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.”
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.”