Cubs starting to look lost when Jake Arrieta is off his game

Cubs starting to look lost when Jake Arrieta is off his game

PITTSBURGH – If Jake Arrieta’s legendary wild-card performance seems like a long time ago, silencing the Pittsburgh Pirates and the blackout frenzy here last October, well, that’s an eternity in a game built around daily rhythms.

The same goes for the 25-6 start to this season that had Cubs fans, the Chicago media and national outlets feeling so giddy, at least until this blah 27-27 stretch slowly made people realize this team wouldn’t be crowned before the All-Star break.

That set the scene for Friday night at picturesque PNC Park, where Arrieta walked off the mound stone-faced and got booed by a black-and-gold crowd (35,904) that didn’t forget his cocky attitude leading up to that National League one-game playoff. Which is exactly what the Cubs needed then – and might be missing now.

Arrieta couldn’t protect a one-run lead or get a single out in the seventh inning, leaving a 4-4 game in the hands of a shaky bullpen with two runners on. Travis Wood got a groundball, but Anthony Rizzo threw it away when the lefty reliever ran to cover first base, allowing Josh Bell to score the go-ahead run from second.

It unraveled from there in an 8-4 loss, the Cubs looking a little dazed without Arrieta as their stopper, now having lost four games in a row, eight of their last nine and 14 of their last 19. It tested Arrieta’s remarkable patience with the media, turning from insightful to sarcastic when asked where his frustration level is at now.

“I don’t know where low-A is, but maybe I can go there and work on some stuff,” Arrieta said. “I’m good. It’s not ideal. But I like what I do in between starts. And the stuff’s fine. Just got to be better.”

The 2016 team is banking on the idea Arrieta will be turn-out-the-lights dominant. Otherwise, the foundation begins to crack and take on more stress. Since the beginning of June, their ace has a 4.81 ERA and has thrown more than six innings just once, the Cubs winning only three of those seven starts.

[MORE: Why Cubs believe Contreras and Lester can work together]

Arrieta isn’t deceiving and freezing hitters the same way and doesn’t appear to be in the Pirates’ heads anymore, either, after coming into the game with a career 1.46 ERA against Pittsburgh and only three homers allowed through 80 innings.

This time Arrieta gave up two rockets in the second inning – David Freese drove a pitch onto the right-field deck while Sean Rodriguez hammered another one into the left-field seats – and put the Cubs in a 3-0 hole.

“The best way to describe it is just command,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Last year, we saw him just nailing edges all the time – breaking-ball strike, breaking ball underneath lefties whenever he wanted to.

“This year, he just doesn’t have that same command. The break on the slider/cutter/whatever you want to call it has been more inconsistent. The velocity is close to normal, I think, but it’s just a matter of dotting it up like he did last year.

“It’s not really falling off the cliff regarding stuff. More than anything, it’s about commanding his fastball.”

The Pirates have now won two of their 10 games against the Cubs so far – while going 43-34 versus the rest of the schedule – to edge past the St. Louis Cardinals into second place and cut their division deficit to 7.5 games.

Arrieta at least felt and looked sharper, notching six strikeouts and retiring 10 of 12 before giving up his first and only walk to pinch-hitter Adam Frazier leading off the pivotal seventh inning.

“I got punched in the mouth early,” Arrieta said. “I probably pitched to contact a little too much in certain situations. I just need to find that happy medium of getting ahead, being better on the corners in situations and not letting breaking balls catch too much of the plate.”

Arrieta didn’t quite bring his usual postgame bravado, finding the silver linings on a night where he allowed nine hits and got charged with six earned runs.

“There’s some positives in there,” Arrieta said. “My takeaway is not putting the nail in the coffin when I had the opportunity to do so, and maybe even pitch the eighth. I just let that one get away.”

[MORE: Cubs sign top pick Thomas Hatch out of Oklahoma State]

Arrieta is still 12-4 with a 2.68 ERA, earning his first All-Star selection and deserving that trip to San Diego after all the hard work and perseverance he needed to reach this point.

But Arrieta isn’t back in the zone yet, and let’s be honest: He may never again reach that level of mind/body consciousness he found during the second half of last year’s Cy Young Award campaign. Because those were Cooperstown, all-time numbers, and this game is exponentially more difficult than Arrieta and the Cubs once made it seem.

“I can’t sit here and tell you exactly how that’s going to happen,” Maddon said. “I don’t know exactly what it’s going to take to get him back to close to that performance, because it’s really hard to duplicate what he did last year. But overall, the work’s in there. The dedication’s in there. It’s just not coming out. Good health is still there, so that’s a positive.

“But I’d just be fabricating a reason. I don’t know. It’s just something we have to continually work on regarding the command and feeling good about where he’s throwing his pitches. I don’t have a solid answer.”'s Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

USA TODAY'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, 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

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'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 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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy


Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.