A depressed free-agent market turned into a boon for the Chicago Cubs after they surprisingly signed righty Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million deal Saturday, pending a physical. It’s a move that wasn’t necessarily on the Cubs’ radar in early November. But with contract offers to free agents around the league decidedly lower than anyone could have predicted, Darvish became possible for a team that had many holes to fill on its pitching staff.

The Cubs were supposed to be about quantity over quality in their shopping this winter, and they followed suit by signing six free-agent pitchers before landing Darvish, including relievers Steve Cishek, Brandon Morrow, Brian Duensing and starters Tyler Chatwood and Drew Smyly. The seven free-agent pitchers signed by the Cubs is the second-most by any team to the 2001 Texas Rangers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But none of those other six contracts were for more than three years, with the largest package going to Chatwood at just $38 million. That’s nothing compared to the $126 million they just spent on Darvish, though it’s less money than comparable pitchers have gotten in the past. At an outlay of $21 million per year for Darvish, the Cubs aren’t hamstrung going forward.

Darvish can obviously make a big difference in a rotation which includes Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Chatwood. Mike Montgomery can return to the role of swingman as opposed to No. 5 starter as the Cubs added rotation depth and an elite arm, all in one move. Darvish’s issues in the postseason aren’t to be forgotten, but the Cubs have plenty of time to figure out if tipping his pitches in the World Series was at issue or if he mentally broke down. Either way, they get six months of his nasty slider before they have to worry about October.

While overhauling their pitching staff, the Cubs didn’t make one significant or even small change to their position-player base, save not re-signing outfielder Jon Jay. They retained all the depth that has made them special over the last few years, while allowing some hitters to mature after a “hangover” season for the entire team. This was the smart move, because a team that once again wants to play more than 162 games will need every part of its young core. The Cubs retain a chance to be special on offense while accumulating enough arms to compete for the pennant again.

And don’t forget about the July 31 trade deadline. Over the past two seasons the Cubs have made significant predeadline deals to improve their staff, so if new closer Brandon Morrow doesn’t work out or the injury bug hits their starting staff, they still have some recourse before October.

The Cubs proved, even in what was supposed to be a retooling offseason, that they could accomplish something big. They were good before Darvish signed on. His addition is a reminder of who the big boys in the Central Division are and gives the Cubs a leg up on returning to the postseason for a fourth consecutive year.

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