The Cubs would have scored the Jake Arrieta trade as a major victory even if Jake Arrieta never threw a pitch in a Cubs uniform and kept bouncing to the next Triple-A affiliate, teasing a different organization with his potential. Pedro Strop has been that good.
Arrieta eclipsed Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw in last year’s National League Cy Young Award voting, overshadows the $155 million lefty (Jon Lester) in his own rotation and now appears to be setting the over/under for his free-agent megadeal at $200 million and six or seven years.
The Cubs saw Arrieta as an obvious change-of-scenery candidate when they made the Scott Feldman deal with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season, hoping he could eventually develop into a reliable starter.
No one pictured the Cubs winning Arrieta’s last 21 starts or going 23-1 with a 0.98 ERA in his last 28 starts since June 21 of last year, an unconscious run that’s turned him into a crossover star with endorsement deals. To be honest, the Cubs probably pictured Strop as having the higher floor, if not the top-of-the-rotation ceiling they wished for Arrieta.
Strop was hearing the boos at Camden Yards and no longer trusted in high-leverage situations (7.25 ERA in 29 appearances). But he had been a vital contributor out of Buck Showalter’s bullpen in 2012 (2.44 ERA in 70 appearances), helping transform the Orioles into a 93-win team with only a plus-7 run differential.
The story of Arrieta and Strop begins to explain why the Cubs (27-9) will take the best record in baseball into a nine-games-in-nine-days road trip that begins Tuesday night against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. It’s all about shrewd dealmaking, new opportunities, pragmatic coaching, good chemistry and a degree of luck in building arguably the sport’s deepest, most talented roster.
Arrieta has limited his public comments on the Orioles, letting others fill in the blanks about what happened in Baltimore. But Strop didn’t point any fingers at what had been Baltimore’s one-size-fits-all approach to pitchers.
“When you’re struggling, they always want to experiment with something new to get better,” Strop said. “That’s the problem when you get into like 10 different thoughts (in your head). That’s going to get you a little off (your game). You don’t know what to do.
“That’s going to be everywhere you go. You got to know which one works for you – and you got to know what type of pitcher you are – and get the most out of it.
“I was getting too much information all the time. And everything was spinning off of me, because I wasn’t doing (the job). And then, all of a sudden, it kind of clicked: ‘OK, this is what I need to get better.’
“Jake was in the same situation. We were struggling. We were trying different stuff, trying different ways to (improve) because we both have good stuff. It’s a little frustrating for coaches to see somebody with (all) that good stuff struggling that badly. That’s going to be wherever you go.”
Beyond clearing the mind and not worrying about all those voices, pitching coach Chris Bosio also made a simple suggestion, telling Strop to move over to the first-base side of the rubber, so his sinker would show more in the strike zone and then tail sharply away from right-handed hitters, inducing more swings and groundballs, instead of starting in and falling behind in the count.
Strop has already made almost 200 appearances in a Cubs uniform and – like Arrieta – won’t become a free agent until after the 2017 season. Strop has put up a 2.72 ERA with 71 holds and 214 strikeouts in nearly 179 innings, stabilizing what’s become a dominant bullpen for mad-scientist manager Joe Maddon.
“He’s been an amazingly consistent eighth-inning guy for us,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Also overlooked is that Pedro is a significant influence in our clubhouse as well. He’s an awesome guy, great teammate, one of the most popular guys in the clubhouse. Just one of the most positive guys you’ll ever be around.”
That’s what made it sound even more bizarre when Bob Costas blasted the hard-throwing reliever during an MLB Network broadcast last summer, narrating the Busch Stadium scene against the St. Louis Cardinals like this: “Strop is on his way out, pointing toward the heavens. We can only ask – or wonder – that he is asking some departed relative for forgiveness for this atrocious performance.”
Costas, the marquee personality for NBC Sports, called a Cubs media-relations official to set up an in-person apology, staking out the lobby in the team’s hotel for an awkward face-to-face meeting Strop handled with class.
“I really believe in the positive vibe,” Strop said. “If you come in every time down, mad, sad, whatever, that negative energy is going to connect to the other teammates.
“Every time I come to the field, I separate everything and (stay) the same guy every day, smiling, trying to help whoever needs help. Just try to be the same every single day – no matter what.
“That’s really (important) for a team that’s trying to win a World Series – every time, bringing a positive energy to the clubhouse. I really believe in that. That’s me. I love it.”
Even setting aside Arrieta morphing into an intimidating Bob Gibson-level ace, the Cubs got a great return on Feldman, packaging his next 15 starts with reserve catcher Steve Clevenger and also getting two international signing bonus slots.
The Cubs and Feldman even expressed mutual interest in a return after the 2013 season – at least until the Houston Astros blew them away with a three-year, $30 million offer he couldn’t refuse.
Without Arrieta and Strop, the Orioles still came back to win 96 games in 2014 and jump out to a first-place tie in the American League East this year, in part because they flipped Clevenger to the Seattle Mariners over the winter in a deal for power hitter Mark Trumbo (11 homers, .955 OPS).
The Jake Arrieta Pilates Room is something the Cubs couldn’t have included in their Wrigley Field blueprints on July 2, 2013.
But when players walk back in from the tunnel and enter the state-of-the-art clubhouse, the last image they see on the right is the shot for last summer’s “Wrigleyville is Winnerville” Sports Illustrated cover, Kris Bryant approaching the mosh pit at home plate as Strop high-steps down the third-base line.