Cubs

How Scott Boras sees Jake Arrieta's free agency and legacy with Cubs

1107_scott_boras.jpg
USA TODAY

How Scott Boras sees Jake Arrieta's free agency and legacy with Cubs

The Cubs essentially had Jake Arrieta’s countdown to free agency in mind from the moment they made that franchise-altering trade with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season, allowing him to hit the reset button in the minors while also guaranteeing an extra year of club control.

The Cubs stashed Arrieta at Triple-A Iowa for parts of July and August, a time when their big-league rotation featured Carlos Villanueva and Chris Rusin, Travis Wood had been their only All-Star representative and Edwin Jackson led the majors with 18 losses in the first season of a four-year, $52 million contract.

But no one inside Theo Epstein’s front office would have predicted Arrieta —  an enigmatic talent with a 5.46 career ERA in 358 innings for the Orioles —  blossoming to the point where he would become the top pitcher on the open market this winter and command a nine-figure contract.

Maybe the Los Angeles Dodgers feel a sense of urgency after watching Yu Darvish pitch 3.1 innings combined in his two World Series losses and see Arrieta as the missing piece to their first title since 1988. Perhaps super-agent Scott Boras does yet another deal with Washington Nationals owner Ted Lerner, making sure Gio Gonzalez doesn’t start twice in a five-game playoff series next year. The rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies could envision Arrieta as their version of Jon Lester.

But the day after the Cubs formally made the one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer Arrieta will reject without a second thought —  and before Boras does his stump speech during next week’s GM meetings in Florida —  it’s worth remembering and appreciating how both sides got to this point.

“When he came over from Baltimore, the one thing the Cubs placed in him was that they trusted his way of doing things, his thought process,” Boras said during a conversation at Dodger Stadium in the middle of the National League Championship Series. “They really helped him become consistent with his way of doing things. Rather than preaching change and dramatic change, they really preached a repetitiveness of what he felt he did best.

“The old story is that it takes a great idea for change, but it takes the right idea to create a difference. The right idea was to let him be himself.”

The environment that allowed Arrieta to flourish is changing, with Jim Hickey taking over for fired pitching coach Chris Bosio and the Cubs bracing for the possibility of replacing 40 percent of their rotation. (John Lackey isn't retiring, Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports and MLB Network reported Tuesday, and intends to pitch in 2018.)

But as an organization, the Cubs still have the long-range vision and eyes for talent that created a World Series winner, the elements of a defense that played at a historic level in 2016, plus two key staffers —  Mike Borzello and Tommy Hottovy —  who are expected to remain in place to oversee the game-planning/run-prevention system.

That pitching infrastructure —  plus the big raises coming for young Boras clients through the arbitration system and the massive financial obligations already on the books —  means the Cubs will keep trying to find more change-of-scenery guys like Arrieta.

Remember, Arrieta is someone who spent time at the Triple-A level during the 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013 seasons and even thought about quitting baseball and falling back on the business/marketing courses he took at Texas Christian University.

“With Jake, everyone told him how good he was physically,” Boras said. “And then he would have two good games. And then they would seek additional change. And then he would not perform well. And then he would go back to square one.

“(It’s going) back to square one multiple times and having everybody each time tell you: ‘Hey, physically, you’re a great pitcher. You have all this ability.’ You begin to reexamine your own self psychologically, because everyone is telling you how good you are, yet you keep getting replaced back in a position where you know you’re not succeeding. That was a very difficult number of years for Jake in Baltimore.”

At that point, are you trying to think of a way to get your client out of Baltimore and circling the Cubs as a rebuilding team with opportunity?

“Absolutely,” said Boras, who also represents high-profile Cubs like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Albert Almora Jr. “I called Theo about Jake, of course I did. I just said: ‘Hey, you know, I got a great player. You guys need to look at him.’ It was in conversation and things like that. And to Theo’s credit, they were on him. They knew all about Jake, which says a lot about how they do things.”

The Cubs won 63 percent of the games Arrieta started (81-47) and made the playoffs three years in a row for the first time since 1906-08. The Cubs don’t win their first World Series title since the Theodore Roosevelt administration unless he beats the Cleveland Indians twice on the road last year.

Since 2014, Arrieta has put up an ERA (2.67) and batting average against (.201) that ranks third among all big-league pitchers, posted an 18.5 WAR that matches David Price and generated a soft-contact percentage that’s almost exactly the same as Clayton Kershaw’s rate (22.1).

Do you think they’re going to miss Arrieta when he’s gone?

“The Cubs have made moves that increase the likelihood of consideration,” Boras said. “The reason for that is they traded all those minor-league players. Who’s the stock they have below?”

Arrieta’s emergence along with core players like Anthony Rizzo helped nudge the Cubs toward giving Lester a $155 million contract after a fifth straight fifth-place finish in 2014.

Arrieta’s transformation into the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner —  and complete-game shutout against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the wild-card game —  helped underwrite a spending spree on free agents that totaled almost $290 million.

No matter what happens from here, a huge part of Arrieta’s legacy will be as a Cub, and the history of the franchise couldn’t be written without explaining his impact.

“I really think he was a foundational piece for them to make decisions to go add more where they knew they could compete,” Boras said. “When Jake came up and he had that great half-season, it encouraged the Cubs to do more, because they really knew that they had a chance for a No. 1 starter, and then to advance growth of this team.

“The Cubs had to make some interesting decisions, because they literally had to trade a lot of their minor-league prowess to get to where they are today, to have a ring on their finger and then to reposition for another one.

“That, I think, largely in part, was the fact that they knew that they had Jake Arrieta at the foundation to do it.”

That will be the essence of the Boras sales pitch, how Arrieta is someone you can plan around, trust in the playoffs and drop into the middle of a clubhouse. The Cubs already know all this and don’t have an owner who will be sweet-talked into a megadeal, because chairman Tom Ricketts lets his employees do their jobs and doesn’t meddle in baseball operations. But Arrieta will get paid beyond anyone’s wildest dreams on July 2, 2013, when the Cubs traded Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger to the Orioles.

“He brings a stability factor that few major-league athletes do,” Boras said, “because he’s in great shape and he’s durable and he can pitch in big games and he’ll teach young pitchers. When you have those quadrants —  when you’re able to do all four of those things — they’ve proven to be those kinds of staples that a franchise can rely on. Jon Lester’s that way, too. There are not many of them.”

How Tommy Hottovy became a 'resource' for Cubs during COVID-19 pandemic

How Tommy Hottovy became a 'resource' for Cubs during COVID-19 pandemic

At the height of Tommy Hottovy’s illness, Cubs manager David Ross had to take over the pitching coach’s duties on his regular video conference with pitchers.

“When he spoke, he couldn’t get two words out without coughing,” Ross recalled Friday, before the Cubs’ first day of Summer Camp.

Hottovy, 38, battled the novel coronavirus for a month, while baseball was still on hold due to the pandemic. He finally got his first negative test back a few weeks ago. Hottovy was upfront about his condition with the pitchers, and on Friday Ross said he wanted Hottovy to speak in a team meeting.

“Just because he is such a powerful resource,” Ross said. “… He’ll be a god guy to go to if guys have questions.”

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Cubs news and analysis.

Hottovy’s story includes a fever that kept him awake from midnight to 6am every night, viral pneumonia that required breathing treatments, a trip to the hospital that he packed a bag for in case he had to spend the night.

Hottovy was isolated from his family for a month, sequestered to a spare bedroom their house, and he still felt guilty for putting them at risk. Those precautions kept his wife and two young children from contracting the virus from him.

“It’s very scary, and it’s awesome for him to share his story with us,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “There’s a lot of people unfortunately who have gotten this and were not able to tell their story, were not able to see their families for one last time. And it’s unfortunate. You can’t take days for granted.”

Utility man Ian Happ stayed in Arizona after MLB shut down Spring training in March. He lived with Cubs reliver Dakota Mekkes during that time.

“Dakota would be on the pitchers calls,” Happ said, “so you kind of got to walk the journey with Tommy a little bit and check in on him as he was going through it. And I think his experience, his story, it’s incredible. Not testing negative for 30 days and the impact that had on his family and everyone around him, I think it really puts it into perspective.

“It tells guys how serious this is and how cautious we need to be. Not just for ourselves, but for our teammates, their families and for everybody who’s working hard to be here for us.”

As far as COVID-19 testing goes, the Cubs opened Summer Camp on an encouraging note. League protocol restricts Ross from saying if any Cubs have tested positive, but he did say he expected all players who were scheduled to report Friday would be in camp. Two staff members did recently test positive at home and were expected to miss the beginning of camp, general manager Jed Hoyer announced earlier this week.

League-wide, only 1.2 percent of players and staff members tested positive for COVID-19 during the first week of intake screening, including 31 players. The league’s 101-page 2020 Operations Manual is designed to keep that number low. But the health and safety protocols are only as good as the clubs’ compliance.

“Every single person in the organization,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said, “every player, ever staff member, everyone in uniform, out of uniform, we all have to make great decisions, exercise great disciple, hold each other accountable, collaborate, go into it with an open mind and exercise real personal and collective responsibility.”

If that message wasn’t already clear, Hottovy’s experience put it into sharp focus.

 

SUBSCRIBE TO THE CUBS TALK PODCAST FOR FREE.

How Cubs open training camp in position of strength? Let them count the ways

How Cubs open training camp in position of strength? Let them count the ways

As the Cubs on Friday opened their second shot at a first impression this season, they were at full strength — minus one dishwashing mishap. And to hear the manager talk, they might be ready to play games as quickly as anyone in baseball.

Manager David Ross, who let the news slip during a Zoom session with reporters that all the Cubs players tested negative for COVID-19 during intake screening, already has his replacement pool in place for starter Jose Quintana (badly cut thumb/dishwashing), plans the team’s first intrasquad game Saturday and would seem to have very few job battles open in this three-week training camp.

“Thankfully, we’ve had a group that stayed ready,” Ross said, “and taking live batting practice, and [pitchers] have been throwing live bullpens and followed the protocols that our coaches have set out. 

“All of them look like they’re in phenomenal shape.”

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Cubs news and analysis.

Spoken like every manager on every first day of spring training. Except it was July, in Chicago, with three anxious weeks between now and the scheduled openers of a 60-game sprint of a would-be baseball season.

So, strap on the mask. Snap on the latex gloves.

And count the Cubs’ blessings as things open up:

— Aside from left-hander Quintana, the fourth starter whose season is in doubt as the Cubs await the progress in a few weeks of the surgically repaired nerve in his thumb, the Cubs expect to have everybody else scheduled to be in camp available for workouts, Ross said. This while teams such as the Phillies (four COVID-19 cases) and the Angels (nine inactive for undisclosed reasons) deal with more severe roster losses from the outset.

—Even Quintana’s loss has already, presumably, been replaced by sixth-man Alec Mills — whom Ross has “a ton of confidence in” — with right-handers Colin Rea, Adbert Alzolay and Jharel Cotton in the wings as rotation depth and candidates to fill Mills’ swingman/long role in the bullpen.

“We’ve gotten a lot of good reports back from the work that Colin Rea’s put in,” Ross said. “Jharel Cotton is a huge pickup, especially in this shortened season — and not having a lot of innings under his belt the last couple of years. And he feels really good and has stayed sharp. So, we’ve got some good options to fill that void internally that I have extreme confidence in.”

As for looking for outside help with Quintana down, Ross called that a “wait and see” proposition for front office bosses Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. “Jed and Theo are working hard on all areas of that.”

—Did somebody say job battles? When last they trod the diamond in March, the Cubs essentially had only a few bullpen spots, the center field mix (Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ or a combination of both) and second base (Jason Kipnis and/or Nico Hoerner) to figure out. But with a 30-man roster to start the short season, all four of those position players should not only be on the roster but also be in position to play significant roles. And the additional spots for pitchers figures to make some of the bullpen calls less fraught.

“We’ve got a little more leeway for some [roster] expansion,” Ross said. “But those pieces are going to be important, and they’re going to have value when they are on this team. So, you’ve still got to look at them through the same lens in putting the best group that you can together.”

—Did somebody say they’ve got to get a look at guys in competitive situations? Ross said enough pitchers have stayed on top of their throwing programs that his starters are ready to throw three innings out of the chute. Consequently, intrasquad games start Saturday, though Ross is ready to employ pitch limits and hamstring-forgiving guidelines for base running the first several days.

Still, as past Cubs managers have often learned the hard way, Ross seems to understand this will be no push-button operation, especially under these trying circumstances over these next few one-day-at-a-time weeks.

“It’s not something we can map out and say this is how we’re going to run things,” Ross said. “We’re going to take feedback from the players and when we can push them a little bit harder, we’re going to push them, and when we feel like we’ve got to back off, we’ll slow things down a little bit.

“Everything we’re having to do now is unique.”

SUBSCRIBE TO THE CUBS TALK PODCAST FOR FREE.