Clayton Kershaw

Dodgers look like the perfect landing spot for Jake Arrieta

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USA TODAY

Dodgers look like the perfect landing spot for Jake Arrieta

Super-agent Scott Boras already has the metaphor ready for Jake Arrieta, trying to sell his client as an updated version of Jon Lester, someone with big-game experience, proven durability and the presence to energize an entire clubhouse.   

“He’s a big squirrel,” Boras said. “He has a lot of nuts in his tree.”

That’s exactly what the Los Angeles Dodgers need now after their super-team broke down against the Houston Astros. Losing a World Series Game 7 could create a new sense of urgency and push even the most analytical organization outside its comfort zone.  

You didn’t need to be sitting in the Boras Corporation’s front-row seats at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night to see what could be coming next. One year after the Cubs finally won the World Series, Arrieta is now a free agent with the perfect landing spot already cleared in Los Angeles.  

Watching Yu Darvish get 10 outs combined in two World Series losses reinforced the perception that Arrieta is the best starting pitcher on the open market and the Dodgers whiffed by not signing Max Scherzer three years ago or trading for Justin Verlander last winter or this summer.

The Dodgers built a 104-win team with a lot of mix-and-match pieces, layering depth and versatility into the roster, elements that kept showing up across a 162-game season.

But there are lingering questions about Clayton Kershaw’s playoff performances – 7-7 with a 4.35 ERA in 122 career innings – and the three-time Cy Young Award winner can opt out of the final two years of his $215 million contract after the 2018 season.     

The Dodgers didn’t let Rich Hill go longer than five innings in any of his four playoff starts this year, allowing him to only face 18 or 19 hitters each time. Kenta Maeda didn’t get nearly as much exposure to lineups, reinventing himself as a bullpen weapon this October.

The Dodgers paid roughly $37 million to Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Scott Kazmir this season and got almost 220 innings combined and zero playoff starts out of those investments. Julio Urias, the elite pitching prospect once compared to Fernando Valenzuela, underwent season-ending surgery on his left shoulder in June.   

Arrieta is already playoff-tested after dominating the Pittsburgh Pirates with a complete-game shutout in the 2015 National League wild-card game, beating the Cleveland Indians twice on the road during last year’s World Series and putting up a 3.08 ERA in nine postseason starts.

Arrieta will be 32 next season, but Boras will point to his relatively low pitching odometer (1,161 career big-league innings) and how that compares to Scherzer when he signed his seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals (almost 1,240 innings).   

A sprawling Los Angeles front office saturated with Big Data should appreciate Arrieta’s numbers across the last four seasons when compared to all major-league pitchers: third in ERA (2.67) and batting average against (.201); tied for fifth in WAR (18.5) and soft-contact percentage (22); and sixth in WHIP (1.03).

Five years in a row, the Dodgers have won the NL West, a division that featured two other playoff teams this year (the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies) and a franchise that has won three World Series titles since 2010 (the San Francisco Giants).

Arrieta would help the Dodgers stay ahead in that arms race and could be the missing piece for October. It’s not 108 years, but the Dodgers haven’t won a World Series since 1988, or the year Kershaw was born. That sense of history would appeal to Arrieta’s ego and sense of purpose.

So would iconic Dodger Stadium, an ideal pitching environment where Arrieta threw a no-hitter on national TV during his 2015 Cy Young Award campaign and walked into the postgame press conference wearing a onesie covered in moustaches.

Arrieta is someone who dropped into Second City improv classes, posed nude for ESPN the Magazine’s body issue, developed his own Pilates/nutrition program and lives in Austin, Texas, during the offseason. Think Hollywood opportunities and the Southern California lifestyle might be more attractive than, say, living in St. Louis for the next five seasons and playing under The Cardinal Way?  

The Dodgers also have a core of 20-something hitters – Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Chris Taylor, Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson, Enrique Hernandez, Austin Barnes – to go with widely respected manager Dave Roberts and All-Star closer Kenley Jansen.    

After splitting the last two NL Championship Series – while also looking like contenders for years to come – imagine Arrieta returning to Wrigley Field next October in Dodger blue.   

Anthony Rizzo keeps building impressive legacy with Roberto Clemente Award

Anthony Rizzo keeps building impressive legacy with Roberto Clemente Award

The same competitive nature and unique leadership qualities that made Anthony Rizzo a World Series champion drove the Cubs first baseman toward winning the Roberto Clemente Award.  

Rizzo does so much publicly with this stage, and quietly behind the scenes, that it felt like a matter of time, a face of the franchise getting Major League Baseball’s prestigious award that recognizes sportsmanship, community involvement and positive contributions on and off the field.

The formal presentation happened Friday at Minute Maid Park, before a World Series Game 3 between the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers that Rizzo would obviously rather be playing in now. But this is a well-deserved honor for someone who is remarkably comfortable around sick children, with sharing his experience as a cancer survivor and the idea of building a legacy in Chicago and South Florida.

“This is amazing,” Rizzo said. “It’s the greatest award you can win, and I will be forever appreciative of this. This will go front and center (with) anything I’ve ever done on the baseball field.”

The Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation has raised more than $4 million since its inception in 2012. This year, the foundation made a $3.5 million commitment to Lurie Children’s Hospital, the downtown Chicago facility where Rizzo makes regular appearances, with or without the cameras.

Rizzo also recently granted $250,000 to the University of Miami Health System and the hometown cancer center where he received treatment while battling Hodgkin's lymphoma. Those physical, mental and emotional tests as a Boston Red Sox prospect shaped the superstar he would become years later in Chicago.  

“It means a lot to me when I go into a hospital room and say hello to a kid and they light up like a Christmas tree for five minutes,” Rizzo said, “escaping the reality, because they’re going through treatment. They’re battling for their lives, and I’m just grateful to be able to go in there and say hello to them and make them escape reality for a second.

“It’s not easy to go and see a lot of kids, but we really enjoy it. And the work that we do, hopefully we’re just scratching the surface.”

Clemente, a Hall of Fame outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, died on New Year's Eve 1972 during a relief mission to earthquake-damaged Nicaragua, when a plane delivering relief supplies exploded shortly after takeoff and crashed in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Rizzo made a side trip to The Clemente Museum while the Cubs played in Pittsburgh this season. Previous Clemente Award winners within the last 10 years include Albert Pujols, Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, Clayton Kershaw, Carlos Beltran, Paul Konerko and Curtis Granderson.

“Don't get me wrong, I want to be known as a great baseball player when it's all said and done,” Rizzo said, “but I also want to be known as someone who was fortunate to have a big platform and do things with it in a good way."

How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

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USA TODAY

How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

The Cubs can’t send Chili Davis out to face Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, but team president Theo Epstein believes his presence will help the franchise’s young hitters next October.

Those pronounced playoff struggles against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers — on top of the way the New York Mets power pitchers overwhelmed the Cubs during that 2015 National League Championship Series sweep — led to a major shakeup of Joe Maddon’s coaching staff.

Firing hitting coach John Mallee isn’t really about what he didn’t do, because he worked nonstop across the last three years, overseeing an offense that actually scored more runs this season than the 2016 World Series team.

It’s more the instant credibility that Davis brings as a switch-hitter who made three All-Star teams and earned World Series rings with the 1991 Minnesota Twins and the last New York Yankees dynasty (1998-99).

Epstein initially brought Davis into the Boston Red Sox organization, hiring him as an overqualified hitting coach for Triple-A Pawtucket in 2011, the last season before sweeping changes would hit Fenway Park.

Davis spent the next six years as the big-league hitting coach for the Oakland A’s and Red Sox, working with players like Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi.

“Chili’s well-established as one of the very best hitting coaches in the game,” Epstein said after Thursday’s staff announcements. “His philosophy and approach happened to fit with what we hope will be the next step for many of our hitters. We talked after the season about hoping to get better with situational hitting, with our two-strike approach, with using the whole field, with having competitive, team-based at-bats.

“That happens to be Chili’s core philosophy — hitting line drives to the middle of the field. Your line drives will turn into home runs. He’s excellent at teaching a two-strike approach and teaching situational hitting. He’s really good at helping to get hitters to understand when an elite pitcher’s on his game, you have to sometimes take what he gives you, and have an adjustable swing, an adjustable approach for those situations.

“He’s got the gravitas of a 19-year career, 350 homers, over 1,300 RBIs. That combined with his excellent manner and ability to communicate with players makes him a really impactful figure.”

Mallee — who grew up as the son of a Chicago cop and graduated from Mount Carmel High School — brought stability to a position that used to have the job security of the drummer for Spinal Tap.

The Cubs wanted Mallee’s data-driven approach and the ability to explain heat maps and cold zones and how pitchers would attack each at-bat. Mallee also gave the Cubs a very accurate scouting report on Dexter Fowler before making that January 2015 trade with the Houston Astros.

During Mallee’s tenure, Kris Bryant became the fourth player in major-league history to be named MVP the season after winning Rookie of the Year honors. Ian Happ kept making enough adjustments to hit 24 home runs during his rookie season (with only 26 games of experience at Triple-A Iowa). Javier Baez made great strides this year — 23 homers, 75 RBI, .796 OPS — before an 0-for-20 tailspin to start the playoffs.

In one way, the Cubs even endorsed Mallee’s methods by promoting minor-league hitting coordinator Andy Haines to work with Davis as the assistant hitting coach. Mallee and Haines have a Miami connection after working in the Marlins organization.

“I would like to thank the Chicago Cubs for the amazing opportunity to be part of a great tradition and organization for the last three years,” Mallee wrote in a statement. “I left a great Houston Astros organization to be closer to home with my family and to help my hometown team win a World Series.

“We did that. I have no regrets and stand by my work. I wish nothing but the best for the Cubs organization and all the amazing people I met along the way, especially my hitters. See you from across the field.”

When the Cubs talk up their culture and the first-class organization they’ve built, there’s also an unspoken, underlying coldness to it all, even while making justifiable decisions. The Cubs publicly hailed Ricky Renteria basically up to the moment Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays and someone better came along.

Whether or not that will always be sustainable, Davis does have a great resume, no doubt. The Cubs are hoping Davis can help salvage the $184 million investment in Jason Heyward and rewire an offense that ranked last in batting average (.168) and on-base percentage (.240) among the 10-team playoff field. Outside of that unforgettable 9-8 thriller at Nationals Park, the Cubs scored 16 runs in nine postseason games.

“John Mallee is an outstanding hitting coach and we would not be in the position we’re in now with rings on our finger without him,” Epstein said. “Chili just happens to be, in our opinion, uniquely qualified for this group, at this moment in time, to help us get to the next level.”