How the Jake Arrieta trade came together and became a blockbuster deal for Cubs

How the Jake Arrieta trade came together and became a blockbuster deal for Cubs

Sure, the Cubs had done their background checks and recognized the raw potential, but they never thought they would have a Jake Arrieta Pilates Room in a state-of-the-art Wrigley Field clubhouse.

“Exactly,” general manager Jed Hoyer said with a laugh over the phone on Friday afternoon. “This incredible focus, incredible dedication, he’s a joy to be around. We had good reports, but he’s exceeded everything.”

The night before at Great American Ball Park, Arrieta had thrown the 15th no-hitter in franchise history, less than eight months after he had thrown the 14th no-hitter in franchise history.

But where that Dodger Stadium performance felt like Arrieta’s burst onto the national scene – complete with a mustache-covered onesie – Thursday’s 16-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds simply played like Jake Being Jake.

And while last August this felt like a young group that might wilt down the stretch or fold under pressure or whatever 1908-inspired cliché you want to use, the 2016 Cubs are a swaggering uber-team with a plus-60 run differential that suggests their best-in-baseball record should be 14-2 instead of 12-4. 

The stunning transformation doesn’t happen without Arrieta, making July 2, 2013 a pivotal date for the Theo Epstein administration. That’s when the Cubs packaged rental pitcher Scott Feldman and reserve catcher Steve Clevenger in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles for setup guy Pedro Strop, some bonus-pool money for international signings and a Triple-A Norfolk pitcher.

“We had scouted Jake extensively,” Hoyer said. “We had done a lot of makeup work on him. We did the same thing on Strop. At that time, we just needed to get power arms onto our team.

“Arrieta’s a perfect change-of-scenery guy. Strop had a really good year in 2012 during their playoff run – and he was scuffling – so it seemed like a good guy to take a chance on.

“But, yeah, when you make a deal like that, you’re hoping this guy becomes a regular contributor. Hopefully, he can hold down a rotation spot and really help us. You’re certainly not thinking a guy’s going to win 17 straight starts.

“What he’s done is obviously exceptional.”

The Cubs have a solid working relationship with Arrieta’s agent, Scott Boras, who also represents the left side of the infield for both of those no-hitters – shortstop Addison Russell and third baseman Kris Bryant.

The Cubs also relied on special assistant Kyle Evans, who had pitched in the Cleveland Indians farm system with Jeremy Guthrie, who played with Arrieta in Baltimore, vouched for his character and gave some insight into the situation with the Orioles. 

As much as the Cubs believed Arrieta would be a good person to bet on, Hoyer still admitted “that’s probably the area that we were the most off.”

“We loved his talent,” Hoyer said. “We knew we had to harness it. But with the makeup part, while we had very good reports, he’s actually been exceptional. That’s probably the area where we had no idea he was this great a competitor, this great a teammate, this dedicated to his craft.

“Some of those things have maybe improved since he’s been with us. But certainly we had no idea he was going to be this kind of person and player for the Cubs.”

The Cubs still have the strong pitching infrastructure that allowed them to rebuild Feldman’s value on a one-year, $6 million contract and sell high after 15 starts (7-6, 3.46 ERA). Beyond allowing Arrieta to simply be himself and forget about Baltimore’s cookie-cutter approach to mechanics, the game-planning system helped create a Cy Young Award winner.

Working with coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode, Arrieta is now 40-13 with a 2.17 ERA through 71 starts in a Cubs uniform…after putting up a 5.46 ERA in almost 360 innings for the Orioles.

“He just has more poise, maturity as a pitcher,” said second baseman Ben Zobrist, who faced Arrieta in the American League East while playing for Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays. “You could see back then that he had a lot of talent, but it was raw when I first saw him in Baltimore. You can see he’s much more of a polished product now.

“He’s got pretty good self-awareness on the mound of what he’s trying to do. Back then he struggled with throwing strikes. He struggled with controlling stuff.

“His stuff was always good. When he kept it in the zone, he was tough to hit. But he had a tough time keeping it in the zone. Now he’s throwing a lot more strikes and he knows himself better. He’s obviously figured it out.”

But the Cubs were in a position to allow Arrieta to figure it out, waiting for their competitive window to open while the Orioles were coming off a 93-win season in 2012 and would win 96 games in 2014. As much as the franchise’s financial restrictions influenced The Plan, the Cubs also benefitted from not going halfway in this rebuild. 

“We had been talking to Baltimore for a few weeks actually about that deal,” Hoyer said. “They needed starting pitching and they wanted to move. We had the advantage of being really one of the few teams that was willing to do it.

“There are always a lot of teams that are sellers, but a lot of times those sellers don’t want to wave that white flag that early in the summer.”

“We were,” Hoyer said with another laugh. “That was an advantage for us – that we didn’t have a lot of competition from other sellers at that moment in time.”

The Cubs could also “jump the market” because Buck Showalter – who has an outsized influence over player personnel for a modern manager – had known Feldman from their time together in the Texas Rangers organization and wanted immediate help for the Orioles rotation.

Leaving Baltimore would help turn Arrieta into arguably the best pitcher on the planet.

“He deserves it,” said Anthony Rizzo, the first baseman during both of Arrieta’s no-hitters. “He deserves everything he gets, because he works for it. He pushes me. He pushes other guys to work harder and get better and challenge ourselves.”

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

The cheer master’s whistle echoed through the ballpark, and dinosaur mascots wearing giant face masks danced on top of the dugout.

With fans absent due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sunday’s scene didn’t quite do the Korean Baseball Organization experience justice. But it was still the league that taught Ryan Sadowski how to let loose on the field.

"I found that as a player I didn't allow myself to enjoy my success the way I should have because it's the game of baseball,” Sadowski told ESPN in 2016. “You're not supposed to show that you enjoy your success. I think it's something I learned here (in Korea), that I would take to younger kids in the States."

Major League Baseball is well aware that its status in the United States will continue to slip if it can’t figure out how to reach a younger audience. This summer presents an opportunity. If the players and owners can agree to a deal that makes the league’s early July target date a reality, for weeks it will be the only major sport on television.

Sports fans are clamoring for action after a months-long drought. What better time to draw in new fans? In that regard, the KBO could have something to teach MLB.

Sadowski is in a unique position to compare the KBO and MLB. He played in both leagues before becoming a KBO scout. Sadowski’s support for on-the-field expression is one Cubs shortstop Javier Báez would likely get behind.

Báez had a message similar to Sadowski's on MLB’s YouTube channel recently. In a show taped during Spring Training, Báez chatted with Puerto Rican recording artist Residente while running the Grammy Award-winner through baseball drills.

“In my personal opinion, I would like to teach young people growing up to enjoy [the game],” Báez said in Spanish. “And if they fail, fail having fun. And keep doing what is right. Let the kids play.”

Báez has been criticized for his playing style, most famously in 2018 when he bat-flipped after a popup. Afterward, former Pirates manager Clint Hurdle questioned Báez's “respect for the game.”

But Báez's huck wouldn’t have been out of place in Sunday’s KBO game between the NC Dinos and Hanwhu Eagles. The broadcast didn’t feature the kind of ostentatious bat flips that have become so popular on social media. But still, in consecutive innings, players on both teams tossed their bats several feet up the baseline to punctuate base hits. No uproar ensued.

The rate at which KBO bat flips have spread through Twitter speaks to a hunger for showboating among young baseball fans. Why not embrace it?   

“It’s not that it is not the correct way of doing it,” Báez told Residente of his playing style. “It’s just not the way many coaches teach it.”

In the United States, the NBA is the poster child for attracting millennial fans. In 2017-18, young adults led the league’s growth in ratings, according to Forbes. TV viewership among 18- to 34-year-olds was up 14 percent.

The NBA does an especially good job marketing its stars. Admittedly, the game lends itself to that strategy in a way that baseball does not. LeBron James can take over any game down the stretch, but Mike Trout isn’t going to get an at-bat every time the winning run is in scoring position.

But there are other ways NBA stars capture the fascination of young fans. Kids across the country grew up shrugging like Michael Jordan or pumping their arms and pounding their chests like LeBron James.  They take deep dives into YouTube, watching the most devastating dunks of all time – the more embarrassing for the defender, the better. None of that disrespects the game. The NBA and KBO have that in common.

MLB doesn’t have to adopt the KBO’s use of specific chants for each batter and embrace bat flipping for everything from home runs to ground outs – even though, by all accounts, those elements create a delightfully raucous atmosphere.

MLB doesn’t have to abolish baseball’s unwritten rules in one day. But an amendment is in order.

What if demonstrative zeal was instead embraced as a sign of respect for the game? After all, it might be MLB’s best hope of connecting to the next generation.

6 of Wrigley Field's worst 7th-inning stretch renditions in recent memory

6 of Wrigley Field's worst 7th-inning stretch renditions in recent memory

The seventh-inning stretch is a sacred tradition at Wrigley Field. Harry Caray passionately performed “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” every home game during his tenure as Cubs radio play-by-play man, previously doing so late in his tenure with the White Sox.

Caray died in 1998 and the Cubs have continued the tradition in his honor ever since, using a rotating cast of celebrities and former players as guest conductors. Last season, Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster performed at the Friendly Confines.

Some renditions are more memorable than others, though not in an endearing way like Cookie Monster’s. NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon sang 15 years ago Sunday, and not only did he refer to the ballpark as “Wrigley Stadium,” but also was off pace and didn’t really know the lyrics altogether.

Cubs fans showered Gordon with a chorus of boos, to which all he could do was chuckle and finish as fast as possible. 

Singing in front of 40,000 people isn’t easy, so it’s hard to be too tough on those whose appearances go awry. Nevertheless, guest singers know what they’re signing up for. On the anniversary of Gordon’s performance, here are five more of Wrigley’s worst in recent memory.

Mike Ditka — June 5, 1998

Well, Ditka certainly provided some energy. “Da Coach” didn’t take a breath in his 26-second blaring performance; perhaps he was winded from rushing up to the booth, to which he arrived a few moments late.

Ozzy Osbourne — Aug. 17, 2003

This isn’t a ranking of bad performances, but Osbourne sits atop the leaderboard anyhow. The Black Sabbath vocalist started off singing “Let’s go out to the ball game” before breaking into a mumble streak of made-up words. The look on Kerry Wood’s face summarizes things well.

Mr. T — May 25, 2009

It didn’t sound too good, but it sure was enthusiastic. Way to do your thing, Mr. T.

David Cross — Sept. 21, 2013

Hard to say what Cross, a stand-up comedian and actor, was going for here. He starred in three “Alvin and the Chipmunks” films and, fittingly, screeched into the mic a couple of times. Maybe it was all in jest? He ended his rendition by saying, “That was awful. I’m so sorry.” 

Scottie Pippen — Oct. 22, 2016

Pippen performed the stretch in the biggest game in Cubs history (at that point) — the pennant-clincher in 2016. The Bulls Hall-of-Famer was on tune to start before mixing up lyrics, then passing the mic to the animated Wrigley crowd. 

We’ll give Pippen a slight pass here, considering he brought six championships to Chicago during his playing days.  

With that, I'll leave you with this:

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.