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."

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

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USA TODAY

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: