Cubs

‘Throwback’ Jake Arrieta, Cubs continue to assert dominance over Pirates

‘Throwback’ Jake Arrieta, Cubs continue to assert dominance over Pirates

For the nostalgic crowd, Jake Arrieta’s bizarre sixth inning was described by manager Joe Maddon as a throwback to the days of Sudden Sam McDowell, the longtime Cleveland Indians flamethrower who routinely led the league in strikeouts and walks. But for the bigger picture of the National League Central, it was another instance of the Cubs — who won, 6-0, in front of 41,547 at Wrigley Field Friday afternoon — asserting their dominance over a Pittsburgh Pirates team that’s made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. 

Arrieta, who cruised through his first five innings, walked the bases loaded with one out in the sixth in a strange spate of wildness. He then fell behind David Freese 3-0, and it looked like the fuse was lit for an explosive Pirates inning. Instead, Arrieta fought back to strike out the Pittsburgh third baseman for the second out. 

Wrigley Field erupted in cheers, but Matt Joyce — the Pirates left fielder with a hulking 1.040 OPS — was still in the way. Arrieta pitched himself into a 3-1 count, but came back with a strike to produce a full count, then zipped a sinker over the inner third for strike three. 

“It was a throwback moment,” Maddon said. “… Jake made the pitches he had to. Pure and simple. That’s the game-changer.”

That five-batter stretch was the narrow story from the Cubs’ win Friday, but the wider view shows a Cubs team consistently beating a Pittsburgh side that’s lost 15 of its last 20 games and seven of its last eight. The Cubs are 6-1 against the Pirates in 2016. 

The sixth inning was the Pirates’ chance to break things open for a team that hasn’t scored more than four runs in over a week and last had what could be considered an offensive outburst June 4. But even with Arrieta pushing himself to the brink of destruction, the Pirates couldn’t flip the switch against a guy who’s dominated them ever since coming to Chicago in July of 2013. 

“Nothing like a little self-inflicted drama to get the fans going,” Arrieta said. “Really just lost feel there. But those are things that can happen. … Just a temporary lapse in staying aggressive and keeping things on the same track as they were most of the game.”

After the game, left fielder Matt Szczur — who ripped a two-run home run in the first inning that buoyed things early on — mentioned Arrieta’s success pitching with the bases loaded as a reason as to why he wasn’t too worried when the ace right-hander loaded the bases on walks. But even the mention of it doesn’t do the numbers justice: Since 2014, opposing batters have one hit in 27 plate appearances against Arrieta with the bases loaded. 

Another reason for comfort could’ve been Arrieta’s success against the Pirates during his ascendence from struggling pitching prospect to becoming the 2015 NL Cy Young winner. Arrieta has now started nine games against the Pirates — including the Wild Card game last year — since 2014 and the most earned runs he’s allowed in any of those starts has been two (in that game, coming May 14 of this year, he also struck out 11). 

When Arrieta loaded the bases, the Cubs only had a two-run lead, but a deluge of Pirates mistakes after that frame saw four more runs add to the total. Joyce nonchalantly threw to third base on Albert Almora’s sixth-inning RBI double, which ultimately led to Addison Russell drawing an impressive 13-pitch bases-loaded walk. Right fielder Gregory Polanco curled away from a fly ball center fielder Andrew McCutchen lost in the sun in the seventh, which precipitated another Cubs run. 

There’s still plenty of games left to be played over the course of the summer, but in dispatching the Pirates — who fell below .500 — Friday, the Cubs are now 13 games better than their Pennsylvania-based NL Central opponent. The caveat is that it’s early, but what Arrieta did in the sixth inning was another signal that the Cubs have the Pirates’ number this season.

“Obviously you take a look at it sometimes but there’s still a long way to go, so you can’t really start focusing on that right now,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “You gotta keep winning as many games (as you can) right now.”

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.