Cubs

Cubs: Jake Arrieta dismisses critics, ready to move forward

Cubs: Jake Arrieta dismisses critics, ready to move forward

When Jake Arrieta was asked if too much has been made of his recent struggles, he didn't even need words to convey his thoughts.

Arrieta simply nodded his head and continued to nod until a reporter followed up with another question.

"Listen, last year, the run I went on was great," Arrieta said. "Wouldn't everybody like to pitch that way all the time? Yes. But if you're being realistic, regardless of how good you are, how well you pitched in the past, you're gonna have times where you go out there and you just aren't your best.

"The guys on the other side are good, too. You're gonna get beat. You're gonna give up runs from time to time. It just so happened to come in a three-start stretch where I gave up four, five and six runs. So it didn't look great. I wasn't happy with it.

"The results are what they are. But from my perspective, I want to continue to do what I have been doing in between starts and iron out some things. Find the rhythm, find the timing and transition that into the game."

Arrieta has been a daily topic of conversation on Chicago sports talk radio over the last few weeks between his struggles and lack of appearance in the All-Star Game despite he and the Cubs maintaining he was available if National League manager Terry Collins needed to call upon Arrieta.

[RELATED - How Kyle Hendricks has taken on the Jake Arrieta role for Cubs]

When asked if he might be overthinking his struggles, Arrieta immediately dismissed the notion.

"Well, the only time you hear anything is from the media. No offense to you guys," Arrieta said. "But yeah, would I have liked to be better in certain situations in certain games? Yes, of course. But, you know, still pitching pretty well."

Cubs manager Joe Maddon admited he didn't know what it meant to say the media was "making too much" out of Arrieta's recent struggles.

"You guys have been reporting on how he's pitching. That's just the way it is," Maddon said. "I don't know that too much has been made of it. I think from his perspective, he'd like to just get back to where he had been.

"I think that this rest will benefit him. You look at his numbers — they're still pretty darn good. His record's really good. I've been saying this for a little bit — I know there's another level of Jake to this season. We're looking for that to occur.

"But I don't know that too much has been made of it or not too much. It's just the way it is. It's just what's going on right now."

Maddon and Cubs are giving their ace some extra rest with the break thrown in, as Arrieta is lined up to pitch in the Cubs' fifth game of the second half — Tuesday night against the New York Mets.

His last time out against the Mets over the July 4 weekend, Arrieta lasted just 5.1 innings, giving up four runs on eight hits and a pair of walks.

He attributed some of that to bad luck, but there's no arguing Arrieta's results lately overall.

[SHOP: Buy a 'Try Not to Suck' shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

In his last three starts, the reigning NL Cy Young winner has given up 15 earned runs in 16.1 innings, allowing opposing batters to hit .304 with an .898 OPS during that span.

In seven starts since the beginning of June, Arrieta is just 3-4 with a 4.81 ERA and 1.47 WHIP.

He already has almost as many walks (43) as he did all of last season (48) in 114.2 fewer innings.

Of course, Arrieta is still 12-4 on the season with a sparkling 2.68 ERA.

"When I'm walking guys, it's overly frustrating because they have a hard time doing a lot of damage if I'm just putting the ball in the strike zone," explained Arrieta, who also said he felt crisp in his last outing before the break against the Pirates when he allowed six runs in six innings but walked only one batter.

"It's just trying to find the balance, being in the zone early, trying to expand late. But the two sides I've thrown — throwing yesterday and throwing a couple days ago — and the workout we had before we got back here, I really like where I'm at.

"Things have really started to kinda come around for me timing-wise and that's really the struggle for me recently, was finding that timing and I think I'm right where I need to be."

Arrieta said not picking up a baseball for four days was "exactly what I needed" and also proclaimed his most recent bullpen the best he's thrown all year.

"Just kinda mentally putting things down and coming back to it a few days later is sometimes the best medicine," he said. "And not that there's any reason to panic. Being able to have that down time and experiencing the All-Star week like I was able to with my friends and family was a great experience."

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

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USA TODAY

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.