Cubs

Breaking down the trade market and Jake Arrieta as Cubs preach patience with pitching

Breaking down the trade market and Jake Arrieta as Cubs preach patience with pitching

It’s still too early to be dreaming about Yu Darvish pitching at Wrigley Field, guessing if the Pittsburgh Pirates would trade Gerrit Cole within the division, calculating how much money remains on Zack Greinke’s megadeal or wondering what a change of scenery and the Chicago nightlife might do to Matt Harvey.

Or at least Cubs president Theo Epstein isn’t buying the early speculation that the July 31 deadline could create unexpected sellers like the Texas Rangers and New York Mets, a glut of starting pitchers and accelerated deals.

“That stuff doesn’t play itself out (yet),” Epstein before Tuesday’s 9-5 win over the Cincinnati Reds. “One six-game winning or losing streak right now takes a team from one category to another. We obviously have to prepare and allocate our scouting resources and whatnot. But it doesn’t make any sense to speculate on the nature of the trade market now, because it will look different in July than it does right now.”

Epstein faced the Chicago media at the beginning of a 10-game homestand that should be revealing for a 19-19 team. Everything around the Cubs will pale in comparison to last year — because that became a once-in-a-lifetime experience — but the rotation looms as the most immediate problem and biggest question mark for the future.

Last season, the Cubs put up 27 quality starts and a 2.34 rotation ERA through their first 37 games. So far this season, it’s 14 quality starts through 37 games with a 4.47 rotation ERA, even though the personnel remains 80 percent the same.

“The starting pitching is trending in the right direction,” Epstein said. “Last year (was) not typical. They were all locked in. They were so consistent. They had tremendous defense behind them, night in, night out. Things were breaking our way.

“This year, it hasn’t been that way. It’s been more realistic, where a couple guys are throwing the ball really well and a couple guys are searching. Balls are falling in. Our defense, for whatever reason, hasn’t been quite as locked in as it was last year. But I see that starting to turn.

“Kyle (Hendricks has) thrown really well the last three or four times out. (Jon) Lester’s been really good. (John) Lackey was terrific his last time out there (at Coors Field). Eddie Butler gave us a huge boost (in St. Louis). We’re excited to see what he can do as he remains in the rotation.”

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

The X-factor is Jake Arrieta, the former Cy Young Award winner with diminished velocity and a 5.44 ERA through eight starts. Arrieta has also put up 49 strikeouts against 13 walks in 44.2 innings and gone through this before.

Epstein made a similar observation to scouts who watched Arrieta struggle at times last season, when he still finished with 18 wins, a 3.10 ERA, a .194 batting average against and a .583 opponents’ OPS. The crossfire motion that makes Arrieta so deceptive and explosive can be difficult to maintain.

“Jake, obviously, is still making adjustments, still searching,” Epstein said. “The thing with Jake is — because there’s a lot going on in his delivery — sometimes it takes him a little bit longer than others to find where his body is in space and get that muscle memory down.

“But when he does lock in, he stays locked in (for a long time). So I think it’s inevitable that he will find it.”

If Arrieta doesn’t get locked in, or the rotation’s remarkable stretch of good health finally ends, or Lackey runs out of gas at the age of 38, the Cubs will still have to be patient. One month out, the Cubs are focused on a June draft where they will have two first-round picks to spend on pitching.

“Right after the draft, everyone takes a day or two, catches their breath and then takes a hard look at what they need,” Epstein said. “That’s when more chatter picks up. Trades are basically made at the same time every year. It seems like there’s a little flurry around July 2 and then mid-July and plenty at the end of July.”

With an underperforming rotation, Arrieta and Lackey in contract years and a farm system where the arms haven’t come close to matching the bats, it’s no secret what the Cubs are looking for now: pitching, pitching and more pitching.

“We’ve been doing the same thing we do every single year,” Epstein said. “Every single year, we have pro scouts out from Opening Day on, from spring training on, and we have weekly meetings where we sort of try to understand the landscape and what are some opportunities, what are some potential pitfalls. We’re just doing the same stuff we’re always doing.”

A Hobbled Hero: Baez, Cubs keep finding wild ways to win

A Hobbled Hero: Baez, Cubs keep finding wild ways to win

Javy Baez has only seen one pitch in the Cubs-Phillies series, but that's all he needs to make a major impact.

"El Mago" notched his first walk-off RBI since May 8, 2016 in the bottom of the ninth inning Tuesday night, lacing the only pitch he saw from Juan Nicasio down the right-field line. Baez had missed the entire series to that point due to a heel injury he suffered Sunday in Washington D.C. and actually underwent an MRI before Tuesday's game to make sure there was no other damage.

Baez's single put the finishing touches on the Cubs' first win this season when trailing after eight innings. They now lead the majors with five walk-off victories.

After another blown lead by the bullpen (the third in the last week), the Cubs entered the bottom of the ninth down 2-1, but Kris Bryant led off with a walk and then Anthony Rizzo doubled. After a Willson Contreras flyout, Jason Heyward was intentionally walked and then Albert Almora Jr. hit a tapper in front of home plate that Bryant just barely beat out at home to tie the game.

Then came Baez, as Joe Maddon opted to go to the hobbled star in place of Daniel Descalso, who was 0-for-4 on the evening to that point.

Prior to the ninth inning, Maddon wasn't sure if Baez would even be available to pinch hit in the game, but trainer P.J. Mainville taped up Javy's foot/ankle at the start of the inning and gave the Cubs skipper the all-clear.

"Just give PJ some credit on the tape job," Maddon joked. "This is right out of the Lombardi era kind of stuff. Tape and aspirin — go ahead and play. That's what everybody's football coach said."

If Baez hadn't delivered the walk-off hit and the Cubs wound up in extra innings, Maddon said he didn't know if Baez would be able to even play the field on his injured heel and the only player left on the bench was backup catcher Victor Caratini.

"In moments like that, you can only think it so far," Maddon said. "And then at some point, you gotta throw it at the wall and see what happens."

Maddon doesn't know if Baez will be able to play Wednesday night, but plans to make two lineups and then check with the shortstop to see about his status when he arrives at the field.

Baez's Cubs teammates are no longer surprised at the ridiculous things he does or how easy he makes some very difficult tasks look. Bryant joked he was actually upset Baez didn't hit it over the fence for a walk-off grand slam.

"I don't even know what's going on with him half the time anyway," Bryant said. "It's like, 'oh, Javy's pinch-hitting. And then I was debating like, 'don't swing at the first pitch," but I was like, 'no, it's Javy.' 

"It was awesome. He just like goes up there and swings the bat. If he didn't have to run to first base, he wouldn't. It's just like, 'I'm so good, I'm just gonna get this hit and then we're gonna go home.'"

However awe-inspiring Baez's Kirk Gibson impression was, the only reason the Cubs were even in the spot to win the game at that moment was because of the hustle and aggressive baserunning from Bryant. 

His game-tying run on Almora's tapper in front of the plate was huge, but his first trip around the bases was even more impressive. 

With Bryant on second base and Rizzo on first in the first inning, both runners were off on the full-count pitch to Contreras, who hit a routine grounder to Phillies shortstop Jean Segura. As Segura made the throw to first to retire Contreras, Bryant never hesitated around third base and scored on some heads-up, aggressive baserunning that looked like a page right out of the El Mago Playbook.

Bryant said as he was running, he thought about what it's like to play the left side of the infield on such a routine play and felt like he could catch the Phillies by surprise.

"I saw [third base coach Brian Butterfield] holding me up, too, and I just kept going," Bryant said. "I almost felt like I had eyes in the back of my head. It was kind of like one of those experiences that it's hard to explain, but I just kept going."

That run was all Jose Quintana and the Cubs needed for six innings, until Carl Edwards Jr. came on in relief for the seventh. Edwards allowed a leadoff single and then a double two batters later, giving way to Brandon Kintzler with two outs.

Kintzler gave up a groundball single up the middle to Andrew McCutchen and just like that, the Cubs' thin 1-0 lead had evaporated in the blink of an eye. And with the offensive issues (they were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position before Baez's hit), that looked to be enough to send the Cubs to their second straight defeat in frustrating fashion.

But the magic of El Mago and Bryant allowed the Cubs to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and send fans home happy and with a little more belief that this just might be a special summer on Chicago's North Side.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Jake Arrieta discusses his return & Mark DeRosa talks the leadoff spot

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Jake Arrieta discusses his return & Mark DeRosa talks the leadoff spot

Hear from Jake Arrieta after his first start as a visitor at Wrigley Field, including his thoughts on facing his former teammates and the standing ovation he received during his first at-bat (1:30). Then, Luke Stuckmeyer is joined by MLB Network's Mark DeRosa to discuss the Cubs' leadoff spot, the team outperforming expectations so far, and much more (8:15).

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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