Cubs

Cubs think Jake Arrieta can actually get even better

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Cubs think Jake Arrieta can actually get even better

The Cubs think Jake Arrieta can get even better than he already is.

Yes, seriously - a guy with 18 wins on Sept. 5 and a 2.03 ERA can get even better.

Arrieta is a fitness freak, with an incredible work ethic that has drawn awe from everybody around him (remember Joe Maddon's money quote about Jane Fonda's workout tapes?).

The 29-year-old ace has seen his career take off since being traded to the Cubs in July 2013, but where is the ceiling? How high can he fly?

Even he's not sure.

"I don't know how good I can be," Arrieta said after shutting down the Diamondbacks in Saturday's 2-0 victory. "That's what I'm trying to figure out. That's why I do what I do every day in between starts to prepare myself as best as possible to go out there and see what the results are.

"They've been good. There's some things that I'd like to do better. I like winning for the team. That's the accomplishment, really, for me - getting wins for the team."

Yes, a guy who has given up just four hits over his last 17 innings and has a 0.99 ERA over his last 14 starts has things he would like to do even better.

[RELATED - Jake Arrieta redefining dominance as he makes his case for NL Cy Young]

Arrieta's catcher on Saturday, David Ross, agrees that the sky is the limit for Arrieta having seen the progression the right-hander has made just since spring training.

"He's right there at the top with the best as far as stuff goes," Ross said. "He's only going to get better. He's a No. 1. He's got some of the best stuff in the game. I know that for a fact. I've had to hit off of him before. It wasn't a whole lot of fun.

"He's up there at the top with the group of guys I've been able to catch."

A good example of Arrieta's dominance is his use of a changeup to keep the Arizona hitters off balance Saturday.

Arrieta threw the changeup just 3.4 percent of the time in 2015, but he implemented it in the middle innings against the Diamondbacks just because it was another way to dominate.

[SHOP: Buy a Jake Arrieta jersey]

The Cubs saw in the scouting report that Arizona hitters could stay on his breaking ball and cutter more, so Arrieta resorted to the changeup, a pitch he basically only throws during side sessions and bullpens.

But it worked.

"He's got command on both sides [of the plate] with his fastball, he's got command on both sides with his cutter, he's got command on both sides with his changeup and he's got command on both sides with his breaking ball," Ross said.

"It makes it pretty tough [on hitters], but it makes my job really, really easy."

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

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USA TODAY

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Cubs are in first place, they own the best record in the National League at the All-Star break and remain as much a World Series contender as any team out there.

But things are never 100 percent rainbows and lollipops for a team with this high a profile.

No, instead of a simple thumbs up from fans and observers, a pat on the back and a “job well done,” there’s been quite a bit of focus on what’s not going well for the North Siders. Mostly, that’s meant starting pitching, as four of the team’s five Opening Day starters owns an ERA north of 3.90.

If all you’ve heard this season is “What’s wrong with Yu Darvish? What’s wrong with Jose Quintana? What’s wrong with Kyle Hendricks? What’s wrong with Tyler Chatwood?” you might think the Cubs are woefully underachieving. Instead, they’re 55-38, a first-half record not far off from what they owned at the break back in 2016, a season that ended in a curse-smashing World Series championship.

The lone Cubs starting pitcher at the All-Star Game, Jon Lester, isn’t happy with what he calls the “nitpicking” that’s come with the Cubs’ otherwise excellent start to the season.

“We’re kind of pulling at hairs,” he said before the Midsummer Classic on Tuesday night. “We’re splitting hairs right now as far as things that we’re looking for negatively on our team. And that can kind of rub wrong in the clubhouse as far as guys looking around going, ‘Wait a second, we’re doing pretty good and we’re getting nitpicked right now.’

“I don’t like nitpicking. So I feel like we’ve been doing really well and just stay with the positives of everything that we’ve been playing really good baseball.”

Lester’s got a point, though at the same time it’s an understandable discussion topic: If the Cubs aren’t getting consistent results from four of their five starting pitchers, what kind of effect will that have in a playoff series? There’s a long way to go before things get to that point, but Cubs players made their own expectations known back in spring training: It’s World Series or bust for these North Siders.

Lester has been phenomenal, unquestionably worthy of his fifth All-Star selection. He posted a 2.98 ERA in 19 first-half starts. But the rest of the rotation wasn’t nearly as pretty. Hendricks finished his first half with a 3.92 ERA, Quintana with a 3.96 ERA, Chatwood with a 5.04 ERA and Darvish, who made only eight starts before going on a seemingly never-ending DL stint, with a 4.95 ERA. Mike Montgomery, who’s made nine starts, has a 3.91 ERA overall and a 3.20 ERA as a starter.

None of that’s exactly end-of-the-world bad, and there are plenty of pitching staffs across baseball that would probably make a trade for those numbers in a heartbeat. But is it the elite, best-rotation-in-baseball type stuff that so many projected for this team before the season started? Of course not. And Lester knows it. He, like team president Theo Epstein, just looks at that fact a little differently than the fans and observers who are so quick to push the panic button.

“Can we pitch better? Absolutely. As a collective unit, yeah we can. And that’s a positive,” Lester said. “I think guys are ready for runs. You kind of saw Kyle put together a couple starts there where he’s back to being Kyle. Q’s been throwing the ball pretty well for us.

“I think this break will do Chatwood a lot of good. This is a guy, he’s pounding his head against the wall, beginning of the season he wasn’t giving up any runs but everybody’s talking about walks. I look at the runs, I don’t care about the walks.

“We get these guys back to relaxing and being themselves, we’ll be fine. Our bullpen’s been great, our defense has been great. Offense is going to come and go, as we’ve seen in the game. As starters, we’ve got to keep our guys in the game the best we can, at the end of the day our bullpen and our defense is going to pick us up.”

The fretting will likely never end unless the Cubs have five starters throwing at an All-Star level, that's just the way things go. Something’s got to fill all that time on sports radio, after all, and for a team with postseason expectations, it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about how they might fare in the postseason, where those starting-pitching inconsistencies will most definitely come into play.

But Tuesday night, Cubs fans will see three players representing their club. Lester will be a happy observer with one of the best seats in the house, and Javy Baez and Willson Contreras will deservedly start among the best in the game. And they’ll have bragging rights over all their NL teammates because nitpicking or not, they’ve got the best record in the league.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Are the Cubs World Series bound? Dan Plesac says yes!

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Are the Cubs World Series bound? Dan Plesac says yes!

Where does MLB Network's Dan Plesac place the Cubs in his current power rankings and what's the key to their World Series dreams? Plus, which three star athletes mix to make Javier Baez? The conductor of the Big Blue train is back for a mid-summer breakdown of the Northsiders with Luke Stuckmeyer on this edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast presented by Wintrust.  

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