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Jake Arrieta Effect could help next generation of Cubs pitchers

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Jake Arrieta Effect could help next generation of Cubs pitchers

MESA, Ariz. — Whatever numbers the Ivy computer system spits out, the Cubs will still have to account for Jake Arrieta’s intangibles.

The Cubs don’t want to buy into a bubble after Arrieta’s only wire-to-wire season in the big leagues, especially without the safety net of the franchise’s next big TV contract already locked into place.

Arrieta wants to be treated like a Cy Young Award winner, and Scott Boras didn’t become the most powerful agent in the game by taking hometown discounts and signing team-friendly deals.

But both sides recognize this is a great business relationship — for at least two more seasons — with the Cubs allowing Arrieta to be himself and getting a No. 1 starter who accepts all face-of-the-franchise responsibilities.

When Pierce Johnson got optioned to Triple-A Iowa last week, Arrieta sent a message to the first pitcher drafted here by the Theo Epstein administration.

“I told him that he’s right where he needs to be,” Arrieta said. “I’ve seen his process. I play catch with him on our side days. His direction is incredibly different than it was last year. The rotation on his ball is true. His timing is good.

“And I told him that it’s going to translate. You just need to block out all the other BS in between the lines, rather than focusing on where my delivery is at this point or that point.”

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Arrieta speaks with authority after the Baltimore Orioles tried to fix his mechanics and the natural crossfire motion the Cubs encouraged after a game-changing trade in July 2013. He had spent part of that season — and 2012 and 2010 and 2009 — at the Triple-A level.

The Cubs hoped Johnson would be on a faster track in 2012 when they chose him out of Missouri State University with the 43rd overall pick (as compensation for losing free agent Aramis Ramirez). A forearm issue hurt his draft stock, and he’s dealt with a series of injuries during an underwhelming start to his professional career.

Johnson kept listening after a rough start in the Cactus League — seven runs, three homers and three walks allowed through four innings — and responded by putting up four scoreless innings against the Cleveland Indians on Saturday night at Goodyear Ballpark.

A National League scout said that’s the best he’s seen Johnson throw (though the right-hander is not viewed as a frontline prospect).

“When you’re in between the lines, you have to just execute,” Arrieta said. “That can be the only mindset. I told him to stay on track where he is now because he’s right there.

“In between the lines for him right now is the adjustment. It’s nothing on Day 1 through 4. It’s figuring out how to stay locked in once he’s out there on the game mound facing live hitters. He is close. He knows it.”

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This isn’t just about Johnson — who went 6-2 with a 2.08 ERA in 16 starts for Double-A Tennessee last season — for an imbalanced organization stacked with young hitters.

While Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber experienced unbelievable growth spurts and completely warped the perception of a normal timetable for player development, Epstein’s front office has so far used 80 draft picks on pitchers and hasn’t seen any of them throw in the big leagues yet.

“Not pressure,” Johnson said. “I’m excited to get up there and play with those guys again, because I played with all those guys in the minor leagues. Just seeing those guys have success up there — it gives me hope, too. But I’d definitely say I’m a little jealous that they’re up there already.”

While managing the Tampa Bay Rays, Joe Maddon saw up close what James Shields did for the entire pitching staff, pushing his teammates to get better and be on the top step of the dugout paying attention and giving high-fives.

Shields passed that along to David Price, who handed it down to Chris Archer. Arrieta could become that type of presence for the Cubs.

“There’s a lot of guys that talk about doing stuff like that but never really do (it),” Maddon said. “The fact that he’s actually taking the time to do that — because that takes away from his overall day — that’s the kind of stuff that matters.

“Hopefully, that’s what will make us really good for years to come — the fact that we’ve got a bunch of guys like that who are willing to share.”

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Of course, if Arrieta can somehow influence a next generation of pitchers at Wrigley Field, then maybe that $200 million would be better spent somewhere else.

“What a good guy, on and off the field,” Johnson said. “Every day he came up to talk to me. After outings, we would kind of diagnose everything, what went wrong, what went right, how to make adjustments and what to do.

“The way he goes about his business and everything is phenomenal. So if I can translate that to my game, hopefully it can take off like his.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”