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Cubs: Who Should Be Catching Yu Darvish?

Could Yu Darvish's struggles be solved through finding him a personal battery mate? Cubs Lead Writer Austin Bloomberg says it's worth a try.

I’m not alone in thinking about Yu Darvish these past few days. Another troubling start vs. Colorado Wednesday provided more reason to panic, over react, and unnecessarily spread vitriol. I may have just recently condemned the manner in which (some) fans are treating Yu, and while I still hold strongly to that premise I’m not going to pretend the early season returns have been anything but disappointing.

In spite of his struggles there is one considerable positive. Darvish is throwing his fastball slightly harder this year (93.8 mph) than his career average (93.2), and given the red flag that is a drop in velocity, this is a huge sigh of relief. (It’s been noted elsewhere that Yu has also been throwing his slider harder than ever before, limiting horizontal movement and in turn becoming a much less effective pitch. This is of concern, of course, but not what I’m focusing on in this piece.)

Another caveat, and one that can’t be repeated enough, is that Jon Lester‘s first month as a Cub in 2015 was somehow worse than what we’ve seen thus far from Darvish, and Lester finished 2015 with a 3.34 ERA (2.92 FIP). Of course, Lester’s turnaround guarantees nothing concerning Darvish, but it does suggest it’s entirely too soon to call this a lost season (and contract) for the prized free agent.

There are myriad interpretations to be had here, and along with that, untold ‘remedies’ to help fix Yu. My first thought is pretty simple, and that is to just let Yu be Yu and continue to get acclimated to Chicago. While I admit his struggles might be real and not just a blip on the radar, I remain adamant that it’s too early to insist he’s a bust.

This is food for thought, which also begs the question: Who should be catching Yu?

Is Willson Contreras the answer?

Truthfully, I have become concerned about the relationship between Yu and Willson. After the poor start against Atlanta, Willson vocalized (in unfiltered fashion) frustration with Yu, to the extreme that he said Yu walking Atlanta’s pitcher got the Cubs “f—-d up”. While Brendan Miller at Cubs’ Insider was correct to point out that Willson had also spoken highly of Yu’s execution that day, the reality remains that Contreras has expressed frustration with Darvish in a manner we haven’t seen him do with his other pitchers. I don’t wish to draw conclusions, but it is something worth keeping an eye on.

Perhaps Willson has simply expressed what many in the organization (and in the fan base) feel. But then there’s this: After Wednesday’s troubling start, Patrick Mooney at The Athletic noted how Willson was careful to speak to reporters with his translator present, so as to “make sure his Darvish responses weren’t misunderstood.” This might seem a bit anodyne, but even still Willson’s comments post-game Wednesday appear strained if you look for it: “I can’t really get into [Yu’s] head and tell you what he’s thinking,” he said, “But I’m sure he’s going to make the adjustments he needs to make moving forward.”

These words are trite and uninspiring, and yet their unremarkable nature perhaps helped to quell the frustration of what has to be an exasperated Contreras. There’s a sense that he, more than anyone not named Yu, is confused/upset by Darvish’s struggles. Perhaps he’s taking ownership in these struggles, and that the frustration expressed after a disappointing loss to Atlanta was the result of those feelings. Willson is an expressive individual, and he’s clearly invested deeply in this team. He’s also young and learning how to lead this pitching staff — including a marquee free agent signing. It’s more than understandable Willson might be emotional. In fact, it’s rather expected.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that Contreras is adjusting just as much as Darvish. Brett Taylor over at Bleacher Nation pointed out, accurately, that Darvish is not an easy guy to catch: he has high velocity, a wide arsenal of pitches, and considerable movement on each pitch. When a pitcher this talented isn’t locating and has no grasp or confidence in his repertoire, catching him becomes all the more difficult.

Does this mean it’s time to bring up Gimenez?

Much was said when the Cubs signed Chris Gimenez, assuming it was a precursor to bringing in Darvish, and that Chris would therefore be guaranteed a spot on the 25-man roster to personally handle Yu. While the former proved true, the latter was upended when the Cubs opted to start the year with switch-hitting Victor Caratini as the backup catcher.

While this is a good time for a discussion about Gimenez, I feel as though the answer, at least for now, is a resounding ‘no’. Gimenez has the ability to opt out of his contract on June 1st should he not be on the major league roster, and Caratini has options remaining. Should Darvish continue to struggle as the month of May wears on this may be something to seriously consider, but right now it feels like a reactionary move that would favor coddling Darvish over letting him adjust. It’d also be a move by the front office that could create deeper tensions between Darvish and Contreras (if any currently exist). And let’s face it, these two will need to trust fully in one another if the Cubs are to be successful.

Why not give Victor a shot?

Rather than making a decision on Gimenez before that June 1 deadline, Joe Maddon has one rather obvious move he could make in the Darvish experiment: give Caratini a chance to catch him. To date, Willson has started every game behind the dish for Yu, and while I’m not at all suggesting Contreras deserves any blame for Yu’s struggles, it’s not outlandish to suggest trying something new.

If successful this could serve multiple purposes: Willson needs occasional breathers, Victor needs a chance to play with some semblance of regularity, and it’s worth assessing what chemistry may exist between Yu and the Cubs’ backup. My theory would be to start with one game, preferably Yu’s next start, as a scheduled day off for Contreras. If the experiment proves successful it’s clearly worth repeating; if not, you can either scrap it entirely (armed with the knowledge that Gimenez is waiting in the wings if needed) or perhaps revisit it in the future if so desired. But given Yu’s early season struggles and the fact that Caratini has yet to catch him I see no downside in giving him at least one opportunity.

Can everyone stop panicking, please?

I remain confident in two things: 1) Yu Darvish will return to his career norms sooner than later, and 2) the Cubs will figure out, one way or another, who his best battery mate is as the season unfolds. Panicking about Darvish right now is easy but unhelpful. There’s too much season left, his track record too great, and his velocity and health too strong to think the month of April will represent his season as a whole.

One fun fact? Despite early season struggles in the rotation and an offense that can’t seem to find its identity the Cubs are 16-12, on pace for ~93 wins. Let’s focus on this weekend’s series against St. Louis, and as always, remember that the season is long.

Follow Austin on Twitter: @TLS_Austin

Feature Photo Credit: World News Insider





Austin is the Lead Cubs Writer for The Loop Sports. He's a lifelong baseball junkie (due to his father) and as a former college pitcher has a particular affinity for the art of pitching. Austin loves to commute in Chicago on his bicycle, and enjoys camping and canoeing as often as possible. He attained his master's degree in Social Justice and Community Development from Loyola University Chicago in 2014.

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