Cubs

This Jake Arrieta means another big finish for Cubs

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USA TODAY

This Jake Arrieta means another big finish for Cubs

Alex Avila worked with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer during Cy Young Award seasons with the Detroit Tigers – and caught Chris Sale and Jose Quintana last year on the South Side – so he knows what an ace looks like.

Avila’s first impression of Jake Arrieta became the biggest takeaway from Wednesday night’s 3-0 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs saw flashes of their 2015 Cy Young Award winner and what that could mean this October. 

“A big horse,” Avila said. “He’s like those guys. When they’re out on the mound, you expect good outings. You expect consistency. You prepare for that. He was pretty much everything that I had heard, as far as the way the ball moves, the way he can use his sinker on both sides of the plate, the effectiveness of his breaking balls.”

The Good Jake/Bad Jake narrative has faded away during what’s becoming a strong Boras Corp. push (10-8, 3.86 ERA) toward free agency. Working with Avila for the first time, Arrieta allowed one hit through five innings against a tough Arizona lineup anchored by All-Stars Jake Lamb and Paul Goldschmidt and trade-deadline addition J.D. Martinez.

If not for shortstop Addison Russell’s throwing error in the sixth inning – and Lamb’s two-run chopper that went by first baseman Anthony Rizzo and up the right-field line in the next at-bat – Arrieta might have completely shut down the Diamondbacks (61-46).

Either way, Arrieta didn’t hesitate when asked if he could approximate the 2015 finish that turned him into the hottest pitcher on the planet and transformed the Cubs into playoff contenders.

“Yeah, it’s possible,” Arrieta said. “Yeah, I don’t see why not. I think it’s possible for all our guys to elevate themselves and pitch at a really high level, or compete on defense or at the plate at a level higher than they have currently.

“That’s just having a lot of confidence in the guys that we have. We expect to do some really special things again this season, and we shouldn’t think otherwise.”

Arrieta still didn’t outpitch Zack Godley, an under-the-radar prospect the Cubs traded away in the Miguel Montero deal during the 2014 winter meetings. The night after the offense exploded for 16 runs, the Cubs managed only three singles and two walks in six innings against Godley (5-4, 2.86 ERA), the kind of homegrown pitcher the Theo Epstein regime hasn’t developed yet.

If Montero could have kept his mouth shut last month – or at least softened his public criticism of Arrieta’s issues holding runners on base – the Cubs (57-49) wouldn’t have needed to acquire Avila in a package deal with lefty reliever Justin Wilson before the July 31 deadline.

But Arrieta and Avila met for about 30 minutes on Tuesday to review the game plan and go over Arizona’s hitters and spoke again briefly before Wednesday’s start. Arrieta tied a season-high by pitching seven innings and finished with eight strikeouts against two walks, allowing those two runs (one earned).

Arrieta said: “I told him: ‘Whatever you throw down, regardless of whether I think maybe something else is the better pitch, I’ll trust you.’ I don’t know if I shook him off more than two or three times all night.”

“To be honest with you, I thought it was going to be a little bit more of an adjustment,” Avila said, “as far as getting used to the way he throws and the movement on his pitches behind the plate. But I ended up feeling really comfortable.” 

Do the Cubs have a new Arrieta whisperer or another personal-catcher situation? It’s too soon to go there – the Cubs had questions about Avila's defense – but Arrieta isn’t getting questions about his velocity or his mechanics or the walk-year pressures.

“I heard Rizzo allude to the fact that it’s a different feeling in the clubhouse,” Arrieta said. “It’s something that’s palpable in the dugout, in the clubhouse, on the field. We’re in a really good spot. I think that we feed off each other. And that’s what championship teams do.”

The Brewers have emerged as a darkhorse in the race for top starting pitchers

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USA TODAY

The Brewers have emerged as a darkhorse in the race for top starting pitchers

The Milwaukee Brewers are making sure nobody forgets about them in the National League Central.

While the St. Louis Cardinals continue to make trades and the Cubs remain linked to the top starting pitchers on the market even after signing three pitchers, the Brewers have been rather quiet. All winter, the only noteworthy moves from Milwaukee came in the form of under-the-radar pitcher signings — starters Jhoulys Chacin and Yovani Gallardo plus reliever Boone Logan.

Beyond that, the Brewers have added a bunch of other low-leverage players — catcher Christian Bethancourt and relievers J.J. Hoover, Ernesto Frieri, Michael Brady and Erik Davis. (Nobody would blame you if you haven't heard of any of those players before.)

But maybe the Brewers have just been saving their cash for one of the big guys, with Ken Rosenthal confirming a report Sunday night Milwaukee is not only one of the teams in on Yu Darvish, but they've even made a formal offer:

The Brewers securing Darvish or one of the other top pitchers — Jake Arrieta or Alex Cobb — would be a huge development in their effort to keep pace with the Cubs and Cardinals in the division.

Milwaukee was a surprise contender in 2017 before they faded down the stretch. The main reason they hung around the top of the NL Central all year was a shockingly-effective pitching staff.

However, the Brewers have some serious pitching questions long-term that need to be addressed. Beyond Chase Anderson and Zach Davies in the rotation, there are no sure things. 

Jimmy Nelson underwent shoulder surgery last fall and it's currently unknown when he can be counted on again, though things are progressing ahead of schedule. Junior Guerra — the 33-year-old right-hander formerly of the White Sox — went 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA in 20 starts in 2016 but followed that up with some serious struggles in 2017 (5.12 ERA, 1.48 WHIP).

Chacin, 30, was good in 2017 (13-10, 3.89 ERA, 1.27 WHIP), but struggled with health and inconsistent performance in the five seasons prior. Gallardo, 31, has a 5.57 ERA and 1.55 WHIP over the last two seasons. 

All that adds up to a staff that doesn't inspire much confidence behind a high-powered offense led by Ryan Braun, Travis Shaw, Domingo Santana, Eric Thames plus up-and-comers Lewis Brinson and Orlando Arcia.

Adding Arrieta or Darvish would certainly go quite far in improving the Brewers' biggest weakness and even Cobb could be a serious game-changer in Milwaukee.

As an interesting footnote to the whole Darvish rumor, the minute after Rosenthal confirmed the report, the Brewers official Twitter account took a shot at the Cubs:

Cubs Twitter — never one to back down from a good-natured social media spat — responded Monday morning with a sick comeback:

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

When the 2017 season ended, Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber looked in the mirror and didn't like what he saw.

He was stocky, slower than he wanted to be and he had just finished a very difficult season that saw him spend time back in the minor leagues at Triple-A after he struggled mightily through the first three months of the season.

Schwarber still put up solid power numbers despite his overall struggles. He slammed 30 home runs, putting him among the Top 15 hitters in the National League and among the Top 35 in all of baseball. But, Schwarber was honest with himself. He knew he could achieve so much more if he was in better shape and improved his mobility, his overall approach at the plate and his defense.

Schwarber was drafted by the Cubs out of Indiana University as a catcher. However, many scouts around baseball had serious doubts about his ability to catch at the big league level. The Cubs were in love with Schwarber the person and Schwarber the overall hitter and felt they would give him a chance to prove he could catch for them. If he couldn't, then they believed he could play left field adequately enough to keep his powerful bat in the lineup.

However, a serious knee injury early in the 2016 season knocked Schwarber out of action for six months and his return to the Cubs in time to assist in their World Series run raised expectations for a tremendous 2017 season. In fact, the expectations for Schwarber were wildly unrealistic when the team broke camp last spring. Manager Joe Maddon had Schwarber in the everyday lineup batting leadoff and playing left field.

But Schwarber's offseason after the World Series consisted of more rehab on his still-healing injured left knee. That kept him from working on his outfield play, his approach at the plate and his overall baseball training. 

Add in all of the opportunities and commitments that come with winning a World Series and it doesn't take much detective work to understand why Schwarber struggled so much when the 2017 season began. This offseason, though, has been radically different. A season-ending meeting with Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer led to a decision to take weight off of Schwarber's frame. It also included a decision to change his training program so that he improved his quickness, lateral movement and his overall baseball skills.

"I took two weeks off after the season ended and then I went to work," Schwarber said. "We put a plan together to take weight off and to improve my quickness. I have my meals delivered and I feel great. My baseball work combined with a lot of strength and conditioning has me in the best shape that I have ever been in."

Schwarber disagrees with the pundits who felt manager Maddon's decision to put him in the leadoff spot in the Cubs' loaded lineup contributed to his struggles.

"I have no problem hitting wherever Joe wants to put me," Schwarber said. "I didn't feel any more pressure because I was batting leadoff. I just needed to get back to training for a baseball season as opposed to rehabbing from my knee injury. I'm probably 20-25 pounds lighter and I'm ready to get back to Arizona with the boys and to get ready for the season."

Many around the game were shocked when the Cubs drafted Schwarber with the No. 4 overall selection in the 2014 MLB Draft, but a rival executive who was not surprised by the pick believes that Schwarber can indeed return to the form that made him such a feared hitter during his rookie season as well as his excellent postseason resume.

"Everyone who doubted this kid may end up way off on their evaluation because he is a great hitter and now that he is almost two years removed from his knee injury," the executive said. "He knows what playing at the major-league level is all about I expect him to be a real force in the Cubs lineup.

"Theo and Jed do not want to trade this kid and they are going to give him every opportunity to succeed. I think he has a chance to be as good a hitter as they have in their order."

Watch the full 1-on-1 interview with Kyle Schwarber Sunday night on NBC Sports Chicago.