Jake Arrieta tuning out all the contract noise — and butterflies — in Cubs camp

Jake Arrieta tuning out all the contract noise — and butterflies — in Cubs camp

TEMPE, Ariz. — Jake Arrieta may be a Cy Young winner, he may have the best career ERA in a Cubs uniform since World War I and he may have given us the best second half performance the game of baseball has ever seen, but the dude still gets nervous just like everybody else.

The Cubs pitcher oozes confidence and welcomes the most high-pressure of situations on the baseball field, but that doesn't make him immune to a flurry of butterflies in the pit of his stomach.

For his first start in more than four months, Arrieta admitted as much in his spring debut on his 31st birthday Monday as he enters the final year of his contract with the Cubs.

"When you have a break like that, the first one's always a little jittery," Arrieta said. "It's good to get back out there in that environment with umpires, the opposition, fans.

"Butterflies, for me, is just an indicator that you care. It's something you're invested in. It's a first time being out there in a while. There's a little unknown, but you prepare for that and move forward. But I think it's a good thing to kinda have those nervous butterflies before a game like that."

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It took Arrieta only a couple pitches before the butterflies fluttered away.

"It was like, 'OK, I've done this before. It's nothing new,' he said. "But the time off is something that plays a part in that. I like it. It's something you get before every game, regardless of the circumstances."

Arrieta said he felt just fine physically, but had a couple things mechanically he will work to address in between Cactucs League appearances.

The toughest pitcher to hit in the league last year, Arrieta allowed five hits to the Los Angeles Angels across two innings, including a long homer to Jefry Marte.

He was more concerned with not overthrowing or acting like it was the middle of the season. 

He also insists he doesn't feel any differently in spring training at age 31 as he did in his early 20s.

"You hear age is just a number, and I believe it is," Arrieta said. "I take care of myself pretty well. Thirty-one doesn't sound great, but I still feel great and that's all I'm worried about."

Even though he's nearing the end of his standard prime years, Arrieta doesn't have much mileage on his arm as pitchers go, with less than 1,000 career big-league innings due to bouncing between the majors and minors earlier in his career.

He also is a supreme physical specimen and in such control over his diet/nutrition that eating pizza Sunday night as part of a birthday celebration made him feel "terrible."

As for his contract status, Arrieta is still determined not to let his impending free agency become an issue in the Cubs clubhouse.

[RELATED — Why Jake Arrieta's countdown to free agency won't become a distraction for Cubs]

"I think it has to [be ignored]," he said. "Not only because it's my mindset, but the 24-30 other guys in the clubhouse don't need to hear about my contract. It's just a distraction. 

"You're aware of it. I don't really harp on it. It's not something I sit down and think about at length. I just take it for what it is. It's a situation that many players have been in in the past and they've dealt with it just the same way that I will.

"It might not always be something fun to talk about, but I understand it's just a circumstance of where I'm at in my career and the time's coming to a point where it's either a deal gets done or I go to free agency and that's OK.

"It's kind of the business of the game, but really, I think the focus needs to be — for the next 8 months — being a Chicago Cub and trying to do the best job I can individually and help my guys be the best I can be."

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move


Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

The Cubs have reportedly made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

According to MLB Insider Robert Murray, the Cubs have reached an agreement with right-hander Daniel Winkler on a one-year deal.

Winkler, an Effingham, Ill. native holds a career 3.68 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.176 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 117 games (100 1/3 innings). He spent 2015-19 with the Atlanta Braves, undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2014 and another elbow surgery in April 2017. The Braves dealt him to the San Francisco Giants at the 2019 trade deadline for closer Mark Melancon.

Winkler posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 big league games last season and a 2.93 ERA in 30 minor league games. His best MLB season came with the Braves in 2018, as he made a career-high 69 appearances and posted a 3.43 ERA, striking out 69 batters in 60 1/3 innings.

The Cubs entered the offseason in search of bullpen upgrades following a rough 2019. That search includes finding pitchers who may not have long track records, but qualities demonstrating their ability to make an impact at the big-league level. In this case, Winkler possesses solid spin rates on his cutter, four-seamer and curveball, meaning he induces soft contact and swings and misses.

“We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference, “which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

The Cubs were successful in unearthing arms last season, acquiring Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck from the Padres in separate deals. They recently acquired Jharel Cotton from the Oakland A’s in a similar buy low move.

Not every pitcher will be as successful as the Wi(e)cks were last season, but the Cubs must continue making low-risk bullpen moves. At the best, they find a legitimate relief arms; at the worst, they move on from a low-cost investments.

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