Jake Arrieta and a Cubs playoff rotation look a little shaky as clinch party waits another day

Jake Arrieta and a Cubs playoff rotation look a little shaky as clinch party waits another day

ST. LOUIS – “Woof,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said when asked how comfortable he feels about this rotation heading into the playoffs compared to last year’s World Series group. “Let’s (see) Jonny Lester getting back to normalcy and that Jake (Arrieta) is well.”

Popping champagne bottles and toasting another National League Central title is still only a matter of time. But what are the Cubs going to do once they get there and have to game plan for an explosive Washington Nationals lineup and match zeroes in a five-game series where Max Scherzer can start twice?

Not trying to be a buzzkill here, but Arrieta didn’t erase all the doubts after Tuesday night’s 8-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, admitting that the right hamstring he strained on Labor Day is still not 100 percent and lingering as a potential glitch in his carefully wired mechanics.

“I’ve had to adjust a couple things in my delivery,” Arrieta said. “It’s still there a little bit. But I’m fine. I’m plenty healthy enough to go out there and compete and pitch at a high level. I just wasn’t able to do that tonight, unfortunately.”

Arrieta – whose transformation into a Cy Young Award winner really started the run of clinch parties in 2015 – couldn’t get it done this time. The magic number remained stuck at one with the Milwaukee Brewers closing out a 7-6 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Miller Park, where Arrieta looked sharp five days ago against a playoff contender in his first start in 18 days.  

Arrieta watched St. Louis leadoff guy/old college buddy Matt Carpenter launch his fifth pitch over the center-field wall. That first inning came unglued when Mike Freeman – a bench player starting at shortstop with Javier Baez resting his sore right knee and Addison Russell taking a scheduled day off – committed an error that led to two unearned runs.

As the Cardinals desperately try to stay alive for the second wild-card spot – now 2.5 games behind the Colorado Rockies with the Brewers still in front of them – Tommy Pham launched a 92-mph Arrieta pitch 426 feet into the second-deck, left-field seats in “Big Mac Land” for a two-run homer in the second inning.

Already capped by a conservative pitch count, Arrieta got pulled after 67 for a pinch-hitter in a bases-loaded situation in the fourth inning, a reality check before the Cubs can party in a visiting clubhouse covered in plastic.     

“I don’t have the drive that I do at 100 percent, but it’s still plenty enough to be effective,” Arrieta said. “The velocity’s really good tonight. Stuff’s not an issue.”

This comes at a time when Lester is searching for answers (4.79 ERA since the All-Star break) and trying to get into rhythm after spending two-plus weeks on the disabled list with left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue. Maddon also sees Kyle Hendricks “throwing the ball as good as I’ve seen him” and Jose Quintana thriving amid the pennant-race pressure.   

But the playoff rotation could revolve around Arrieta, the NL pitcher of the month for August and perhaps the best pitcher on the free-agent market this winter. Before Game 1 in Washington, the Cubs are planning to start Arrieta in Game 162 on Sunday against the Reds in what could be his final start at Wrigley Field.

“You’re just trying to get to October,” Arrieta said. “And then the guys that we have can pitch in big games in October. They have done that for a long time. Regardless of what the regular-season stats are, we’ve got three, four-plus guys that can go out there and pitch really well in October. I think we’ve shown that in the past.

“But, yeah, we still got to get there. We need one more win. And we’ll figure that out after that.”

Cubs reportedly interested in adding Yu Darvish to starting rotation


Cubs reportedly interested in adding Yu Darvish to starting rotation

The Cubs aren't expected to bring back Jake Arrieta. But what about adding the other top pitcher on the free-agent market?

According to a Saturday report from The Score's Bruce Levine, the Cubs are showing interest in Yu Darvish, who they recently saw in the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Darvish joined the Dodgers in the middle of last season after spending five and a half years as a Texas Ranger. He pitched Game 3 of the NLCS against the Cubs, holding that unusually cold lineup to just one run in 6.1 innings at Wrigley Field, helping the Dodgers reach the World Series. Darvish pitched twice in the Fall Classic against the Houston Astros, taking losses both times and twice failing to get out of the second inning against his old division rivals, including in the decisive Game 7.

The 31-year-old Darvish has been excellent since coming over from Japan ahead of the 2012 season. He's been named to four American League All-Star teams and finished in the top 10 in AL Cy Young voting in each of his first two seasons. He missed the entirety of the 2015 campaign with an injury.

Darvish has a 3.42 career ERA in his five big league seasons and three times has struck out more than 200 hitters in a season, including a baseball-leading 277 in 2013.

Along with Arrieta, Darvish is expected to fetch a huge payday this offseason. The Cubs' reported interest could show that they're not finished adding to their pitching staff despite signing four arms in recent weeks. Tyler Chatwood was a free-agent addition to the starting rotation, bringing the number of spoken-for spots there to four, with Chatwood joining Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana as rotation locks. Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek were added to the bullpen, while Drew Smyly — who's expected to miss the entirety of the 2018 campaign while recovering from Tommy John surgery — was signed with eyes on 2019.

After Mike Montgomery's desire to be a starter or go somewhere where he could be was reported during the Winter Meetings, there was a thought he could be the answer at the No. 5 spot on the starting staff. But this reported interest in Darvish — not to mention the team's previously reported connections to free-agent starter Alex Cobb — could mean the Cubs are still looking to add a big name to make the rotation more closely resemble what it looked like in recent seasons with Arrieta in the mix.

The Epstein's front office certainly has options, and the team has frequently voiced its confidence in Montgomery as a starter. But the team, for all its additions, has yet to make a splash this offseason. Stay tuned.

Jon Lester: The most important signing in Cubs history

Jon Lester: The most important signing in Cubs history

Jon Lester became the most important signing in Cubs history when he agreed to a six-year, $155 million contract to be the ace of the Cubs.

He spurned his old team — the Red Sox — along with a handful of other teams ready to pony up the nine-figure deal necessary to acquire the frontline starter. By choosing the Cubs, Lester accelerated Theo Epstein & Jed Hoyer's famous "Plan," legitimizing Chicago as a free agent destination and as an up-and-coming perennial playoff team.

"This signing really marks a transition of sorts for the Cubs, the start of a period where we are clearly very serious about bringing a World Series to the Cubs and the people of Chicago," Epstein said back on Dec. 15, 2014.

Inking Lester to a megadeal was a calculated risk, but all $100 million contracts are. Here's a closer look at the Cubs 100 million dollar men:

Nov. 30, 2006 - The Cubs introduce Alfonso Soriano

Back in 2007, the Cubs needed to make a splash and did so by signing the top free agent hitter on the market.

The Cubs inked Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year, $136 million dollar contract — then, the largest in franchise history. The Cubs had their leadoff hitter — fresh off becoming the fourth member of the 40-40 club — to go along with a new manager in Lou Piniella. Soriano made two All-Star teams for the Cubs in 2007 and 2008 while playing a key role on both division-title winning teams.

However, his time with the Cubs will often be remembered by his offensive decline, his subpar play in the outfield, and his eventual trade to the Yankees. While his overall body of work was statistically respectable, his output did not match the $136 million the Cubs invested in him.

Dec. 15, 2014 - The Cubs introduce Jon Lester

Like the signing of Soriano, the reeling in of Lester to Wrigley Field was paired with the hiring of another new big name manager, Joe Maddon.

Three years into his megadeal, Lester is 43-25 with a 3.33 ERA in 96 starts. The 2016 All-Star and Cy Young runner-up has done some of his best work in the postseason, where he's 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA in his last nine postseason appearances — three of which came in the 2016 World Series.

Lester's tireless work ethic off the field and his veteran influence in a young Cubs clubhouse has made this signing a smashing success. 
Dec. 15, 2015 - The Cubs introduce Jason Heyward

One year to the day after introducing Lester, Jason Heyward met with the Chicago media after signing an eight-year, $184 million contract — the richest in franchise history.

Heyward was coming off one of his best offensive seasons (.289, 13 HR, 60 RBI with the Cardinals) and his third Gold Glove in four seasons but the prized free agent struggled from the start in Chicago. Taking Heyward away from the Cardinals and signing baseball's top free agent prize ended up creating an outfield log jam in Chicago.

Heyward's speech during the rain delay in Game 7 against the Indians will most likely end up being the highlight of his Cubs career. The post-World Series championship offseason storyline of Heyward rectifying his broken swing was entertaining to follow on social media, but his 2017 slash line of .259/.326/.389 is clearly not worth the $184 million he signed for.

The future is now

"I believe in the plan that they have in place for the future of the Cubs."

That's what Lester said back on Dec. 15, 2014.

That statement still holds true today. Lester remains the anchor of the Cubs staff surrounded by Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana with reinforcements on the way. Regardless of any additions or subtractions, the Cubs will again be one of baseball's World Series favorites entering 2018 and the reliable lefty will be at the center of it all.

Halfway home, the $155 million deal has been "smart money" spent on Lester, the most important signing in Cubs franchise history.