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Jake Arrieta Effect could help next generation of Cubs pitchers

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Jake Arrieta Effect could help next generation of Cubs pitchers

MESA, Ariz. — Whatever numbers the Ivy computer system spits out, the Cubs will still have to account for Jake Arrieta’s intangibles.

The Cubs don’t want to buy into a bubble after Arrieta’s only wire-to-wire season in the big leagues, especially without the safety net of the franchise’s next big TV contract already locked into place.

Arrieta wants to be treated like a Cy Young Award winner, and Scott Boras didn’t become the most powerful agent in the game by taking hometown discounts and signing team-friendly deals.

But both sides recognize this is a great business relationship — for at least two more seasons — with the Cubs allowing Arrieta to be himself and getting a No. 1 starter who accepts all face-of-the-franchise responsibilities.

When Pierce Johnson got optioned to Triple-A Iowa last week, Arrieta sent a message to the first pitcher drafted here by the Theo Epstein administration.

“I told him that he’s right where he needs to be,” Arrieta said. “I’ve seen his process. I play catch with him on our side days. His direction is incredibly different than it was last year. The rotation on his ball is true. His timing is good.

“And I told him that it’s going to translate. You just need to block out all the other BS in between the lines, rather than focusing on where my delivery is at this point or that point.”

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Arrieta speaks with authority after the Baltimore Orioles tried to fix his mechanics and the natural crossfire motion the Cubs encouraged after a game-changing trade in July 2013. He had spent part of that season — and 2012 and 2010 and 2009 — at the Triple-A level.

The Cubs hoped Johnson would be on a faster track in 2012 when they chose him out of Missouri State University with the 43rd overall pick (as compensation for losing free agent Aramis Ramirez). A forearm issue hurt his draft stock, and he’s dealt with a series of injuries during an underwhelming start to his professional career.

Johnson kept listening after a rough start in the Cactus League — seven runs, three homers and three walks allowed through four innings — and responded by putting up four scoreless innings against the Cleveland Indians on Saturday night at Goodyear Ballpark.

A National League scout said that’s the best he’s seen Johnson throw (though the right-hander is not viewed as a frontline prospect).

“When you’re in between the lines, you have to just execute,” Arrieta said. “That can be the only mindset. I told him to stay on track where he is now because he’s right there.

“In between the lines for him right now is the adjustment. It’s nothing on Day 1 through 4. It’s figuring out how to stay locked in once he’s out there on the game mound facing live hitters. He is close. He knows it.”

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This isn’t just about Johnson — who went 6-2 with a 2.08 ERA in 16 starts for Double-A Tennessee last season — for an imbalanced organization stacked with young hitters.

While Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber experienced unbelievable growth spurts and completely warped the perception of a normal timetable for player development, Epstein’s front office has so far used 80 draft picks on pitchers and hasn’t seen any of them throw in the big leagues yet.

“Not pressure,” Johnson said. “I’m excited to get up there and play with those guys again, because I played with all those guys in the minor leagues. Just seeing those guys have success up there — it gives me hope, too. But I’d definitely say I’m a little jealous that they’re up there already.”

While managing the Tampa Bay Rays, Joe Maddon saw up close what James Shields did for the entire pitching staff, pushing his teammates to get better and be on the top step of the dugout paying attention and giving high-fives.

Shields passed that along to David Price, who handed it down to Chris Archer. Arrieta could become that type of presence for the Cubs.

“There’s a lot of guys that talk about doing stuff like that but never really do (it),” Maddon said. “The fact that he’s actually taking the time to do that — because that takes away from his overall day — that’s the kind of stuff that matters.

“Hopefully, that’s what will make us really good for years to come — the fact that we’ve got a bunch of guys like that who are willing to share.”

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Of course, if Arrieta can somehow influence a next generation of pitchers at Wrigley Field, then maybe that $200 million would be better spent somewhere else.

“What a good guy, on and off the field,” Johnson said. “Every day he came up to talk to me. After outings, we would kind of diagnose everything, what went wrong, what went right, how to make adjustments and what to do.

“The way he goes about his business and everything is phenomenal. So if I can translate that to my game, hopefully it can take off like his.”

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

As the Cubs peruse over their list of managerial candidates, one name reportedly made a strong impression following his interview with the team.

According to NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan, Astros bench coach Joe Espada left the Cubs front office “exceptionally impressed” following his interview on Monday.

Espada, 44, has spent the last two seasons as Astros bench coach following three seasons as Yankees third base coach. He is one of MLB’s more sought after managerial candidates this winter and one of three known external candidates for the Cubs’ opening, along with Joe Girardi and Gabe Kapler.

Former Cubs catcher and current front office assistant David Ross has been the presumed front runner for the Cubs' opening. But based on Kaplan’s report, Espada clearly has given Epstein and Co. something to think about, which makes sense, considering Espada is coming from an innovative Astros organization.

Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference that there’s no timeline for the Cubs’ managerial search. However, MLB prefers teams to not make big announcements during the World Series, which kicks off on Oct. 22. Thus, the Cubs may not make an announcement for little while longer, though this is purely speculation.

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The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

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AP

The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

If anybody thought the Cubs' 2019 season was a roller coaster, it was nothing compared to what Brad Wieck has gone through this year.

Wieck — the 6-foot-9 left-handed reliever — went from a cancer diagnosis to a Padres cast-off and wound up finishing the year carving through the heart of the Cardinals order in the eighth inning of a must-win game in late-September for the Cubs.

Wieck began 2019 with a testicular cancer diagnosis in January and underwent surgery shortly after. That left him playing catch-up all spring training, unable to lift, run or throw off a mound for a month after the surgery. He only ended up facing live hitters twice before the regular season started and was never able to recover with the Padres, putting up a 5.71 ERA in 34.2 MLB innings. 

Then the Cubs came calling.

While the rest of Cubdom was understandably occupied on Trade Deadline Day celebrating the Nick Castellanos move, Theo Epstein's front office made a smaller move with the San Diego Padres. And Wieck wasn't even the central focus of that trade, as more of the emphasis was on the departure of Carl Edwards Jr. — a polarizing figure in the Cubs bullpen the last few seasons, including throughout the 2016 World Series run.

Yet Epstein's front office didn't treat Wieck like a throw-in. From Day 1 with the organization, the Cubs handled the southpaw more like a first-round draft pick.

Right after the trade, Wieck was immediately assigned to Triple-A Iowa, where he made a pair of appearances against the Tacoma Rainiers. From there, he was invited to Chicago to meet with the Cubs front office and throw a bullpen off the Wrigley Field mound.

"So I got here and they had a whole presentation of what my current curveball looked like and what they would like the shape of it to look like and so we just started messing around with grip," Wieck said. "I went to a spike curveball grip and we got in the lab and we started throwing it more and we came up with consistent break of what we thought was gonna be a better break than the curveball that I had.

"Just trial and error, honestly. We just looked at Rapsodo stuff and saw what spin efficiency is doing and spin rate and trying to get my curveball spin to replicate the exact opposite of my fastball. That's what our goal was."

That led to a trip to the "Pitch Lab" in Arizona where Wieck worked with Josh Zeid, the Cubs' pitching analyst, to continue to mess around with the new curveball grip and add a new, consistent weapon to his arsenal. 

If the term "spike curveball" sounds familiar, it should. It's become the unofficial pitch of the Cubs (you know, if organizations defined themselves by just one pitch). Rowan Wick — Wieck's former roommate in the Padres system — broke out as a trusted big-league reliever in large part because of the emergence of his spike curve. Craig Kimbrel throws one and also taught the pitch to Yu Darvish, who added it to the plethora of options already at his disposal. 

Wieck's time in Arizona was about getting comfortable with the new pitch and not worrying about facing hitters or pitching in a game. After a couple weeks in the desert, the Cubs threw him back out on the mound in Iowa, where he made four appearances before getting the call to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September. 

Right off the bat, we got a look at that spike curve and there is no doubt it can play at Wrigley Field, especially when the shadows roll in:

Just like that, a new weapon was born and Wieck developed more confidence in that reshaped curveball.

"I like that they're forcing me to throw it more because I've been a fastball-heavy pitcher my whole life," Wieck said. "I trust my fastball with my life. To have a catcher get back there and make you throw it, that's really good."

The Cubs' confidence in Wieck also grew as the month went on. He emerged alongside his buddy Wick as vital pieces of the late-season bullpen while Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler dealt with injuries. It got to the point where Joe Maddon kept Wieck in to face the Cardinals' big boppers (Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — both right-handed hitters) with a 1-run lead in the eighth inning on that final homestand. We all know how that game ended (Kimbrel served up homers on back-to-back pitches for another gut-wrenching Cubs loss), but Wieck did his job and proved he's far more than just a lefty specialist.

This fall was the first time Wieck had been a part of a playoff push and that outing against the Cardinals was only the 46th MLB appearance of his young career. Moving into 2020, the 28-year-old southpaw looks to be one of only a few arms penciled into the Cubs bullpen. 

The Cubs had their eyes on Wieck for a while before they were able to trade for him and they don't plan on rolling out a big presentation for each acquisition or ask every new arm to start throwing a brand new pitch or completely remake one of their existing pitches. This was a unique situation, but it's one that already paid dividends in a short period of time and could help set up the bullpen for the future. 

It's also another indicator that the "Pitch Lab" can work, as Wieck joins Wick and Kyle Ryan as products of the Cubs' new model they hope to fine-tune and grow. Epstein will hire a director of pitching for the organization this winter and the Cubs are hoping to change the narrative surrounding their shocking lack of pitching development under this front office. 

In Wieck's case, it was a group effort from the Cubs — the front office, research and development department, big-league coaching staff (led by pitching coach Tommy Hottovy), the pitching analytics unit based in Arizona and minor league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara all teamed up to make it happen for the tall lefty in only a month's time.

It's a model the organization will attempt to duplicate moving forward, beginning this winter.