Cubs

Jake Arrieta gives Cubs an edge and a winning attitude

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Jake Arrieta gives Cubs an edge and a winning attitude

Jake Arrieta’s evolution into one of the game’s most dominant pitchers accelerated the rebuilding plan at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs don’t want to think about where they would be without Arrieta, who spent parts of four years on the Triple-A level before getting traded from the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season in the Scott Feldman flip deal.

That explains why manager Joe Maddon wanted to be cautious during Thursday’s 7-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves – and why Arrieta sounded a little annoyed afterward in the interview room/dungeon.

“I don’t like to harp on quality starts,” Arrieta said. “I wasn’t really thrilled with six innings. I would have liked to get a little deeper.”

Arrieta can be on a different wavelength sometimes, but that makes him so interesting to talk with and fun to watch. The Cubs needed someone to stop a three-game losing streak and restore order after the Detroit Tigers dropped 25 runs on them the previous two nights at Clark and Addison.

[MORE: Will the Cubs have enough pitching down the stretch?]

The Cubs are scoreboard-watching now: The Pittsburgh Pirates opened their four-game series against the defending World Series champs with a 4-0 victory over the San Francisco Giants on Thursday at PNC Park. That left the Cubs four games behind the Pirates for the first wild-card spot and still in a playoff position, four games ahead of the Giants.

With the Cubs trailing the St. Louis Cardinals by 8.5 games in the division, fans, media personalities and basically anyone with a Twitter account can debate whether or not Arrieta should start a one-game playoff over Jon Lester.

“Everybody wants to pitch in the postseason,” Arrieta said. “At this point in time, we don’t intend to be a wild card. We still think we can win our division.

“We’re still in a position here where we can jump some guys if we can get hot and have some good fortune with the teams ahead of us.”

Arrieta earned his 15th win by getting 18 outs – seven strikeouts, zero flyballs and groundball after groundball – while allowing only four singles and one walk to lower his ERA to 2.30.

A seven-run lead allowed Maddon to shut down Arrieta after six scoreless innings. Arrieta had already passed his career-high in innings and is now at 168 with six weeks left in the season.

“I don’t think anybody really thinks it’s an issue,” Arrieta said. “I definitely don’t.”

Arrieta didn’t make the All-Star team – and doesn’t have that huge national name recognition yet – but at this point he should be in consideration for the National League’s Cy Young Award.

“Absolutely,” Maddon said. “There’s no question he is. We watched it all year. He’s been really, really consistent with high-end stuff. It’s not like a coincidence that he’s pitched this well.

“There’s so much positive going with him right now he’s got to be in consideration for all those things. He’s among the elite pitchers in the National League, probably in (all of) baseball. And beyond that, when it comes to awards at the end of the year, he has to be considered strongly.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Arrieta has now made 12 consecutive quality starts. The last Cubs pitcher to go on a longer run than that was future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, who put together 14 quality starts in a row in 1992, the first of his four straight Cy Young seasons (and only one in Chicago before jumping to Atlanta).

Just like Maddux, Arrieta is a Scott Boras client, positioned to become a free agent after the 2017 season and able to think his best years are still in front of him.

“Jake’s in a good rhythm right now,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “He’s got a little arrogance going on about him.”

That’s the attitude the Cubs are trying to create now – with Arrieta front and center.

“There’s no doubt that he’s a competitor,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “You can see the fire when he’s pitching.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: