Cubs

How the Jake Arrieta trade came together and became a blockbuster deal for Cubs

How the Jake Arrieta trade came together and became a blockbuster deal for Cubs

Sure, the Cubs had done their background checks and recognized the raw potential, but they never thought they would have a Jake Arrieta Pilates Room in a state-of-the-art Wrigley Field clubhouse.

“Exactly,” general manager Jed Hoyer said with a laugh over the phone on Friday afternoon. “This incredible focus, incredible dedication, he’s a joy to be around. We had good reports, but he’s exceeded everything.”

The night before at Great American Ball Park, Arrieta had thrown the 15th no-hitter in franchise history, less than eight months after he had thrown the 14th no-hitter in franchise history.

But where that Dodger Stadium performance felt like Arrieta’s burst onto the national scene – complete with a mustache-covered onesie – Thursday’s 16-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds simply played like Jake Being Jake.

And while last August this felt like a young group that might wilt down the stretch or fold under pressure or whatever 1908-inspired cliché you want to use, the 2016 Cubs are a swaggering uber-team with a plus-60 run differential that suggests their best-in-baseball record should be 14-2 instead of 12-4. 

The stunning transformation doesn’t happen without Arrieta, making July 2, 2013 a pivotal date for the Theo Epstein administration. That’s when the Cubs packaged rental pitcher Scott Feldman and reserve catcher Steve Clevenger in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles for setup guy Pedro Strop, some bonus-pool money for international signings and a Triple-A Norfolk pitcher.

“We had scouted Jake extensively,” Hoyer said. “We had done a lot of makeup work on him. We did the same thing on Strop. At that time, we just needed to get power arms onto our team.

“Arrieta’s a perfect change-of-scenery guy. Strop had a really good year in 2012 during their playoff run – and he was scuffling – so it seemed like a good guy to take a chance on.

“But, yeah, when you make a deal like that, you’re hoping this guy becomes a regular contributor. Hopefully, he can hold down a rotation spot and really help us. You’re certainly not thinking a guy’s going to win 17 straight starts.

“What he’s done is obviously exceptional.”

The Cubs have a solid working relationship with Arrieta’s agent, Scott Boras, who also represents the left side of the infield for both of those no-hitters – shortstop Addison Russell and third baseman Kris Bryant.

The Cubs also relied on special assistant Kyle Evans, who had pitched in the Cleveland Indians farm system with Jeremy Guthrie, who played with Arrieta in Baltimore, vouched for his character and gave some insight into the situation with the Orioles. 

As much as the Cubs believed Arrieta would be a good person to bet on, Hoyer still admitted “that’s probably the area that we were the most off.”

“We loved his talent,” Hoyer said. “We knew we had to harness it. But with the makeup part, while we had very good reports, he’s actually been exceptional. That’s probably the area where we had no idea he was this great a competitor, this great a teammate, this dedicated to his craft.

“Some of those things have maybe improved since he’s been with us. But certainly we had no idea he was going to be this kind of person and player for the Cubs.”

The Cubs still have the strong pitching infrastructure that allowed them to rebuild Feldman’s value on a one-year, $6 million contract and sell high after 15 starts (7-6, 3.46 ERA). Beyond allowing Arrieta to simply be himself and forget about Baltimore’s cookie-cutter approach to mechanics, the game-planning system helped create a Cy Young Award winner.

Working with coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode, Arrieta is now 40-13 with a 2.17 ERA through 71 starts in a Cubs uniform…after putting up a 5.46 ERA in almost 360 innings for the Orioles.

“He just has more poise, maturity as a pitcher,” said second baseman Ben Zobrist, who faced Arrieta in the American League East while playing for Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays. “You could see back then that he had a lot of talent, but it was raw when I first saw him in Baltimore. You can see he’s much more of a polished product now.

“He’s got pretty good self-awareness on the mound of what he’s trying to do. Back then he struggled with throwing strikes. He struggled with controlling stuff.

“His stuff was always good. When he kept it in the zone, he was tough to hit. But he had a tough time keeping it in the zone. Now he’s throwing a lot more strikes and he knows himself better. He’s obviously figured it out.”

But the Cubs were in a position to allow Arrieta to figure it out, waiting for their competitive window to open while the Orioles were coming off a 93-win season in 2012 and would win 96 games in 2014. As much as the franchise’s financial restrictions influenced The Plan, the Cubs also benefitted from not going halfway in this rebuild. 

“We had been talking to Baltimore for a few weeks actually about that deal,” Hoyer said. “They needed starting pitching and they wanted to move. We had the advantage of being really one of the few teams that was willing to do it.

“There are always a lot of teams that are sellers, but a lot of times those sellers don’t want to wave that white flag that early in the summer.”

“We were,” Hoyer said with another laugh. “That was an advantage for us – that we didn’t have a lot of competition from other sellers at that moment in time.”

The Cubs could also “jump the market” because Buck Showalter – who has an outsized influence over player personnel for a modern manager – had known Feldman from their time together in the Texas Rangers organization and wanted immediate help for the Orioles rotation.

Leaving Baltimore would help turn Arrieta into arguably the best pitcher on the planet.

“He deserves it,” said Anthony Rizzo, the first baseman during both of Arrieta’s no-hitters. “He deserves everything he gets, because he works for it. He pushes me. He pushes other guys to work harder and get better and challenge ourselves.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”