Cubs

How Scott Boras sees Jake Arrieta's free agency and legacy with Cubs

1107_scott_boras.jpg
USA TODAY

How Scott Boras sees Jake Arrieta's free agency and legacy with Cubs

The Cubs essentially had Jake Arrieta’s countdown to free agency in mind from the moment they made that franchise-altering trade with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season, allowing him to hit the reset button in the minors while also guaranteeing an extra year of club control.

The Cubs stashed Arrieta at Triple-A Iowa for parts of July and August, a time when their big-league rotation featured Carlos Villanueva and Chris Rusin, Travis Wood had been their only All-Star representative and Edwin Jackson led the majors with 18 losses in the first season of a four-year, $52 million contract.

But no one inside Theo Epstein’s front office would have predicted Arrieta —  an enigmatic talent with a 5.46 career ERA in 358 innings for the Orioles —  blossoming to the point where he would become the top pitcher on the open market this winter and command a nine-figure contract.

Maybe the Los Angeles Dodgers feel a sense of urgency after watching Yu Darvish pitch 3.1 innings combined in his two World Series losses and see Arrieta as the missing piece to their first title since 1988. Perhaps super-agent Scott Boras does yet another deal with Washington Nationals owner Ted Lerner, making sure Gio Gonzalez doesn’t start twice in a five-game playoff series next year. The rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies could envision Arrieta as their version of Jon Lester.

But the day after the Cubs formally made the one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer Arrieta will reject without a second thought —  and before Boras does his stump speech during next week’s GM meetings in Florida —  it’s worth remembering and appreciating how both sides got to this point.

“When he came over from Baltimore, the one thing the Cubs placed in him was that they trusted his way of doing things, his thought process,” Boras said during a conversation at Dodger Stadium in the middle of the National League Championship Series. “They really helped him become consistent with his way of doing things. Rather than preaching change and dramatic change, they really preached a repetitiveness of what he felt he did best.

“The old story is that it takes a great idea for change, but it takes the right idea to create a difference. The right idea was to let him be himself.”

The environment that allowed Arrieta to flourish is changing, with Jim Hickey taking over for fired pitching coach Chris Bosio and the Cubs bracing for the possibility of replacing 40 percent of their rotation. (John Lackey isn't retiring, Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports and MLB Network reported Tuesday, and intends to pitch in 2018.)

But as an organization, the Cubs still have the long-range vision and eyes for talent that created a World Series winner, the elements of a defense that played at a historic level in 2016, plus two key staffers —  Mike Borzello and Tommy Hottovy —  who are expected to remain in place to oversee the game-planning/run-prevention system.

That pitching infrastructure —  plus the big raises coming for young Boras clients through the arbitration system and the massive financial obligations already on the books —  means the Cubs will keep trying to find more change-of-scenery guys like Arrieta.

Remember, Arrieta is someone who spent time at the Triple-A level during the 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013 seasons and even thought about quitting baseball and falling back on the business/marketing courses he took at Texas Christian University.

“With Jake, everyone told him how good he was physically,” Boras said. “And then he would have two good games. And then they would seek additional change. And then he would not perform well. And then he would go back to square one.

“(It’s going) back to square one multiple times and having everybody each time tell you: ‘Hey, physically, you’re a great pitcher. You have all this ability.’ You begin to reexamine your own self psychologically, because everyone is telling you how good you are, yet you keep getting replaced back in a position where you know you’re not succeeding. That was a very difficult number of years for Jake in Baltimore.”

At that point, are you trying to think of a way to get your client out of Baltimore and circling the Cubs as a rebuilding team with opportunity?

“Absolutely,” said Boras, who also represents high-profile Cubs like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Albert Almora Jr. “I called Theo about Jake, of course I did. I just said: ‘Hey, you know, I got a great player. You guys need to look at him.’ It was in conversation and things like that. And to Theo’s credit, they were on him. They knew all about Jake, which says a lot about how they do things.”

The Cubs won 63 percent of the games Arrieta started (81-47) and made the playoffs three years in a row for the first time since 1906-08. The Cubs don’t win their first World Series title since the Theodore Roosevelt administration unless he beats the Cleveland Indians twice on the road last year.

Since 2014, Arrieta has put up an ERA (2.67) and batting average against (.201) that ranks third among all big-league pitchers, posted an 18.5 WAR that matches David Price and generated a soft-contact percentage that’s almost exactly the same as Clayton Kershaw’s rate (22.1).

Do you think they’re going to miss Arrieta when he’s gone?

“The Cubs have made moves that increase the likelihood of consideration,” Boras said. “The reason for that is they traded all those minor-league players. Who’s the stock they have below?”

Arrieta’s emergence along with core players like Anthony Rizzo helped nudge the Cubs toward giving Lester a $155 million contract after a fifth straight fifth-place finish in 2014.

Arrieta’s transformation into the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner —  and complete-game shutout against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the wild-card game —  helped underwrite a spending spree on free agents that totaled almost $290 million.

No matter what happens from here, a huge part of Arrieta’s legacy will be as a Cub, and the history of the franchise couldn’t be written without explaining his impact.

“I really think he was a foundational piece for them to make decisions to go add more where they knew they could compete,” Boras said. “When Jake came up and he had that great half-season, it encouraged the Cubs to do more, because they really knew that they had a chance for a No. 1 starter, and then to advance growth of this team.

“The Cubs had to make some interesting decisions, because they literally had to trade a lot of their minor-league prowess to get to where they are today, to have a ring on their finger and then to reposition for another one.

“That, I think, largely in part, was the fact that they knew that they had Jake Arrieta at the foundation to do it.”

That will be the essence of the Boras sales pitch, how Arrieta is someone you can plan around, trust in the playoffs and drop into the middle of a clubhouse. The Cubs already know all this and don’t have an owner who will be sweet-talked into a megadeal, because chairman Tom Ricketts lets his employees do their jobs and doesn’t meddle in baseball operations. But Arrieta will get paid beyond anyone’s wildest dreams on July 2, 2013, when the Cubs traded Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger to the Orioles.

“He brings a stability factor that few major-league athletes do,” Boras said, “because he’s in great shape and he’s durable and he can pitch in big games and he’ll teach young pitchers. When you have those quadrants —  when you’re able to do all four of those things — they’ve proven to be those kinds of staples that a franchise can rely on. Jon Lester’s that way, too. There are not many of them.”

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

adbert.jpg
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.