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.

Forget about full Cubs schedule, fans at games and plan for a short, bittersweet season

Forget about full Cubs schedule, fans at games and plan for a short, bittersweet season

The bad news for the Cubs after Thursday’s scheduled Opening Day is that they’re 0-1. The worse news is that so is everybody in baseball.

And with Friday’s agreement between MLB and the players union addressing the coronavirus shutdown, the only known winner, at least in this city, might be Kris Bryant, who will not lose yet another year before he can become a free agent.

Remember when that was the biggest concern surrounding the Cubs’ season — whether the Cubs were going to trade their star third baseman and whether they could co-exist with him if they didn’t — after beating him in a grievance hearing over service-time manipulation?

That was just last month. And a lifetime ago.

The highlights of the MLB-MLBPA agreement include freezing transactions until a date for resuming play is determined, the assurance that major-leaguer players will accrue full service time for the 2020 season even if it is not played, the likelihood of additional roster spots once play resumes, and $170 million in salary advances to players across multiple contract tiers, most to those with guaranteed deals.

Multiple teams, including the Cubs, optioned players who were on 40-man rosters but not expected to make the club to the minors ahead of the deal Thursday night, which, among other things, prevented service-time accrual. 

Pitcher Dillon Maples was optioned to Triple-A Iowa, leaving 30 members of the Cubs’ 40-man roster still on the active major-league roster. They include three bullpen candidates who are out of options: Alec Mills, Duane Underwood and Casey Sadler.

But the most important element of the plan for fans involves the report that MLB and the players agree to wait until they get the all-clear from health and government officials that mass gatherings are safe again before starting the season. Unless that looks like it won’t happen in time for something feasible, in which case they might discuss playing without fans, possibly using spring training sites.

Some in the game are still suggesting methods for trying to play close to a full 162-game schedule, maybe 140. The hope of a June start and lots of doubleheaders seems popular — maybe with seven-inning games making up the doubleheaders.

But for all the numbers of games, innings and dollars being thrown around and negotiated, only one number continues to matter. On Friday it was close to 1,500.

That’s the number of U.S. deaths attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a number that includes this week a 17-year-old boy in Los Angeles County who reportedly had no underlying risk factors, a 12-year-old girl before that and many others who, by CDC definitions, were not in high-risk groups.

And it’s a number that’s rising fast.

Certainly, baseball officials and players appreciate the gravity of the moment, and that’s why anything and everything seem to be in play as eventual options.

And it’s why for now, regular-season ballparks/weight rooms and spring training facilities finally were shutting down across baseball Friday to all but a select few players who might have specific (such as medical) needs for them.

Cubs Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo are among the individual players across baseball raising awareness and money for those affected, from stadium workers to first responders and small businesses. Cubs manager David Ross published a short video through the team’s Twitter account thanking healthcare workers and encouraging continued safe practices during the crisis.

Jon Lester, Jason Kipnis and others have tweeted about the bigger picture in this time of missing the game.

But the mere suggestion of trying to squeeze most of a full schedule into 2020, against the hope of playing those games in fan-filled stadiums, is perhaps understandably wistful thinking.

If there’s going to be a baseball season this summer/fall, it’s going to be a short one, and it probably should be.

The fewest games played in a season since the two-league format began in 1901 were the 103 games some teams played during the 1981 strike season.

The plan now should involve redrawing schedules for 80- and 100-game contingencies. Plan for no — or extremely limited numbers of — fans. Play the games in spring ballparks; eliminate interleague play; position one league in Florida and one in Arizona — or all in Arizona if it’s safer there than Florida.

An 84-game schedule would allow for a balanced league schedule with six games per opponent. Or unbalanced (albeit, less drastic) schedules could still be used. Restructure the playoffs? OK. Add teams? Sure. Maybe by then those games can even be played in neutral-site, warm-weather or domed stadiums with fans.

A lot of us around sports talk about sports being important to our culture and things like civic pride, or at least as escapes from real-life issues. President Franklin Roosevelt recognized that much in 1942 when he urged MLB to play its season for the good of the country during a war.

But this we haven’t seen before. It’s why so many uncertainties hang in the air even after scheduled openers, months after the virus first was identified, weeks after federal action was taken in this country.

“Worst opening day ever,” Lester tweeted, “but focused on what’s most important right now and that’s keeping the team safe at home so we can get back to baseball soon.”

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Anthony Rizzo discusses foundation's support of health care workers amid COVID-19

Anthony Rizzo discusses foundation's support of health care workers amid COVID-19

Anthony Rizzo and his family’s foundation are working diligently to support the health care workers combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friday, Rizzo appeared on ABC News to discuss the foundation’s campaign to provide meals to hospital workers and staff. To date, they’ve served over a thousand hot meals to frontline workers in Chicago and Florida, in collaboration with the foundation’s restaurant partners.

“A lot of these staff workers don’t know if they’re allowed to go to the grocery store,” Rizzo said on ABC, “because they really are quarantining outside the hospital to stay safe, keep everyone safe.

“We really want to give back to the restaurants and also help the frontline workers, so it's really been a win-win because there's a lot of people in tough times right now and we're just trying to help out any way we can."

Rizzo’s foundation said in a press release Friday the meals have brought many hospital workers tears, overwhelmed in appreciation.

“These health care workers are going every day, many without the proper protection, to care for our loved ones,” the release reads. “They are putting themselves at risk, their families at risk and even foregoing seeing their loved ones for months to protect our families, friends and neighbors.”

(Photos courtesy of the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation)

The foundation asks for anyone interested in supporting the campaign to reach out. Donations can be made by texting HOPE44 to 52000 or by going to rizzo44.com/donate.

The coronavirus has altered everyone's lives and changed daily routines. When asked what his message is to fans, Rizzo said to stay strong together and find a routine that makes you happy.

"We're gonna get through this together; this is tough for everyone," he said. "We all want to be playing baseball, we all want sports on television. A lot of people want to be going to work on a daily basis to get back into that routine. 

"It's hard to be home 24/7 but everyone is doing this together, so you're not alone."