Cubs

How Pedro Strop guaranteed Cubs would win the Jake Arrieta trade with or without a Cy Young Award

How Pedro Strop guaranteed Cubs would win the Jake Arrieta trade with or without a Cy Young Award

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.  

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

2-21_jim_hickey_usat.jpg
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.”