A Cubs offseason suddenly turned from a question mark to an exclamation point Saturday.
Major-league sources confirmed that the team has agreed on a six-year deal worth at least $126 million with right-handed starting pitcher Yu Darvish. The contract was first reported by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic.
Darvish’s deal is pending a physical exam, and Cubs officials were not available to comment on it for that reason.
The 31-year-old Darvish has incentives in the deal that can net him upward of $150 million.
After signing pitcher Tyler Chatwood early in the off-season, the Cubs and the rest of baseball watched as the winter turned as icy as Chicago’s streets, with the free-agent market freezing up.
Darvish and former Cubs ace Jake Arrieta were two of the biggest names on the market, but a typical MLB bidding war failed to develop.
Darvish finished last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were linked to the pitcher this winter, along with the Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers and Minnesota Twins.
In the end, the Cubs won out, and the signing is a likely game-changer in the National League Central as Darvish joins a rotation that features Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.
That rotation looks to be the best in the NL Central, and it should be enough to get the Cubs into the postseason for a fourth straight season.
Darvish started 22 games last year for the Texas Rangers, who traded him to the Dodgers at the July 31 nonwaiver deadline. In a combined 31 regular-season starts between the two teams, Darvish was 10-12 with a 3.86 ERA and a WHIP of 1.16. In 1862/3 innings, he walked 58 and struck out 209.
In Game 3 of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field, Darvish beat the Cubs, 6-1, working 61/3 innings and giving up a run. The Dodgers won the series, 4-1.
It was a different story in the World Series, won by the Houston Astros. In two starts, Darvish was 0-2 with a 21.60 ERA, giving up eight earned runs in only 3 1/3 innings. There were reports that Darvish was tipping his pitches to Astros hitters, a flaw that can be fixed easily by new Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey.
A native of Habikino, Japan, Darvish was purchased by the Rangers from the Nippon Ham Fighters of the Pacific League in Japan before the 2012 season.
He went 16-9 with a 3.90 ERA in his first season in Major League Baseball. In 2013, he led the American League in strikeouts (277 in 2092/3 innings) while going 13-9.
With the Rangers going nowhere last summer and Darvish facing free agency, Texas dealt him away.
For his big-league career, Darvish is 56-42 with a 3.42 ERA and a WHIP of 1.18. He has struck out 1,021 and walked 307 in 8321/3 innings.
According to FanGraphs, Darvish upped the use of his slider and cutter by about 6 percent each last year over 2016 while decreasing the use of his fastball by about 7.5 percent.
Although the choice for the Cubs seemed to be one between Darvish and Arrieta, recent reports suggested the Cubs had little contact with Arrieta this winter.
Arrieta, who turns 32 on March 6, was 88-56 with a 3.57 ERA, including 68-31 and 2.73 in parts of five seasons with the Cubs.
Agent Scott Boras, who represents Arrieta, pointed out last fall that his client is 2-0 in World Series games for the Cubs and 5-3 with a 3.08 ERA overall in the postseason.
Darvish is 2-4 with a 5.81 ERA in the postseason, but the Cubs will point out that those numbers can improve quickly with only one good playoff and World Series run.
Health had been a question for Darvish. He underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2015, forcing him to miss that entire season. In 2016, he went 7-5 with a 3.41 ERA in 17 starts.
“I’ve seen a lot of comments from people saying I’m getting close to where I was before the Tommy John surgery and all that stuff,” Darvish said during the NLCS last fall. “But really, if you look at me pitch right now, mechanics and the pitch selection approach, I’m a different kind of pitcher. So it’s hard for me to compare me right now to before the Tommy John surgery.
“As a pitcher, I always just keep improving. I feel like I’m a better pitcher now than before the Tommy John surgery. But like I said, there is no goal set. So I just want to just keep pitching better and be a better pitcher.”