postseason. But Darvish and the Dodgers stopped them short of a return to the World Series, with Darvish's brilliant start in Game 3 the biggest blow.

It's not that the Cubs don't want to keep Arrieta. They've just known for at least two years that he wants a longer contract than they're comfortable in giving a pitcher entering his age-32 season.

Darvish is only one year younger and threw harder last season than any time in his six seasons with the Rangers; Arrieta lost two mph off his fastball last season (he adjusted nobly, too, registering a 2.28 ERA in the second half). Most projections of future performance favor Darvish over Arrieta, but Arrieta will be eager to prove the Cubs wrong if they do sign Darvish.

A big commitment to Darvish could somewhat limit the Cubs' flexibility at midseason -- but not next offseason, when Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and the mother lode of free agents are there to revive the free-agent frenzy that's been lacking this year.

The Cubs are more than $30 million below the Competitive Balance Tax threshold of $197 million for 2018, but they seem likely to race beyond it in '19. They would pay a 20-percent penalty on the overage if they do stay below it this season.

You know Epstein has a plan. He doesn't do anything lightly, including signing backup catchers.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

Chicago Cubs, Yu Darvish, Chris Gimenez