Cubs spin after Cardinals beat Jake Arrieta: ‘I don’t think there’s any reason to panic’

Cubs spin after Cardinals beat Jake Arrieta: ‘I don’t think there’s any reason to panic’

ST. LOUIS – Jake Arrieta has lost the air of invincibility that surrounded him during his Cy Young Award season in 2015. Even Joe Maddon – a relentlessly optimistic manager by nature – doesn’t pretend the Cubs expect to ever see that again.

Arrieta went through stretches last year where he looked unsure and out of sync with his mechanics. He still finished with 18 wins and a 3.10 ERA and beat the Cleveland Indians twice in the World Series.

The story of how a last-place team transformed into a championship organization cannot be written without Arrieta, who infused the Cubs with so much attitude and confidence, his Bob Gibson impression helping fuel 97 wins and a spending spree that approached $290 million after the 2015 season.   

At the moment, Arrieta symbolizes the 18-19 team that quietly packed up after Sunday afternoon’s 5-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

“We would obviously like to be playing better than we are right now,” Arrieta said. “I don’t think there’s any reason to panic. I think that the talent we have here will correct itself and start to turn itself around.

“Yeah, we’d like to win a few more games than we are and tighten things up a little bit. But guys are showing up ready to play and going about themselves the right way. We’re just not necessarily getting the results we would like.”  

Roughly 25 percent into a contract year, Arrieta now has a 5.44 ERA and one quality start since the first weekend of the season. If the velocity doesn’t keep ticking up – and this signals the start of a steeper decline – then the Cubs are in trouble.

The Cardinals (21-15) already have a 3.5-game lead over the fourth-place Cubs after winning this weekend series. Fireworks erupted in the second inning after Yadier Molina drilled Arrieta’s first-pitch fastball 410 feet into the left-field seats for a two-run homer and flipped his bat away with one hand.

Matt Carpenter crushed another Arrieta fastball 414 feet over the right-center field wall for a two-run homer in the third inning, breaking the 0-for-28 against his old teammate from Texas Christian University.

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Maddon, of course, put his spin on the situation and called it Arrieta’s “best stuff” all year. But even Miguel Montero, the blunt-spoken, veteran catcher, felt the same way. Nothing to see here? 

“Honestly,” Montero said, “I think that was the only two bad pitches he made. I said to him after the game: ‘Hey, man, you know what, this could be the turning point for you, because I really liked what I’ve seen. Everything was sharp. That was the best I’ve seen you so far the whole year.’

“The ball was coming out of his hand differently. He has some life to it. I’m happy to see him back pitching that way, because, of course, we’re going to need him.”

The Cardinals did all their damage against Arrieta with those two swings and the Cubs are a team playing without much margin for error right now. Adam Wainwright, who lugged a 6.37 ERA into the game, shut down the Cubs for seven innings. The defense that was supposed to be a constant is no longer playing like the ’85 Bears.

“It’s some bad luck,” Arrieta said. “Right now, it seems like the mistakes I’m making, they’re not fouling them off or taking or swinging and missing. They’re making pretty solid contact. I’m going to continue to be aggressive.

“Obviously, I’d like to not make any mistakes, but the ones I’m making right now are getting taken advantage of.”

There are peripheral numbers – like Arrieta’s strikeout-to-walk ratio (49:13) – and a track record that can be sources of optimism. But at a certain point, the defending champs talking about taking steps in the right direction and trusting the process will get old. This is a bottom-line business.    

“I have so much faith and confidence in him and his methods,” Maddon said. “You’re pretty aware that I don’t get kind of off the bandwagon very easily. I really believe he’s going to be fine. I believe it’s just going to be almost like a snap of the fingers – everything’s going to fall back into place.

“I don’t think you’re going to see this slow method of better, better, better, better, great. I just think you’re all of a sudden going to see something’s going to click and he’s going to be back close to where he had been.

“It’s hard to be where he had been when he won the award. I’m not expecting that, but more like what we had seen last year, a lot more consistency in his velocity. Velocity is probably the biggest (thing).” 

Cubs still trying to break through on extension talks with current players

Cubs still trying to break through on extension talks with current players

SAN DIEGO — While the rest of the baseball world is occupying their time with free agent signings and trades, the Cubs have been waiting for their number to be called.

They've been trying to nail down extensions with key players that are only a couple years away from free agency, though nothing appears imminent on that front. 

Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are all free agents after the 2021 season, leaving the Cubs two years to work out a deal or trade the player before losing them for nothing but a compensation pick. Willson Contreras is a free agent after 2022. Theo Epstein's front office reached a four-year, $55.5 million deal with Kyle Hendricks in spring training, extending his team control through the 2023 season.

The Cubs won't comment specifically on the current extension talks, but they'd ideally hope to wrap anything before spring training this year, so the players can focus solely on baseball by then.

"We always take the position of not commenting on extensions, but are we having those discussions? Yes," Jed Hoyer said Tuesday. "People focus so much on trades and free agent signings at these meetings, but all the agents are under the same roofs, also, and allows us to have those kinds of discussions. I'm not gonna specify who or what, but yeah certainly those conversations are ongoing."

Bryant has long been thought of as the toughest of the group to lock up long-term given that his agent, Scott Boras, typically advises clients to hit the open market and maximize their value. Boras reiterated Tuesday afternoon at the Winter Meetings he and Bryant are still open to extension talks with the Cubs.

Baez and Rizzo loom as the two most likely to extend their Wrigley Field stays, with the two emerging as the faces of the franchise in their own ways.

As the Cubs try to navigate an offseason where they're "serving two masters" (trying to compete in 2020-21 while also enhancing the long-term future of the franchise), a potential extension would check both boxes in a major way. If Hoyer and Theo Epstein knew Baez would be locking down shortstop and the middle of the lineup for the next six seasons, they could breathe a bit easier thinking about the big picture and long-term health of the franchise. 

At the same time, they can't operate as if anything is a certainty. Bryant could decide he likes the Cubs' offer and make Chicago his baseball home forever. Baez could conclude the opposite. 

It's what makes this particular offseason so tricky for the Cubs.

"We have to be able to have parallel tracks in our mind," Hoyer said. "We have to be able to do multiple things at once. It doesn't make it more difficult. We have a lot of really good players. We've had them for a long time. When we talk to these players about contracts, there's no player that we talk to that we haven't had a conversation with at some point before about a contract. 

"We've talked about these players for five years in some way, shape or form. When we sit down with these players, we're not covering a ton of new ground. We've already been over a lot of it. I think we're able to have parallel tracks."

Two MLB moves that changed the landscape of Kris Bryant's trade market

Two MLB moves that changed the landscape of Kris Bryant's trade market

Two reported transactions Tuesday may not have drawn much attention from Cubs fans, but both directly impact the North Siders.

First, The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya reported the Angels are trading third baseman Zack Cozart to the Giants for cash and a player to be named later. Soon thereafter, free agent shortstop Didi Gregorius agreed to a one-year deal with the Phillies, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported.

From a Cubs perspective, the Angels' and Phillies' moves impact a potential Kris Bryant trade market. According to Ardaya, the Giants are picking up the remaining $12.67 million on Cozart’s deal. This clears payroll space for Los Angeles to make a run at a superstar free agent, like third basemen Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson.

The Phillies inquired with the Cubs regarding a potential Bryant trade, according to multiple reports. However, Bryant’s unresolved grievance case is a holdup in any trade talks, should the Cubs entertain offers. If he wins, he'll become a free agent next winter. If he loses, he'll remain under team control through 2021.

Gregorius will slot into shortstop for Philadelphia, while incumbent Jean Segura will move to second base, according to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury. The Phillies are less likely to pursue Bryant — should the Cubs shop him — than they were entering Tuesday. Things can change, but they have less of an infield need as they did on Monday.

On the other hand, the Angels and new manager Joe Maddon suddenly could be a candidate to pursue Bryant. Acquiring him would bring less certainty than Rendon or Donaldson, as Bryant is only under contract for two seasons more, max. Furthermore, acquiring Bryant will cost the Angels prospect capital, while adding Rendon and Donaldson will 'only' entail paying them handsomely as free agents.

In short, Philadelphia is less likely to pursue Bryant than they were entering Tuesday; the possibility of the Angels doing so is stronger than it was entering the day. The Angels haven't been directly connected to Bryant at this point, but that now could change.