Cubs

Consistency continues to elude Jake Arrieta as Cubs' fortunes, future contract hang in balance

Consistency continues to elude Jake Arrieta as Cubs' fortunes, future contract hang in balance

Ask any baseball player, any athlete what the key to success is, and the odds are that the word “consistency” will come up.

Consistency has eluded the Cubs halfway through this follow-up campaign to last year’s curse-smashing World Series championship, an effect of consistency personally eluding many of the guys who fueled the 103-win regular season and the run to the title.

Jake Arrieta has perhaps been the most conspicuous of that group of underachievers, to borrow a word Kris Bryant used Friday. Arrieta has turned in good starts this season, but he’s rarely strung multiple ones together.

Saturday, Arrieta finished his first half with another so-so performance in a 4-2 Cubs loss to the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates. He allowed four runs, only three of which were earned, and couldn’t make it out of the sixth inning after getting knocked around for three runs in that frame. Arrieta gave up six hits, walked two batters and hit two more.

“The team did a good job of getting the lead,” Arrieta said, referencing the back-to-back homers off the bats of Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber that put the Cubs in front of the Pirates by a 2-1 score. “I put up a zero in the top of the fifth. (Pirates starter Ivan) Nova did the same thing in the bottom of the fifth. And then the mindset is just to hold the lead, and it’s upsetting for me to not be able to do that in that situation. But that’s the way it worked out.”

That sixth inning featured a leadoff double to Josh Bell before Gregory Polanco absolutely smashed a two-run homer to center field. After Francisco Cervelli singled, Jordy Mercer doubled him home to cap the evening’s scoring.

“It unraveled so quickly. I think (Arrieta) missed the location pretty badly to Polanco,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He was doing well. I have no real explanation for how quickly it happened because I thought he was throwing the ball pretty well.”

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Saturday wasn’t exactly a glaring step backward, but Arrieta failed to carry over the momentum from what might’ve been his finest outing of the season, when he gave up just one hit in seven shutout innings against the Cincinnati Reds last Sunday.

It’s the latest example of Arrieta’s up-and-down 2017. Prior to the dazzling effort against the Reds was the seven-steal fiasco against the Washington Nationals that ended up costing Miguel Montero his spot on the roster. Prior to that, Arrieta was great in seven innings against the Miami Marlins. But in the two starts before that he couldn’t get out of the fifth inning.

A small yet emblematic snapshot of Arrieta’s first half, one Maddon called a “roller coaster” on Saturday night.

“Below average for me individually and honestly for the team,” Arrieta said when asked for an assessment of his first half. “It just took a while for me to get it going. I felt like I was battling with some mechanical adjustments throughout the first part of the season. A couple inflated outings that have kind of led to the numbers being what they are.

“That being said, for me now that the first half is over as far as starts go, I’m just going to reevaluate some things and really focus on what I need to get better at, especially for the team. The individual numbers are great, but if my numbers are what they are but we win the games I start, I’m still OK with that. That’s the key. Every starter wants to win the game for the team. Whether you give up no runs or you give up three or four runs, winning the ballgame is obviously the most important factor at the end of the day. So whatever the numbers are, it is what it is. But moving forward I’d really like to be more consistent with innings for the team, conserve our bullpen because we’re going to need those guys in August and September.”

Of course, Arrieta isn’t alone in this heretofore fruitless search for consistency. The whole team seems bitten by that bug, hence the constant hovering around .500 this season. Maddon makes the need for consistent starting pitching a daily talking point, necessitated not only by the performance of Arrieta but by those of Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey and back-up plans Mike Montgomery and Eddie Butler, as well.

Earlier this week, team president Theo Epstein said the solutions for the middling Cubs would be coming from inside the clubhouse not outside around the trade deadline. But you’d have to imagine that the front office will have starting-pitching solutions on its wish list even if it doesn’t end up making a blockbuster deal.

Maddon’s right in listing consistent starting pitching as the team’s greatest need. It’s been the most obvious difference from last season’s yearlong domination, and should it continue at this clip — from Arrieta, Hendricks, Lackey or whomever — then it’s possible the long-awaited turnaround never comes.

Arrieta obviously has his own high stakes, too. After a Cy Young Award in 2015 and another stellar season in 2016, he was expected to score a huge payday this winter. But in this contract year he’s failed to replicate the results that made him one of baseball’s best over the past two seasons. While that kind of monster contract could still be on the way even if this trend does continue — professional sports team aren't exactly famous for frugality — and while it might not be on Arrieta’s mind as he takes the mound, it’s still something that lingers over every start Arrieta makes.

We shall see what the second half has in store for the Cubs and Arrieta, in particular. Remember back to 2014, when Arrieta put up a 2.01 ERA in his final eight starts of the season. During his Cy Young campaign in 2015, he wasn’t even a National League All Star at midseason. And the Cubs as a team used a spectacular late-season surge to fly into the playoffs and all the way to the NL Championship Series in 2015.

These second-half turnarounds are possible. For the Cubs’ sake and for his own, Arrieta is hoping for one.

Scott Boras' history lesson illustrates why Cubs are unlikely to trade Kris Bryant

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AP

Scott Boras' history lesson illustrates why Cubs are unlikely to trade Kris Bryant

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — As the Cubs move into a new era, the Kris Bryant Decision looms large over the entire organization.

Should they trade him now, two years out from free agency (or one year away if he actually wins his service time grievance)? Or is now the time for the Cubs to deliver a huge offer and lock him up long term?

Bryant's agent, Scott Boras, has been one of the most powerful men in baseball over the last couple decades and he's seen many teams go through the same dilemma the Cubs are currently weighing.

In encountering similar situations with players of Bryant's caliber (a former MVP and Rookie of the Year), Boras shed some light on how unlikely it is that the Cubs would actually wind up dealing him.

"Certainly every player I have that is at that level, they're always asking the question about, 'will they? Won't they? Will they trade him? Will they do it?'" Boras said. "And the answer to that is always: I can give you a percentage over a decade of how many of those players get traded and the answer is very low. If you think that much of him and to get something back for him with a limited period of time is always very hard."

He's got a strong point there. Bryant has a career .901 OPS and averages 32 homers, 92 RBI and 112 runs scored per 162 games over his five years in the big leagues. He proved that the lack of power and production in 2018 was injury related with a strong bounceback season this past year, finishing 14th in WAR in the National League while battling through a lingering knee issue. 

Bryant provides a ton of value to the Cubs and his presence on the roster increases the likelihood of winning another World Series over the next two seasons. In order to trade him, they would need a huge haul in return — a package of players that sets the franchise up for success the future without completely sacrificing the short-term and current window of contention. Will some team actually meet the Cubs' asking price?

The service time grievance is a major issue here, as the difference between one and two years of Bryant would be vast. Red Sox star Mookie Betts is a free agent a year from now and Boston is in a similar situation in that they're weighing a potential trade now rather than risk losing Betts to the open market and getting only draft pick compensation in return.

Boras pointed to how the Red Sox and Cubs both won World Series with Betts and Bryant earlier in their careers, leveraging the star players on cheaper deals to allow more resources to augment the roster around them. But now both guys are due a hefty sum of money in 2020 (MLB Trade Rumors estimates the arbitration figure to be $18.5 million for Bryant and $27.7 million for Betts) and it's time for each team to decide which path to go down.

The prevailing thought around the game is that Bryant won't win his grievance, which puts the Cubs in a different spot than the Red Sox in that they have two years of control left. That's key to either dangle in a trade or to allow more time for the two sides to reach an agreement on an extension.

"I've seen clubs take this decision on and it's often been a decision that they regret — whether they've kept him or whether they've traded him," Boras said. "Again, because they're great players, they're really key decisions."

If no team is able to — or decides to — meet the Cubs' price for Bryant in any trade talks, how likely is it the two sides would work out an extension that keeps him in Chicago beyond 2021?

Both sides waved off any notion that the service time grievance has done anything to damage the relationship between Bryant and the club, with Boras emphasizing that this was a "union matter" and was more about being an "advocate for the rights of players." Even if the arbiter rules against Bryant's grievance, it could still be a major step forward in changing the structure of free agency and service time for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.

In the matter of extension talks, Bryant and Boras are all ears.

"Look, we're open to talking with them and we've always said that to them," Boras said. "It's always been Kris' philosophy with the team. 

"I would certainly keep the terms and conditions of the contract negotiations private with the Cubs, but obviously it's always a fairness standard. You want what's fair for him and where he stands in the industry and that's true of any player." 

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Cubs continue behind-the-scenes makeover by hiring new scouting director

Cubs continue behind-the-scenes makeover by hiring new scouting director

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - The Cubs are close to the point of the offseason where their sole focus will be on the roster.

As the final coaching staff comes together, the organization also announced their scouting director Wednesday, adding Dan Kantrovitz as the VP of scouting.

Kantrovitz, 41, spent the last five seasons as the assistant general manager to Billy Beane with the Oakland A's and previously served as the director of scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals for three seasons (2012-14). He is a Brown University graduate and also got his Master's Degree at Harvard.

Kantrovitz is a St. Louis native and was reportedly discussing a return to the Cardinals this winter before he took the job with the Cubs:

He was part of the Cardinals scouting department that drafted Jack Flaherty 34th overall in 2014, plus current Cubs reliever Rowan Wick in the ninth round (300th overall) in 2012 and has other successful high picks on his resume (Michael Wacha, Stephen Piscotty, Luke Weaver).

"We're really excited to be able to bring Danny Kantroviz on board," Theo Epstein said Wednesday at the MLB GM Meetings. "To be able to hire somebody to run our drafts who's already held that position and already run successful drafts in the past, it's a unique opportunity. Guys don't usually go back once they reach the assistant GM level. But in Dan's case, he has just discovered that his passion is running the draft.

"It really fits the exact profile we're looking for. He can scout - he goes out and sees 200 players a year when he's running the draft - and he can really relate very well to scouts and he's also got experience building advanced analytical models and combining both those worlds in a really effective manner. I think he fills a big void for us and look forward to working with him for years to come."

Epstein also called the Kantrovitz hire a "best case scenario" for the Cubs as they reshape their front office infrastructure. In September, Epstein moved Jason McLeod from head of scouting and player development (the position he held since coming over to the Cubs after the 2011 season) into a special assistant role in the big-league front office and shook up the player development department.

They wanted a fresh perspective and new insight into the draft and developing players given the organization's inability to produce homegrown pitchers in the eight years under Epstein's reign. Kantrovitz is the guy they've chosen to now lead the scouting department and the hope is he's able to find more success in the draft.

"Dan is as qualified as maybe anyone out there in baseball to do [balance all the information on draft day] since he has scouted extensively and is on the road the entire draft season seeing players and has done so for many years," Epstein said. "He also is one of the top quants [quantitative analyst] in the game as well. Builds his own models and understands it on a granular level - not just to the R & D department, but being a part of it and not just relating to scouts but being one. He brings a really unique skillset and set of experiences to the position."

That's another big hire to check off the list for the Cubs as the offseason starts to heat up. Epstein and Co. can now turn their attention to fine-tuning the roster to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts in 2020. 

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