Cubs

Cubs allowed Jake Arrieta to be himself after trade from Orioles

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Cubs allowed Jake Arrieta to be himself after trade from Orioles

Even if he won’t admit it now, Jake Arrieta seemed to be in a midlife career crisis when the Baltimore Orioles traded him to the Cubs in the middle of the 2013 season.

Whether it was friction between Dan Duquette’s front office and Buck Showalter’s dugout, Baltimore’s overall pitching belief system or the burnout factor with a player the Orioles drafted and tried to develop, Arrieta needed a change of scenery.

Scott Boras sat in his front-row seat for Arrieta’s no-hitter on Sunday night at Dodger Stadium. The super-agent loves tweaking the Ricketts family and how the Cubs run their business side.

But on some level, Boras believes in The Cubs Way, specifically pointing to president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and pitching coach Chris Bosio for helping his client harness all this natural ability.

“Give Theo credit, man,” Boras said. “He made the deal to get him. That says a lot, because Jake had raw stuff. But the philosophy that Baltimore brought on Jake was not his own.

“He came here, and they really let him be himself. It’s a credit to Bosio and, really, the organization. The minute he got here, he started doing what Jake can do.”

[MORE CUBS: Jake Arrieta gets locked in with Cubs and makes no-hitter history]

The Cubs cashed in Scott Feldman’s final 15 starts before free agency and threw in backup catcher Steve Clevenger to get Arrieta, hard-throwing reliever Pedro Strop and two international signing bonus slots.

This was Arrieta’s age-27 season — the fourth year he had spent time at the Triple-A level — and it certainly looked like his career had stalled as an Oriole (20-25, 5.46 ERA).

“Sometimes it’s somebody saying the right thing at the right time,” said reliever Tommy Hunter, who played with Arrieta in Baltimore.

Catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello does a lot of the heavy lifting as the Cubs put together game plans. A lasting clubhouse image is Borzello hunching over a computer watching video.

Bullpen coach Lester Strode — now in his 27th season in the organization — is a loyal soldier and widely respected in the room.

Bosio is a big physical presence and personality, with strong opinions and the credibility that comes from throwing a no-hitter for the Seattle Mariners against the Boston Red Sox in 1993.

[MORE CUBS: No-hitter shows Jake Arrieta fits in perfectly with free-spirited Cubs]

“We try to let these guys do their thing and be themselves,” Bosio said. “Pedro Strop, for example: Where do you feel comfortable on the mound? Same thing with Jake.

“Just try to communicate with them. These guys know we care about them. But it’s important talking to them about what they want to do, what they’re comfortable with. And then work on cans and can’ts.”

Bosio made a point to say Arrieta deserves all the credit for his hard work, processing the data, studying the sequencing and learning which pitches to throw in what counts and how to slow down the moment.

“He’s been a huge role player for what I’ve been able to do,” Arrieta said. “He played for a long time — (11) years. He had a reputation as a no-nonsense type of guy when he was on the mound, pretty much exactly the way I like to depict myself.

“He was intense. So all these little characteristics he possessed — and still possesses — are things that I can use to my advantage.

“Along with Borzello and Lester, we just communicate on a really good level. And if there’s something that needs to be addressed, something we think we can be better at, we talk about it.

“The open line of communication is something that we both value. It’s been an incredible process that we’ve developed, and we’re going to stick with it.”

[MORE CUBS: 2015 National League Cy Young: The case for Cubs' Jake Arrieta]

It’s hard to imagine where the Cubs would be without Arrieta, but Baseball Prospectus probably wouldn’t be estimating their playoffs odds at 93.5 percent.

Here are Arrieta’s numbers in a Cubs uniform since that franchise-changing trade with the Orioles on July 2, 2013: 31-13, 2.48 ERA, 0.984 WHIP, 394 strikeouts in 391-plus innings and one no-hitter with the potential for more to come.

“I even told my wife back in the day: When it clicks for Jake, he’s going to be goooood,” Hunter said, drawing out the syllable. “You tip your cap to a guy who’s worked the way he has and prevailed through all the tough times.

“I bet it feels like he’s on top of the world right now. And it should.”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.