Cubs

Not another no-hitter, but Cubs getting Jake Arrieta ready for bigger and better things

Not another no-hitter, but Cubs getting Jake Arrieta ready for bigger and better things

The no-hitter drama lasted about two minutes on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field. Milwaukee Brewers leadoff guy Jonathan Villar reached out and made contact with Jake Arrieta’s fifth pitch, knocking that 95-mph two-seam fastball into shallow left field for a soft broken-bat single. The Cubs wouldn’t have any Johnny Vander Meer flashbacks.  

Arrieta wanted to jam Villar inside but missed his spot with a pitch that tailed down and away – and he still shattered the bat into pieces. As veteran catcher David Ross had to remind reporters in the clubhouse after a 7-2 win: “He is human.”

And not some cyborg that had to be rewired and rebooted after that franchise-altering trade with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season. 

What a week for Arrieta after no-hitting the Cincinnati Reds. Speaking in full paragraphs at his locker for almost 15 minutes on Tuesday, he had already answered and dismissed the questions about performance-enhancing drugs and his metamorphosis into one of the game’s best pitchers.  

The clubhouse TVs turned to ESPN and MLB Network on mute showed the talking heads running with that chemistry debate for the next two days. To be honest, on some level it felt like Arrieta didn’t mind attention and getting it off his chest.   

Arrieta could be a repeat Cy Young Award winner, a Game 1 starter in the playoffs and the recipient of a seven-year megadeal worth somewhere north of $200 million. But so much can happen between now and the end of the 2017 season, which means the Cubs have to maximize this two-year window to win a World Series with Arrieta.

The front office and coaching staff obviously won’t root against a no-hitter, but that 16-0 victory at Great American Ball Park was exactly the kind of situation the Cubs outlined in spring training, how they didn’t need to ride Arrieta so hard and could keep him fresh for October after throwing almost 250 innings last year. 

Arrieta – who gave up one run, three hits and four walks across five innings – saw the end of his consecutive quality-starts streak (24) and scoreless-innings run at Wrigley Field (52.2). That was the longest stretch since Hall of Famer Bob Gibson’s 26 quality starts across the 1967-68 seasons. Ray Herbert – who put together 54 straight scoreless innings at home for the 1962-63 White Sox – still holds the modern-era record.  

This felt like a total mismatch, Arrieta (5-0, 1.00 ERA) vs. a rebuilding Milwaukee team (8-13) that is so much closer to the beginning of a five-year rebuilding plan than the end. So the Cubs pulled Arrieta for pinch-hitter Jorge Soler with a four-run lead and runners on the corners in the fifth inning, trying to play the long game. 

“Under the circumstances, I thought that was plenty for him,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I saw 92 pitches. I saw Jake Arrieta. I saw the Cubs trying to win a World Series. I saw the next five years of his career. I know his kids really well. All that stuff mattered much more than breaking Gibson’s record right there.”

“In this position last year, I might have been a little more frustrated with that decision,” Arrieta said. “It’s a spot where you take everything into consideration – the extra off-days, the rainout last night, cold weather, extended pitch counts, a long first inning – it is the right way to go.

“Obviously, our most important ballgames are still ahead of us. From this point moving forward, we’re still lined up pretty well.” 

Arrieta wasn’t perfect, but the Cubs have now won his last 18 regular-season starts. The PED references were Cubs fans booing admitted juicer Ryan Braun before each one of his at-bats, right up to the final out in the ninth inning of a game that lasted three hours and 45 minutes. 

The Brewers made Arrieta throw 31 pitches in the first inning, trying to disrupt his rhythm with three stolen bases before he struck out Chris Carter and Kirk Nieuwenhuis swinging. That’s what the Cubs expect at this point – their ace never looking nervous or rattled.

Arrieta got ready for the biggest start of his life – last year’s National League wild-card game – by trolling Pittsburgh Pirates fans on Twitter and telling them the blackout atmosphere at PNC Park “doesn’t matter.” It got real quiet during that complete-game shutout. 

Arrieta has become a fashion model, signing endorsement deals with SAXX underwear and the Mizzen+Main clothing line. He even says he finds the PED accusations to be “flattering.” 

“I haven’t seen him change a bit,” said Maddon, who last year compared Arrieta to a male Jane Fonda. “He really handles those particular moments when he’s confronted really well, because he’s very matter of fact. 

“He’s very self-confident. He knows who he is. So when he answers the questions, he can answer them in a genuine manner and feel really good about himself. 

“Wouldn’t we all like to be like that? It’s a pretty good way to live. And I think he’s got it down. He takes care of everything about himself. So I’m all about Jake. We all are. We support everything he does and says.”

Which sometimes means telling Arrieta what he doesn’t want to hear, because if the Cubs keep up this best-in-baseball pace (16-5), then Jake will become a legend in Chicago.  

“At the end of the day, I’m pretty realistic,” Arrieta said. “I understand that the guys on the other side are really good as well. Even on your best days, you’re going to give up runs. We’re going to make mistakes. That’s just part of this game. That’s why we get to play 162. That’s why we get 30 to 34 starts, because it all evens out in the end.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.