Cubs

Jake Arrieta gives Cubs an edge and a winning attitude

cubsarrietarolling082015.png

Jake Arrieta gives Cubs an edge and a winning attitude

Jake Arrieta’s evolution into one of the game’s most dominant pitchers accelerated the rebuilding plan at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs don’t want to think about where they would be without Arrieta, who spent parts of four years on the Triple-A level before getting traded from the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season in the Scott Feldman flip deal.

That explains why manager Joe Maddon wanted to be cautious during Thursday’s 7-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves – and why Arrieta sounded a little annoyed afterward in the interview room/dungeon.

“I don’t like to harp on quality starts,” Arrieta said. “I wasn’t really thrilled with six innings. I would have liked to get a little deeper.”

Arrieta can be on a different wavelength sometimes, but that makes him so interesting to talk with and fun to watch. The Cubs needed someone to stop a three-game losing streak and restore order after the Detroit Tigers dropped 25 runs on them the previous two nights at Clark and Addison.

[MORE: Will the Cubs have enough pitching down the stretch?]

The Cubs are scoreboard-watching now: The Pittsburgh Pirates opened their four-game series against the defending World Series champs with a 4-0 victory over the San Francisco Giants on Thursday at PNC Park. That left the Cubs four games behind the Pirates for the first wild-card spot and still in a playoff position, four games ahead of the Giants.

With the Cubs trailing the St. Louis Cardinals by 8.5 games in the division, fans, media personalities and basically anyone with a Twitter account can debate whether or not Arrieta should start a one-game playoff over Jon Lester.

“Everybody wants to pitch in the postseason,” Arrieta said. “At this point in time, we don’t intend to be a wild card. We still think we can win our division.

“We’re still in a position here where we can jump some guys if we can get hot and have some good fortune with the teams ahead of us.”

Arrieta earned his 15th win by getting 18 outs – seven strikeouts, zero flyballs and groundball after groundball – while allowing only four singles and one walk to lower his ERA to 2.30.

A seven-run lead allowed Maddon to shut down Arrieta after six scoreless innings. Arrieta had already passed his career-high in innings and is now at 168 with six weeks left in the season.

“I don’t think anybody really thinks it’s an issue,” Arrieta said. “I definitely don’t.”

Arrieta didn’t make the All-Star team – and doesn’t have that huge national name recognition yet – but at this point he should be in consideration for the National League’s Cy Young Award.

“Absolutely,” Maddon said. “There’s no question he is. We watched it all year. He’s been really, really consistent with high-end stuff. It’s not like a coincidence that he’s pitched this well.

“There’s so much positive going with him right now he’s got to be in consideration for all those things. He’s among the elite pitchers in the National League, probably in (all of) baseball. And beyond that, when it comes to awards at the end of the year, he has to be considered strongly.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Arrieta has now made 12 consecutive quality starts. The last Cubs pitcher to go on a longer run than that was future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, who put together 14 quality starts in a row in 1992, the first of his four straight Cy Young seasons (and only one in Chicago before jumping to Atlanta).

Just like Maddux, Arrieta is a Scott Boras client, positioned to become a free agent after the 2017 season and able to think his best years are still in front of him.

“Jake’s in a good rhythm right now,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “He’s got a little arrogance going on about him.”

That’s the attitude the Cubs are trying to create now – with Arrieta front and center.

“There’s no doubt that he’s a competitor,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “You can see the fire when he’s pitching.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: If Cubs somehow miss the playoffs will Joe Maddon's seat start heating up?

maddon_stl.jpg
USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: If Cubs somehow miss the playoffs will Joe Maddon's seat start heating up?

David Haugh (Chicago Tribune), Nick Friedell (ESPN.com) and Patrick Finley (Chicago Sun-Times) join David Kaplan on the panel.

The guys discuss Welington Castillo’s 80-game PED suspension, the Cubs struggles and if Joe Maddon could be on the hot seat if the Cubs somehow miss the playoffs in 2018.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

The Cubs will never go with a set lineup, but it's time to accept the reality of this offense

The Cubs will never go with a set lineup, but it's time to accept the reality of this offense

There is no quick fix for what ails the Cubs offense.

Manny Machado would certainly help. That much is certain.

But dropping one of the game's elite hitters into any lineup would help boost that team's offensive profile. The only question is: Would the long-term cost be worth it for a short-term gain?

Because Machado wouldn't cure everything with this Jekyll and Hyde Cubs offense.

After hammering Reds pitching in Cincinnati last weekend, the Cubs managed to score just 1 run against the Indians in 18 innings and they didn't even have to face Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco.

They went a combined 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position.

It was also the 42nd different lineup the Cubs have rolled out this season in 46 games.

That's been a point of contention for many, many fans wishing Joe Maddon would stick with one set lineup from 1-through-8 in the order. 

But that will never happen. 

For starters, this way does work. The 2016 Cubs boasted 130 different lineups throughout the course of the season and we all know how that year finished.

A set lineup also won't work because this isn't 1970 and some players are better than others for different matchups against opposing starting pitchers (like Albert Almora Jr. vs. left-handed pitchers and Jason Heyward vs. right-handed pitcher). Also, players need rest to ensure they'll be fresh for the stretch run in August and September and the postseason after that.

"It's such a non-sophisticated conversation," Maddon said. "I don't know how it begins. I've heard it from old baseball dudes — I think fathers pass it down to sons on occasion. It's like teaching your kid how to drive a stick shift; it just gets passed along.

"I try not to comment on it, because really, it's such a poor discussion. There's no sophistication to it whatsoever. It makes zero sense. It doesn't belong in today's game and actually it never belonged in anybody's game."

So what can the Cubs do to find more consistency on offense?

Honestly, not much beyond just continuing to develop. Remember, this is still a very, very young and inexperienced core of position players and growing pains are inevitable.

It's also the nature of the game right now with strikeouts way up and basehits down. 

Offense is naturally an ebb-and-flow, up-and-down kind of thing. Words like "feel" and "confidence" are thrown around so often because they matter.

But with the way baseball has gone, the peaks and valleys have become as prevalent as ever. Try to point to other teams right now that have had no trouble scoring runs on a consistent basis this season.

The Yankees are close, but that's one team. The Braves and Red Sox are the next two closest, but they're not without flaws.

Atlanta has scored just 3 runs in their last 3 games as they dropped a series to Jake Arrieta and the Phillies this week. The Red Sox haven't score more than 6 runs in a game since April 30.

It may seem like the Cubs are on a roller coaster all on their own, but that may just be because of HOW they go through valleys. 

The Cubs still struggle with runners in scoring position, ranking 26th in baseball in that area (.222 AVG). They rank 24th with runners in scoring position and 2 outs (.194 AVG).

But delve deeper and you'll see the Cubs actually rank near the top of baseball in RUNS in such situations. 

With guys in scoring position, they sit 5th in MLB wiith 168 runs. With guys in scoring position and 2 outs, they rank 6th in runs, ahead of the Yankees.

So they're giving themselves plenty of opportunity by getting guys on base and in scoring position often.

Another elite hitter would help things, sure. You could say that for any team in baseball.

But the simple fact of the matter is the Cubs are 4th in MLB in runs scored, 2nd in OBP, 3rd in OPS and 5th in SLG.

They do feast on poor teams and have trouble scoring against better opponents, but every team has that issue to some degree.

Getting Anthony Rizzo — whose 2018 OPS (.661) is almost 200 points below his career mark (.842) — back to his standard MVP-candidate level would certainly help matters, too.

The Cubs are on the right path — trying to use the whole field, hit the ball on a line more, make more contact — but it's not something that will become consistent parts of their respective offensive profiles overnight.

Maddon was actually OK with where his team was at before being shut out Wednesday night.

"I think a lot of guys are doing pretty well right now," Maddon said ahead of the Cubs' 1-0 loss. "...Overall, I kinda like what I'm seeing on the offensive side. I just think that OK, are we doing a better job of not chasing? I think so.

"Are we utilizing the opposite gap a little better? I think so. Strikeouts, I don't think anybody's overtly striking out too much right now. So I kinda like what we're doing with the bats. I kinda do. ... I think a lot of guys are starting to get it."

But there is still one area Maddon will never be satisfied with — getting runners home from third base with less than 2 outs.

"Of course," Maddon laughed, "I'm gonna talk about that for the next 10 years and I'm not gonna like it, probably."