Results tagged ‘ Jake Arrieta ’

From the Pages of Vine Line: Strength in Numbers

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Javier Baez got his first taste of major league action this summer. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

When Theo Epstein sat in front of the assembled media last October and announced, “The story [around the league] is that the Cubs are coming fast, and the Cubs are coming strong,” many had trouble stifling laughter. How could Epstein suggest a team fresh off its third-consecutive 90-loss season was on the rise—especially during a press conference announcing the firing of the club’s manager, Dale Sveum?

It seemed preposterous at the time, but Epstein was hardly joking. He knew what he and his staff had built over the previous two seasons, and he believed it wouldn’t be long before that lofty statement was accepted as fact—even by those not paying close attention to what’s been happening in the Cubs system.
Sure enough, while the 2014 season didn’t produce a dramatic increase in wins, the media and fans finally got a chance to see what the Cubs have been building, as the first wave of prospects finally funneled into Wrigley Field.

It all began with Arismendy Alcantara and Kyle Hendricks, two somewhat under-the-radar prospects, but intriguing players nonetheless. Next, one of the best power hitters in the minors, Javier Baez, arrived in the big leagues—along with the corresponding media maelstrom. Finally, the Cubs called up Cuban slugger Jorge Soler toward the end of August.

Not every one of these young players immediately took the National League by storm. There have been ups and downs. But each has provided a spark and shown the potential to be a big contributor to the next Cubs playoff run—which is exactly how the front office drew it up.

“It’s a lot of fun, and there’s definitely a lot of energy,” Hendricks said. “I’m just glad a lot of us have been able to perform well. I think that’s a testament to the coaching we have in the minor leagues. The guys got us ready for this level.”

Epstein understands that this process, which has included many losses, has been tough for both the players and the fans. That’s why finally being able to display the fruits of the front office’s labor has been so rewarding.

“These are players who have been part of our plan, part of our vision, for a while now,” Epstein said. “Now that they’re up here, people can get excited about it. It creates a little bit of momentum, which is nice to have around the organization.”

MASTER PLAN
So what exactly is the Cubs’ vision, and what has the organization been doing to realize it?

When Epstein was first introduced as president of baseball operations in late October 2011, he laid out his plan for how he wanted to rebuild an organization that had gone from being the toast of the National League to 91 losses in just three years.

“Our goal will be to build the best scouting department in the game—one that makes an annual impact in the draft and internationally,” Epstein said at the time. “As far as player development goes, we will define and implement a Cubs Way of playing the game, and we won’t rest until there is a steady stream of talent coming through the minor league system trained in that Cubs Way making an impact out here at Wrigley Field.”

Epstein didn’t waste much time in following through with those promises. A week after his introduction, he sat in front of the media yet again, this time introducing Jed Hoyer as his new executive vice president and general manager and Jason McLeod, a man Epstein referred to as the “rarest commodity in the industry—an impact evaluator of baseball talent,” as his senior vice president of scouting and player development.

The three men spent the next year evaluating what they were working with from the bottom of the organization all the way to the top. After a year, they made a few tweaks to the scouting department, and completely revamped the player development side. Brandon Hyde was brought in as the farm director, but has since moved on to become manager Rick Renteria’s bench coach, while Jaron Madison has transitioned from amateur scouting director to Hyde’s old position.

Under Hyde, the Cubs hired four new minor league coordinators and had one of their better developmental seasons throughout the system in 2013.

Of course, it certainly helped that so much talent had been added to the mix—and continues to be added to this day—through astute trades, the amateur draft and international signings.

“In order to have success in this game, the foundation has to be through scouting and player development,” Hoyer said when he was introduced as general manager. “There’s no shortcut. There’s no magic bullet. All three of us believe in the philosophy wholeheartedly.”

Hoyer acknowledged the ultimate goal is to win a championship, so the baseball operations department first had to build a team that went into Spring Training every season with a realistic shot at making the playoffs. Less than three years later, it appears the Cubs are on the verge of achieving that goal.

And it’s not just the players who have reached the majors this year that have so many people both inside and outside the game optimistic about the Cubs’ immediate future. While the influx of top-notch talent is undeniable, it’s quite likely the best is yet to come.

Last year’s top draft pick, Kris Bryant, dominated every level of the minor leagues, making it all the way to Triple-A Iowa in his first full professional season. His otherworldly stat line of .325/.438/.661 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 43 home runs and 110 RBI has pushed the third baseman to the top of the national prospect rankings. Shortly after the season, he was named both USA Today’s and Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. Addison Russell, a consensus top 10 prospect in the game, was acquired in early July via trade and has continued to excel, hitting for both power and average while playing strong defense at shortstop.

Kyle Schwarber was the fourth pick in June’s amateur draft and has already shot up two levels in the Cubs system. So far, he has displayed an impressive combination of power and patience at the plate and appears to be on the fast track to the majors.

And that’s not all. The regime’s first draft pick from 2012, Albert Almora, made it to Double-A at the tender age of 20, and the international scouts flexed their muscles in 2013, as the Cubs spent more money than any other organization. Thanks to those efforts, they added big-time prospects like Jen-Ho Tseng, Eloy Jimenez, Gleybar Torres and Jefferson Mejia, all of whom are proving advanced for their age and are ranked as top 20 organizational prospects by MLB.com.

The system is not only loaded with talent, it’s also deep, ensuring that as the Cubs continue to graduate players to the big leagues, the cupboard won’t suddenly be left bare. It looks like Epstein and Hoyer have built the scouting and player development “machine” they promised to work toward when they were first brought into the organization.

CALL TO ARMS
Of course, since the majority of the Cubs’ young players grabbing headlines are bats, there are still questions about where the organization is going to find the right combination of arms to lead the charge. But even on that front, the team is better off than most people realize.

The front office has now divested the organization of the many onerous contracts from the Hendry regime—meaning there is money to spend—and has proven quite adept at identifying and acquiring undervalued pitching talent. Names like Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel, who all excelled under the tutelage of pitching coach Chris Bosio, have been used to acquire players who fit into both the short- and long-term plans.

Feldman, in particular, netted a huge piece in pitcher Jake Arrieta. A former top prospect, the 28-year-old underwhelmed during parts of four years in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles. Though Arrieta was perhaps at his lowest value at the time, the Cubs were bullish about the struggling righty. After missing the first month of the 2014 season with shoulder soreness, Arrieta went on to make the move look like a stroke of genius, putting together a season that rivals those of some of the best pitchers in the game.

Hendricks, acquired from the Rangers in the 2012 Ryan Dempster deal, also opened eyes with a strong run of starts to begin his major league career. Though many had the 24-year-old pegged as a fringe major leaguer and back-end starter at best, his poise and control are making some wonder whether he can exceed expectations and become a big part of the rotation’s future.

“He’s doing exactly what he did in the minor leagues,” Epstein said. “He’s as polished and prepared as you’ll see with any rookie. We speculated that he might even take it to another level when he got to the big leagues because he uses all the tools available to him as well as anybody.

“We have video in the minor leagues, but we don’t have this much video. We have scouting reports in the minor leagues, but we don’t have scouting reports this extensive. He just attacks the video and attacks scouting reports. They’re a huge weapon for him. You see the confidence he has. No matter how good a hitter he’s facing, he’s likely to have identified one area he can attack and put [himself] in a good position to have a chance to get him out. I think that’s been big for him. We’re awfully proud of how he’s adjusted.”

Epstein has acknowledged that while he doesn’t think the Cubs’ position player group is a finished product, he certainly feels great about the nucleus the organization has built. Even with Arrieta, Hendricks and the surprisingly impressive Tsuyoshi Wada (who will be 34 next season, but could still find himself competing for a spot in the Cubs rotation), the obvious focus becomes how to build up the front five.

“I like some of the pitchers we have coming along in the minor leagues, and I think our big league staff has done sort of an underrated job this year,” Epstein said. “There are some bright spots. But we’ve been open about the fact that it would be nice to add an impact pitcher or two. When you look over the next 18 months or so, that’s certainly a priority for us. Whether we develop one from an unlikely spot like might be happening with Arrieta or acquire someone who’s already at those heights remains to be seen.”

FINISHING THE JOB
Surprise success stories like Arrieta and Hendricks, coupled with bounce-back years from Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, have certainly boosted the optimism around the team as the prospects are rising to the big leagues.

“It’s good for the fans,” Hendricks said. “They’ve needed some winning the last few years, and unfortunately we haven’t been able to give it to them. I think with a lot of us young guys coming up—a lot of young hitters especially—they’re doing an unbelievable job. And there’s more to come.”
While the narrative may have recently changed as far as the media and average fans are concerned, nobody within the Cubs organization considers the work done.

“Our fans deserve to get excited. I’m happy for them,” Epstein said. “Ultimately, the only thing that matters is winning. That’s what’s on our mind, and we’re working hard to get there. Having young players that are worth following and at-bats you can’t miss, we’re human and that makes us feel good that our fans have something like that in their lives at this point, because certainly there’s been some tough times that they’ve had to endure.”

Epstein and company know they’ve still got work to do. They’re aware that pitching is a need, as is a veteran presence in the clubhouse to lead by example. But they strongly believe they’re on the right path and have felt that way for some time now. Still, the ultimate goal has yet to be accomplished.

“We’ve felt really good about it for a period now, and we also feel like there’s so much more work to do that we don’t deserve any kudos or pats on the back,” Epstein said. “On the other hand, we’re all human, and we feel the optimism of our fans and our players. It only makes us want to work harder and finish it off. We’ll feel like it’s finished when we win the last game in October.”

—Sahadev Sharma, Baseball Prospectus

From the Pages of Vine Line: Jake Arrieta and the evolution of an ace

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

The following can be found in the September issue of Vine Line.

Jake Arrieta has been in this position before. Call it being the ace of a pitching staff. Call it being an Opening Day starter. Call it being a team leader.

He was all that a few years ago with the Baltimore Orioles. And he’s all that again now with the Chicago Cubs.

A lot has happened in the intervening years, of course, including a trade from Baltimore to Chicago and some time in the minor leagues, as Arrieta attempted to add a little more polish and command to his outstanding pure stuff. It’s all led to a dramatic career renaissance that once again has Arrieta acting as the No. 1 starter on a big league pitching staff.

Circumstances dictated part of his ascendance, to be sure. The Cubs set off some big fireworks this year on the Fourth of July when they traded their top two arms, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, to the Oakland Athletics for three high-ceiling prospects.

But Arrieta’s performance had a lot to do with it too. Even if the Cubs had kept Samardzija and Hammel, it’s becoming clearer with every outing that Arrieta might still have been the ace.

The 28-year-old hurler began the season on the disabled list with a shoulder ailment that accompanied him to Spring Training. He returned to the active roster in early May and quickly showed he was not only healthy, but that he was also becoming everything the Cubs were hoping for when they acquired him from Baltimore last July.

“I don’t really think that the shoulder issue to start the year out has much to do with my change of expectations or things of that nature,” Arrieta said. “It’s satisfying to be at peace with a team that’s going through some changes and [to be] able to have success on a consistent basis. All those things are good. I just want to keep building off every positive, and even the negatives, because there are things that are hard to learn from successes. It’s the complete opposite with your failures.

“When Rory [McIlroy] won the [British] Open, he brought that up. The top-echelon guys of every sport, whatever it might be, they have that same type of mindset, and I think it’s a good one to have.”

The Cubs obtained the fifth-round draft choice out of Texas Christian University on July 2, 2013, along with reliever Pedro Strop, from the Orioles for pitcher Scott Feldman and catcher-infielder Steve Clevenger. In Baltimore, Arrieta was supposed to assume the ace mantle—he was even the O’s Opening Day starter in 2012—but, despite top-level stuff, he could never find the consistency to cement a spot in the major league rotation. Over parts of four AL East seasons, the hurler went 20-25 with a 5.46 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) in 69 games, including 63 starts.

After the trade last season, Arrieta was assigned to Triple-A Iowa to sort things out, but when the Cubs needed another starter after dealing Matt Garza to Texas at the deadline, Arrieta got the call to Wrigley Field. He spent one more short stint at Iowa, but finished the season with the Cubs, going 4-2 with a 3.66 ERA in nine promising starts.

At the outset of the 2014 season, it looked like Arrieta would slot in nicely behind Samardzija, Hammel, Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson until the shoulder injury derailed his spring.

But when Arrieta finally did return to action, he did so with gusto, going 8-5 with a 2.82 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP. Included was some serious flirtation with a no-hitter at Boston’s Fenway Park on June 30, when he went 7.2 innings without giving up a hit and earned appreciative applause from the Red Sox faithful when he was lifted for a reliever.

In the start directly before that, Arrieta was perfect through six innings against the Reds at Wrigley Field.

So that run of success naturally raises the question of what has changed. While many athletes deflect those sorts of queries and stubbornly insist they’re not doing anything different, Arrieta addressed the subject in his typically candid manner.

“Almost all of it is beyond the physical aspects of this game,” he said. “It’s more of the mental preparation and just the rearranging of certain thoughts—what’s important and what’s not. A lot of self-reflecting continuing to come to fruition. Things that you need to reiterate with yourself, positive things, negative things, and [then using] those to your benefit.

“If you can find out how to do that, how to bounce back, how to keep things rolling in a positive direction, regardless of success or failure, that’s what it’s all about. I think I’m slowly starting to figure it out and continuing to learn every day.”

No one knows a pitcher quite like his pitching coach does. Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio cited maturity as a big reason for Arrieta’s rapid progress—and he said it’s much more than just being a year older and wiser.

“I think it’s his routine,” Bosio said. “I think he’s found it. He understands what he’s got working for him on that day in his warm-up. As pitchers, we all tend to force the issue at times. But the awareness that he has—and I think that’s what we mean by the maturity as a pitcher moving forward—he knows what his weapons are. He’s able to read the hitters now.

“He made the statement to me that he feels stronger than he’s ever felt. To me, the biggest thing that really tells you in a nutshell [how someone is doing] is confidence—his confidence in all these things: how he feels, how his pitches are coming out, what he’s bringing every fifth day. He’s got an excellent workout in between his starts.”

At 6 feet 4, 225 pounds, with a blazing fastball, Arrieta is certainly a power pitcher, but not in the traditional sense. He features an interesting and somewhat mysterious repertoire. He has a 94-mph fastball, and a slow 79-mph curveball. But the pitch that’s really been turning heads—hitters’ heads in disbelief and Cubs’ heads in awe and admiration—has been referred to alternately as a slider-cutter or a cutter-slider. Nuance with various pitches comes from grip, finger pressure and the speed at which the pitch is thrown, but no one seems willing to definitively classify Arrieta’s out pitch.

According to the website FanGraphs, Arrieta has increased the use of his cutter from 6.1 percent to 28.6 percent and decreased the use of his fastball from 65.1 percent to 46.6 percent from last year to this year.

“He changes pitch to pitch,” Bosio said. “That’s the one thing that makes him so unpredictable as a power guy. One time, he’ll come with one pitch one speed, and it might be 83 or 84 (mph), and the next time he’ll throw it at 90 or 92. He keeps you guessing. The biggest thing with pitchers is we don’t want to be predictable. Being able to locate on both sides of the plate is pretty unpredictable when you’re able to change gears like that.”

For his part, Arrieta shrugs off all the fuss surrounding the mysterious pitch. He said it all goes back to that maturity and being able to confidently harness his stuff.

“I’ve always had it,” he said of the slider-cutter. “I’ve always shown it. I just never really showed command of it. I never showed enough command of my fastball to use that pitch in the situations where I can now use it comfortably in pretty much any count.

“I can change the break. I can change locations. I’m not perfect with it. I’m still working to become better with the pitch just as I am with all my other pitches. But it’s something I have a comfort level with. I’m able to trust it and let it go.”

It’s safe to say Arrieta is one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2014 season—not only for the Cubs, but in all of baseball. Getting over the command issues and recovering from the Spring Training injury both contribute to that, but Arrieta also possesses supreme faith in his stuff, despite his previous failures in Baltimore.

“His stuff is playing very, very well,” said Cubs manager Rick Renteria. “I know he’s commanding the zone. His ball is showing a lot of life. He’s able to control the movement, basically where he wants it to be. I think those are things that are starting to come to him more comfortably just because of his experience.

“Every year, your hope is that a player is able to take away something good from failure, so to speak,  but continue to grind out and learn and just basically execute, and that’s what he’s been doing.”

One person not entirely surprised by Arrieta’s newfound success is Strop, who has watched his teammate grow as a pitcher in two separate organizations.

“I just think he’s been more consistent with the strike zone, with his command, because stuff-wise, he always had good stuff,” Strop said. “He’s using more of his cutter now than before, and I think that’s been a huge key in the difference. I always thought he could be a No. 1 starter on any team because of the stuff he has. Sometimes he’ll come out for an outing unhittable. It was something that was obvious. You could see that he could be that kind of pitcher in the future. He can be a leader of this rotation and this team. He’s a great kid and a hard worker.”

So what’s different for Arrieta? For the second time, he is getting a chance to be the ace on an up-and-coming team, but this time, he believes he has the skills to turn that opportunity into a consistently winning hand.

“It’s a situation, it’s a position that I’ve become comfortable with,” he said. “I haven’t been in this situation in a couple of years, but I know what it feels like. I know what it means. I know the importance of it to my teammates, the other guys in this clubhouse, to be a leader by action and also by demonstrating the will to help your teammates get better on and off the field. Those are all important aspects of being a leader based on performance and by being a guy in the clubhouse guys can go to.”

Arrieta once again finds himself at the top of a major league rotation, and he has no plans to relinquish that spot any time soon.

—Bruce Miles, Daily Herald

Now Playing: Jake Arrieta, Evolution of an Ace

Jake Arrieta has been in this position before. Call it being the ace of the pitching staff. Call it being the Opening Day starter. Call it being the team leader. He was all that a couple of years ago with the Baltimore Orioles. And he’s all that again now with the Chicago Cubs.

A lot has happened in the intervening time, of course, including a trade from Baltimore to Chicago and some time in the minor leagues, as Arrieta attempted to add a little more polish and command to his outstanding pure stuff. It’s all led to a dramatic career renaissance that once again has Arrieta acting as the No. 1 starter on a big league pitching staff.

We sat down with Arrieta to talk about his career path and what’s changed this season. Pick up the September issue of Vine Line for the full cover story on Arrieta’s development.

Cubs agree to terms with 19 players

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Welington Castillo was one of 19 players to agree to a deal with the Cubs Monday afternoon. (Image by Stephen Green)

The Cubs have come to terms with 19 players on their 40-man roster with zero-to-three years of major league service time. The terms of the contracts were not disclosed.

The players who have reached agreements include right-handed pitchers Jake Arrieta, Dallas Beeler, Alberto Cabrera, Justin Grimm, Blake Parker, Neil Ramirez, Hector Rondon and Arodys Vizcaino; left-handed pitchers Zac Rosscup and Chris Rusin; catcher Welington Castillo; infielders Arismendy Alcantara, Mike Olt, Christian Villanueva and Logan Watkins; and outfielders Brett Jackson, Junior Lake, Matt Szczur and Josh Vitters.

Cubs acquire RHP Arrieta, RHP Strop from Baltimore

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(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty)

The Cubs today acquired right-handed pitchers Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop as well as two international signing bonus slots (slot numbers three and four) from the Baltimore Orioles for right-handed pitcher Scott Feldman and catcher Steve Clevenger.

Arrieta will be assigned to Triple-A Iowa while Strop is expected to report to the Cubs later this week.

Arrieta, 27, is a former top prospect with front-of-the-rotation stuff, but he’s yet to put everything together at he major league level. In parts of four seasons with Baltimore, he’s 20-25 with a 5.46 ERA in 69 appearances, all but six as a starting pitcher. He was originally selected by the Orioles in the fifth round of the 2007 Draft and made his major league debut in 2010 at the age of 24. He was a 10-game winner for the Orioles in 2011, going 10-8 with a 5.05 ERA in 22 starts.

The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Arrieta, whose fastball averages in the low- to mid-90s, was a member of Baltimore’s 2013 Opening Day roster and has had three stints with the big league club this season, going 1-2 with a 7.23 ERA in five starts. With Norfolk, Arrieta went 5-3 with a 4.41 ERA in nine appearances (eight starts).

Arrieta was drafted by the Orioles out of Texas Christian University and made his professional debut in 2008. A year later, he advanced as high as Triple-A, combining to go 11-11 with a 3.40 ERA in 28 starts between Double-A Bowie and Norfolk. He began the 2010 campaign by going 6-2 with a 1.85 ERA in 12 appearances (11 starts) with Norfolk to earn his first promotion to the big leagues.

Strop, 28, has struggled so far this season, but served as one of Baltimore’s primary set-up men last season, going 5-2 with three saves, 24 holds and a 2.44 ERA in 70 relief appearances. He tied for seventh in the American League in holds and limited opponents to a .283 slugging percentage, the sixth-lowest mark in the majors among pitchers who made at least 70 appearances.

The 6-foot, 175-pounder is 7-6 with three saves and a 4.14 ERA in 144 major league relief appearances with Texas (2009-11) and Baltimore (2011-13). He missed time on the disabled list this year due to a lower back strain and has gone 0-3 with a 7.25 ERA in 29 relief outings.

Feldman, 30, signed a one-year contract with the Cubs prior to the 2013 campaign and went 7-6 with a 3.46 ERA (35 ER/91.0 IP) in 15 starts this season. Overall, Feldman is 46-50 with a 4.66 ERA (424 ER/818.2 IP) in 219 major league games (116 starts) with Texas and the Cubs. Left-hander Chris Rusin (7-7, 3.27 ERA at Iowa) will pitch tonight for the Cubs in place of Feldman.

Clevenger, 27, batted .125 (1-for-8) in eight games with the Cubs this season before straining his left oblique on April 13.  He batted .327 (17-for-52) in 15 games with Iowa this year.

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