Why Cubs see Jake Arrieta staying strong through October


Why Cubs see Jake Arrieta staying strong through October

NEW YORK – Whether or not Jake Arrieta still has that same aura of invincibility, the Cubs believe their Cy Young Award candidate can pitch into November.

Setting the standard at no-hitter/complete-game shutout meant it felt like a surprise when the “Arrieta dominates St. Louis Cardinals” story didn’t write itself in the divisional round.

The Cubs still beat baseball’s best team in the regular season, even on an off night for Arrieta, who saw his streak of 21 straight quality starts end after allowing four runs in 5.2 innings. He simply didn’t have the same sharpness (two walks) or finish to his pitches (one hit batter), reminding everyone that he’s still human.

Now Arrieta gets the New York Mets on Sunday night at Citi Field in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, with the Cubs already down 1-0 in this best-of-seven matchup and facing a team that just beat Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, eliminating the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“He’s not going to be perfect every time,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But I like the idea that he’s got a little extra rest going into this start. I’m anticipating a lot of what we’ve seen the last couple months.”

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That would be arguably the greatest second half for any pitcher in major-league history, putting up an 0.75 ERA after the All-Star break. The Cubs still haven’t lost a game Arrieta started since July 25, when it took Cole Hamels throwing a no-hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field.

But Arrieta only has so many bullets left in his right arm, nearing 244 innings this year, or 87 more than he threw last season in the big leagues after a shoulder injury wiped out his April.

“We intend to play in October every year,” Arrieta said. “That’s something that I just take into consideration throughout the training process, trying to prepare your body as best as possible. (That’s) shoulder care, keeping everything as injury-resistant as possible.

“Obviously, there are certain things you can’t control, but physically my body’s great. I feel like there’s still some work for me to be done. And I don’t think I’ve gotten to the end of my leash yet.”

The Cubs are certainly aware of all this and no one has any definitive answers, because pitching healthcare is a next frontier for the industry. Arrieta is also a workout freak coming into his own with an acute understanding of his own pitching mechanics and mind/body dynamics.

“He’s as in-shape as anybody that’s ever played this game,” Maddon said. “Now, of course, guys get hurt even though they’re in good shape. I understand that. (But also) the fact that (he’s almost) 30 years of age is different than if he was 23, 24 making this kind of a jump in number of innings pitched and number of pitches thrown. I’d probably be more concerned if he was 23 or 24, to be honest.”

Arrieta is also a top-10 pitcher in terms of pitches thrown per inning, averaging 15 during this breakout season and showing an ability to think through at-bats on his feet.

“That’s pretty darned good,” Maddon said. “So maybe he’s thrown a lot of innings, but a lot of non-stressful innings, which I do think matters.

“I hate when the pitcher has to work early in the inning to get his outs. That really bums me out. Normally, he’s not going to be pitching deep into that game. But for the most part, he hasn’t really struggled to get outs early in the game, and that has led him to pitching more deep in the game, and you’re seeing all these extra innings piling up.

“This guy’s really in great shape. He takes care of himself, repeats his delivery. He’s pitch-efficient. Those are the kind of things that I want to believe are going to permit him to be this guy this year – and in the future – without any kind of negative impact.”

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For Arrieta, the biggest challenge might be making sure his heart rate doesn’t start soaring eight hours before first pitch in front of a raucous New York crowd and a Cubs team that will be playing with a sense of urgency.

“The physical toll really hasn’t bothered me at all,” Arrieta said. “But I think that the mental side of it and all the energy you burn leading up to the game does have a little bit of effect. But having a couple of these under my belt now, I’m pretty confident going in that I’ll be able to handle that pretty well.”

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons. The Cubs confirmed the move Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke out of the Rangers camp.

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

Since the Cubs' early exit from the postseason, many have turned their attention to the 2019 roster and wonder if Brandon Morrow will be the team's closer next year.

However, the question isn't WILL Morrow be the closer, but rather — SHOULD he be counted on as the main ninth-inning option?

Morrow didn't throw a single pitch for the Cubs after the All-Star Game, nursing a bone bruise in his forearm that did not heal in time to allow him to make a return down the stretch.

Of course, an injury isn't surprising given Morrow's lengthy history of arm issues. 

Consider: Even with a half-season spent on the DL, Morrow's 35 appearances in 2018 was his second-highest total since 2008 (though he also spent a ton of time as a starting pitcher from 2009-15).

Morrow is 34 now and has managed to throw just 211 innings in 126 games since the start of the 2013 season. 

Because of that, Theo Epstein isn't ready to anoint Morrow the Cubs' 2019 closer despite success in the role in his first year in Chicago (22-for-24 in save chances).

"[We're] very comfortable with Morrow as part of a deep and talented 'pen," Epstein said. "We have to recommit to him in a very structured role and stick with it to do our best to keep him healthy. Set some rules and adhere to them and build a 'pen around that. I'm comfortable."

Epstein is referencing the overuse the Cubs have pointed to for the origin of Morrow's bone bruise when he worked three straight games from May 31-June 2 during a stretch of four appearances in five days.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs were very cautious with Morrow early in the year, unleashing him for only three outings — and 2 innings — in the first two-plus weeks of the season, rarely using him even on back-to-back days.

During that late-May/early-June stretch, Morrow also three just 2 pitches in one outing (May 31) and was only called upon for the 14th inning June 2 when Maddon had already emptied the rest of the Cubs bullpen in a 7-1 extra-inning victory in New York.

The blame or origin of Morrow's bone bruise hardly matters now. All the Cubs can do at this moment is try to learn from it and carry those lessons into 2019. It sounds like they have, heading into Year 2 of a two-year, $21 million deal that also includes a team option for 2020.

"It's the type of injury you can fully recover from with rest," Epstein said. "that said, he has an injury history and we knew that going in. That was part of the calculation when we signed him and that's why it was the length it was and the amount of money it was, given his talent and everything else.

"We were riding pretty high with him for a few months and then we didn't have him for the second half of the season. And again, that's on me. We took an educated gamble on him there and on the 'pen overall, thinking that even if he did get hurt, we had enough talent to cover for it. And look, it was a really good year in the 'pen and he contributed to that greatly in the first half.

"They key is to keep him healthy as much as possible and especially target it for down the stretch and into what we hope will be a full month of October next year."

It's clear the Cubs will be even more cautious with Morrow in 2019, though he also should head into the new campaign with significantly more rest than he received last fall when he appeared in all seven games of the World Series out of the Dodgers bullpen.

Morrow has more than proven his value in this Cubs bullpen as a low-maintenance option when he's on the field who goes right after hitters and permits very few walks or home runs. 

But if the Cubs are going to keep him healthy for the most important time of the season in September and October, they'll need to once again pack the bullpen with at least 7 other arms besides Morrow, affording Maddon plenty of options.

When he is healthy, Morrow will probably get a ton of the closing opportunities, but the world has also seen what Pedro Strop can do in that role and the Cubs will likely add another arm or two this winter for high-leverage situations.