Cubs

Why Cubs believe Jake Arrieta will be unstoppable in October

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Why Cubs believe Jake Arrieta will be unstoppable in October

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs believe Jake Arrieta will be unstoppable in October.

Anything can happen in a one-game playoff, as the Pittsburgh Pirates found out last year, when Madison Bumgarner threw a complete-game shutout at PNC Park, jumpstarting the San Francisco Giants on the way to their third championship in five seasons.

The World Series MVP threw 52.2 playoff innings on top of the 218.1 innings he accounted for during the regular season, lifting the Giants into a dynasty level.

Arrieta (22-6, 1.77 ERA) is in that kind of zone now, and the Cubs can’t picture “Snake” getting nervous or losing focus or hitting a wall after 229 innings – during and beyond Wednesday night’s wild-card game against the Pirates.

“I don’t know if we’re ever going to see another performance like what Bumgarner did – ever,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “That was phenomenal, basically taking the team, putting them on his back and getting every ounce of energy out of him.

[RELATED: Behind Arrieta, the Cubs are ready for October]

“We’ve managed (Arrieta’s) pitch counts on his bullpens. We’ve managed his pitches in his games. We’re very, very aware of all that. We’re talking about a different animal here.”

There’s no doubt Arrieta’s peaking at the right time after closing out his regular season with Friday’s 6-1 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. He has made 20 consecutive quality starts – including that no-hitter at Dodger Stadium on national television – and his 0.75 ERA after the All-Star break is the lowest in major-league history.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Arrieta became the fifth pitcher to notch at least 22 wins – with no more than six losses and an ERA below 2.00 – since the earned run became an official stat in 1913. The others were unanimous Cy Young Award winners during those seasons: Sandy Koufax (1963), Denny McLain (1968), Ron Guidry (1978) and Dwight Gooden (1985).

“The workouts this guy goes through,” Bosio said. “There’s not too many guys who could go in there and walk away without cramping up, (much less) doing it two, three times a week.

“It’s the stretching regimen, (nutrition), the conditioning part of it, the mental side of it and the preparation in video. But all that comes with command of his pitches. You could take any scouting report and throw it out the window if a guy can’t command his pitches.

“That’s what makes Jake so tough. He’s able to locate four pitches on both sides (of the plate on certain days). He even said it after the no-hitter – it was one of those games where he knew exactly where the ball was going. He’s got electric stuff.”

Joe Maddon had David Price when the star lefty won a Cy Young Award with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012, but the Cubs manager still hasn’t seen anything like Arrieta’s sustained brilliance.

[NBC SHOP: Buy a Jake Arrieta jersey]

“I’ve never seen a year like it,” said Bosio, who played four seasons with Randy Johnson on the Seattle Mariners, including a Cy Young year in 1995.

Like Matt Harvey, Arrieta is a Scott Boras client, but there will be nothing like the innings-limit controversy surrounding the New York Mets. Unlike Harvey, Arrieta is 29 years old, didn’t have Tommy John surgery after the 2013 season and hasn’t shown any warning signs.

“I’ve not seen anything slide backward at all,” Maddon said, “whether it’s command, whether it’s velocity, whether it’s break on the breaking pitches. Furthermore, he’s cooperated so well regarding how to get to this point – only seven (innings) last time, only six this time. There were not a lot of stressful moments.

“The repetition of delivery is there. The stuff is the same as it was two months ago. So for all those reasons, I think he can continue this. It’s really incredible to watch.”

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.