Cubs

Ten takeaways from another Jake Arrieta no-hitter and an unforgettable night for Cubs

Ten takeaways from another Jake Arrieta no-hitter and an unforgettable night for Cubs

“I am locked in like that,” Jake Arrieta said one day in spring training, cutting off a reporter who asked if the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner ever wondered about not getting back to the unconscious level that made him the hottest pitcher on the planet and in the history of baseball.

Next question.

Arrieta keeps answering with dominant, must-see performances. This is an elite athlete who seems to be in complete control, understanding how his 6-foot-4, 225-pound body works and achieving a Zen-like state of mind on the mound.

You’re not at all surprised by now, watching Arrieta throw his second no-hitter during Thursday’s 16-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park. Here are 10 takeaways from another unforgettable night:

• Remember the onesie: Showing up in pajamas for his postgame news conference at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 30 last year summed up Arrieta’s self-assured, team-first attitude, showing a national audience how Joe Maddon’s crew would roll onto an overnight flight back to Chicago and into the playoffs.

“It felt sloppy,” Arrieta told Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies on the Comcast Sportsnet Chicago broadcast. “My pregame ‘pen was as sloppy as it was in L.A. before that no-hitter, so I don’t put a lot into it. I came out just trying to mix. I was a little off with my command. But I was able to keep them off-balance, and later in the game pound the strike zone with some good movement.”

From the official Twitter account of the Los Angeles Dodgers: “Hey @Reds, Arrieta no-hitter support group meets on Mondays.”

• Unbeatable? Arrieta has now put together 24 consecutive regular-season quality starts, going 20-1 with a 0.86 ERA during an unbelievable run that stretches back to June 21 last year. His only loss came when Cole Hamels threw a no-hitter at Wrigley Field, six days before getting traded from the Philadelphia Phillies to the Texas Rangers at the July 31 deadline.

[MORE: Twitter reacts to Jake Arrieta's no-hitter]

• The End: Hamels no-hit the Cubs for the first time since a Sandy Koufax perfect game in 1965, snapping the team’s streak of 7,920 games with at least one hit, which was the longest streak in modern major-league history. That bumped up the Reds, who had the longest active regular-season streak at 7,109 games, though Roy Halladay did throw a no-hitter against them during the 2010 playoffs in Philadelphia.

• Feldman! The Cubs honestly didn’t know what they were going to get when they flipped pitcher Scott Feldman and reserve catcher Steve Clevenger to the Baltimore Orioles on July 2, 2013.

The Cubs had good scouting reports on Arrieta’s raw stuff and strong work ethic, but reliever Pedro Strop looked like an easier mechanical fix and the deal also included some international-bonus slot money.

Until Arrieta came along, the last two no-hitters thrown by the Cubs were: Carlos Zambrano in 2008 vs. the Houston Astros in a game moved to Miller Park because of Hurricane Ike; and Milt Pappas – who died this week at the age of 76 – against the San Diego Padres at Wrigley Field in 1972.

• This isn’t a Big Red Machine: That’s not taking anything away from Arrieta, just pointing out that as the Reds and Milwaukee Brewers follow that same rebuilding/tanking blueprint, the Cubs still have 34 games left against those division opponents.

Meaning Arrieta could have a chance to make history again, especially with an improved defensive alignment – young shortstop Addison Russell, All-Star second baseman Ben Zobrist, Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward – playing behind him.

[WATCH: The Cubs' celebration following Jake Arrieta's final out]

• Don’t make plans for the All-Star break: Arrieta’s Cy Young encore so far – 4-0, 0.87 ERA, 26 strikeouts against six walks through 31 innings – makes him a leading candidate to start the showcase event on July 12 at Petco Park in San Diego.

• Silver Slugger: Arrieta’s athleticism and competitiveness means he’ll want that award, too, after San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner won it last year. After going 2-for-4 with a walk against the Reds, Arrieta now has an .879 OPS this season (to go along with the defensive skills that made him a Gold Glove finalist last year).

• Beat it, Javy: Arrieta has his quirks – that drives him through a fanatical workout routine and makes him such a great interview and it probably bothered some Orioles earlier in his career – but he doesn’t really come across as superstitious.

“I was cutting up with some of the guys about my at-bats, keeping it loose, having a good time,” Arrieta said. “I think that’s the smart way to approach it without getting too far away from what your goal is and what the objective is on the mound when you get back out there.

“Business as usual, other than ‘Javy’ (Javier Baez) was in my spot before the eighth inning, so I kind of gave him a little hell for that, told him to never do that again.”

• Grandpa Rossy can play: What a retirement gift for David Ross during his farewell tour, going 2-for-4 with a homer, a walk and three runs scored and catching his first no-hitter in a big-league career that began 14 years ago.

“That’s probably what makes it most special for me – giving him that in his last season,” Arrieta said. “That’s special. We’re hugging there at the end and he just kept telling me: ‘Thank you, thank you!’ It’s just a great way for him to go out, another box he can check now.”

• Scott Boras doesn’t do hometown discounts: Look at the other pitchers positioned to become free agents after the 2017 season – Tyson Ross, Alex Cobb and Michael Pineda could form the second tier of arms – and you can understand why the super-agent expects his client to hit the open market.

“Every Cy Young Award winner I know got a seven-year contract,” Boras said before Arrieta shut down the Los Angeles Angels on Opening Night.

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

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.