Cubs

Jake Arrieta begins contract season by shutting down Cardinals and giving Cubs flashbacks to Cy Young year

Jake Arrieta begins contract season by shutting down Cardinals and giving Cubs flashbacks to Cy Young year

 

ST. LOUIS — Whatever happens from here, Jake Arrieta will always be remembered as a Cub, for the way he lifted the entire franchise during his Cy Young Award season, silenced the Pittsburgh Pirates in that 2015 wild-card showdown and beat the Cleveland Indians twice in last year's World Series.

But Arrieta certainly isn't turning this into a David Ross-style farewell tour or a Boras Corp. countdown to free agency, not when the Cubs have enough blue-chip talent, big-market resources and playoff experience to become the first team to defend a World Series title since the three-peat New York Yankees (1998, 1999, 2000).

As Arrieta struck out five of the first seven St. Louis Cardinals he faced on Tuesday night, he gave manager Joe Maddon flashbacks to when he dominated like Bob Gibson and became must-see TV for the no-hitter possibilities. What might be Arrieta's final season in a Cubs uniform began with a sharp 2-1 victory in front of another sellout crowd at Busch Stadium.

"Jake really looked good from the side," Maddon said. "The ball was moving a lot. It was very reminiscent of a couple years ago, his strike-throwing and the way the hitters reacted to the pitch."

Getting off to a good start is important for a Cubs team that will have to fend off the Cardinals and wants to be well-rested and peaking by October — as well as a pitcher super-agent Scott Boras has compared to $210 million Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer.

"It's not a distraction at all," Arrieta said. "The only thing I'm focused on is the other 24 guys in this clubhouse and the handful of other guys that will be a part of us at some point throughout the season. We got guys like Ian Happ who are waiting in the wings and will probably be a big part of our season this year.

"My contract is an ancillary part of just the game of baseball. It's part of the business side of it. But my focus is just to be here for the guys in the clubhouse and help us win another championship."

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Arrieta retired nine Cardinals in a row and 12 of the first 13 batters he faced before minimizing the damage in the fifth inning. That's when Stephen Piscotty got hit three different times — with an Arrieta pitch, while stealing second base and after hustling on a chopper to the right side of the infield. Arrieta didn't stop the ball. Javier Baez bobbled it and then fired toward home plate, drilling Piscotty's helmet and knocking him out of the game.

The Cubs clapped for Piscotty, who had been facedown in the dirt before walking off the field, the day after the Cardinals announced his six-year, $33.5 million contract extension. Arrieta only allowed that unearned run across six innings before handing the game over to a bullpen built for October. Koji Uehara, Pedro Strop and Wade Davis combined to get the final nine outs as the Cubs got even with the Cardinals after a one-run Opening Night loss that showed this rivalry still has some juice.

Arrieta's transformation into an ace helped swing the balance of power in the National League Central. It's only Game 2, but Arrieta could already feel flashes of 2015 against a strong St. Louis lineup.

"It started out that way, really crisp with everything," Arrieta said. "The sinker was moving a lot, the command of breaking balls was pretty on point. It got a little sloppy in the fifth and sixth. I got ahead of myself. The effort level was too much. I started rotating laterally a little too much versus trying to stay on top of the ball.

"But that's OK. Those are things that I'll continue to work through and try and get those things under control as I progress throughout the season.

"For the first one, it was really good."

 

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more rehab starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half showed that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well.

“We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

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Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is one step closer to becoming the unquestioned face of Major League Baseball.

For the next year, El Mago will be the cover boy for video-game-playing baseball fans, as Baez announced on his Twitter Monday morning he is gracing the cover of MLB The Show 2020:

On the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, Playstation released a video depicting why they chose Baez as the new face of the game:

Last year's cover featured Bryce Harper, announced before he even signed with the Phillies. 

Baez also joins the likes of Aaron Judge, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz as cover athletes for the PS4 game.

The 26-year-old Baez has become one of the most recognizable figures in the game, playing with a flair and swag that includes mind-bending baserunning maneuvers and impossible defensive plays. 

Case in point:

Baez missed the final month of the 2019 season with a fractured thumb, but still put up 29 homers and 85 RBI while ranking second on the team in WAR. In 2018, he finished second in NL MVP voting while leading the league in RBI (111) and topping the Cubs in most offensive categories. 

Theo Epstein said he never deems any player as "untouchable," but Baez is about as close as it gets for this Cubs team right now. He made the switch to shortstop full time this year and wound up with elite defensive numbers to go along with his fearsome offense and an attitude and mindset the rest of the Cubs hope to emulate.

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