Chicago Cubs

Jake Arrieta knows the score with Cubs: ‘If I have to leave, I don’t want to leave without another ring’

Jake Arrieta knows the score with Cubs: ‘If I have to leave, I don’t want to leave without another ring’

BALTIMORE – Jake Arrieta didn’t throw a baseball while relaxing at home in Austin, Texas, during an All-Star break the Cubs absolutely needed.

Walking the streets of Baltimore this weekend triggered memories, seeing where he used to live (when he wasn’t getting shuttled back to Triple-A), eating at one of his favorite restaurants, interacting with old Orioles teammates and appreciating the classic look and feel of Camden Yards.

Jose Quintana arriving here on Friday pointed to the Cubs filling a big hole in their 2018, 2019 and 2020 rotations and moving in another direction once Arrieta becomes a free agent after this season.

All these forces – decompressing from an all-consuming game, reminders of the struggling pitcher a Cy Young Award winner used to be and the dominos falling from the Quintana trade with the White Sox – made it seem like a good time to think about Arrieta’s future and how this could be his last chance to make history (again) with the Cubs.

“If I have to leave, I don’t want to leave without another ring,” Arrieta said after Saturday night’s 10-3 win set Quintana up for the sweep on Sunday afternoon.

The Cubs have scored 19 runs in their first two games after the All-Star break, but any sustained momentum will revolve around starting pitching. Arrieta kept an American League lineup off-balance for 6.2 innings in a steamy, hitter-friendly park, mixing in his cutter and changeup while limiting the Orioles to two runs (one earned) in the kind of controlled, efficient performance the Cubs desperately need if they are going to break out of their 45-45 pattern and make up those 5.5 games against the Milwaukee Brewers and Colorado Rockies in the division and wild-card races.

It doesn’t even have to be the Bob Gibson/Sandy Koufax/Dwight Gooden/Randy Johnson-esque push that catapulted the 2015 Cubs and transformed the franchise’s identity. It won’t be Max Scherzer money. But super-agent Scott Boras will get Arrieta paid for his raw stuff, durability, big-game performances and good clubhouse reputation.

“I would love to stay,” Arrieta said. “That would be cool. But if it doesn’t work out, that’s the nature of professional sports.

“We’re all on the same page here. Regardless of how we played the first half, that’s the end goal – to get back to the playoffs and then just have the chance to roll the dice and see what happens in October. And hopefully we get to play in November.”

Arrieta (9-7, 4.17 ERA) is starting to look more and more like the guy who beat the Cleveland Indians twice on the road during last year’s World Series. The thing is, Arrieta always thought he was The Man, even when he couldn’t stick in Baltimore.

“I joke with my friends,” Arrieta said. “I kind of tell them how I think I’m going to finish the second half. I don’t know if I’ll verbalize that to you guys, but I’m very confident.

“We didn’t perform the way we would like – all the way around – (in the first half). We expect better things from ourselves as a team overall. That’s the competitive nature of all these guys in this clubhouse. We want to get back to where we were last year. We want to get to the playoffs and have a shot to play into November again. It’s still within reach.”

Cubs lose Pierce Johnson on waivers

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Cubs lose Pierce Johnson on waivers

The Cubs have parted ways with the first pitcher drafted by Theo Epstein's front office.

The Cubs designated Pierce Johnson for assignment last week when they purchased the contract of Jen-Ho Tseng to make his first MLB start against the New York Mets.

Now Johnson is with a new organization.

The San Francisco Giants claimed Johnson off waivers Wednesday. He was initially selected in the supplemental first round in 2012 with the 43rd pick, 37 spots behind Albert Almora Jr.

Johnson is now 26 and just made his first — and only — big-league appearance May 19 this spring.

In Triple-A Iowa, Johnson had a 4.31 ERA in 43 games, including one start. He struck out 74 batters in 54.1 innings, but also walked 27 batters and had a 1.454 WHIP. 

Johnson spent six years in the Cubs minor-league system, going 29-21 with a 3.24 ERA, 1.305 WHIP and 9.3 K/9, working slightly more than half the time as a starter (74 starts, 56 relief appearances).

With the Cubs taking Johnson off their 40-man roster in mid-September as opposed to promoting him with expanded big-league rosters, it clearly shows he was not a part of their long-term pitching plans.

Imagine Chris Archer playing for a big-market team like the Cubs

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USA TODAY

Imagine Chris Archer playing for a big-market team like the Cubs

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Picture Chris Archer performing with Wrigley Field as the backdrop – the one Joe Maddon compared to a computer-generated scene from “Gladiator” – instead of a dumpy building off Interstate 275.      

Archer could see, feel and hear the Cubs fans who took over Tropicana Field on Tuesday night, a crowd of 25,046 saluting Maddon and watching the defending World Series champs play a sharp all-around game in a 2-1 win over a Tampa Bay Rays team that has a less than 1 percent chance of making the playoffs now.  

“It’s weird,” Archer said after the tough-luck loss, comparing the scene to last week’s games relocated to New York in the wake of Hurricane Irma. “I didn’t know we had that many people from Chicago, Illinois, Midwest area, in Tampa, but I guess we do. It was just weird for their players to come out and get announced and get so much love. It was strange.

“It felt like we were in Citi Field playing the Yankees, honestly. I’m not being critical. It was just crazy how much royal blue there was out there. When Willson Contreras went out there to warm up the pitcher, he had a standing O.

“I’ve been here for however long – and seen some really good players come – and I’ve never seen anybody get as much love (as they did when) they ran out of the dugout to warm up.

“It was just kind of crazy.”  

Archer pitched in the Before Theo farm system, at a time when the Cubs were scrambling to try to pry their window to contend back open after winning back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008. Maddon became the beneficiary when the Cubs packaged Archer – who had 13 Double-A starts on his resume at that point – in the blockbuster Matt Garza trade in January 2011.

Archer, who worked last year’s World Series as an ESPN analyst, has pitched in only two playoff games, making two relief appearances out of Maddon’s bullpen when the Boston Red Sox handled the Rays during a 2013 first-round series.   

Archer lost 19 games last season while putting up a 4.02 ERA and 200-plus innings. He earned his second All-Star selection this year and will turn 29 later this month. Wonder what the good-but-not-great numbers in 2017 – 9-11, 4.02 ERA, 32 starts, 241 strikeouts – would look like on a contender.       

“He is among the elite pitchers, there’s no question about that,” Maddon said. “I don’t watch him enough to know when he goes into these bad moments what exactly is going on. (And) I don’t even know how much certain years luck plays into it or not.

“But the thing about him in a big-city market that would intrigue me is him. He’s really bright. And he’s very socially engaged. For him to be in more of an urban kind of a setting with a greater audience, he could make quite an impact.”

Archer is locked into a team-friendly contract that will pay him roughly $14 million in 2018 and 2019 combined, plus the Rays hold bargain club options for 2020 ($9 million) and 2021 ($11 million). Meaning it would take an unbelievable offer just to get Tampa Bay’s attention.

Archer is also a face of the franchise, a two-time Roberto Clemente Award nominee who visits young men and women in the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center and stays involved with Major League Baseball’s RBI Program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities).

“Beyond being a pitcher who is very, very good, I would be curious if he was in a larger situation,” said Maddon, who has an offseason home and a restaurant in Tampa and sat with Archer during a Buccaneers game last season. “Just because socially, in a community, he’s already done it here. But you put him in a large city with more of an urban situation – he could really be impactful in that city. He’s really engaging when he speaks. He’s very bright. He’s really well-thought-out.”

Archer has come a long way from the Mark DeRosa salary-dump trade with the Cleveland Indians on New Year’s Eve 2008. Stan Zielinski, the beloved scout who died in January, lobbied then-general manager Jim Hendry, insisting the Cubs shouldn’t do the deal without Archer, a Class-A pitcher who went 4-8 with a 4.29 ERA that season.

While closing the Garza deal, the Rays actually pushed for another pitching prospect, but the Cubs wanted to hold onto Trey McNutt. Other players bundled in that trade became useful major-league pieces (Brandon Guyer, Robinson Chirinos, Sam Fuld), but the headliner was supposed to be Hak-Ju Lee, a South Korean shortstop already blocked by Starlin Castro who never made it to the big leagues.    

“There was a lot of good players that came the Rays’ way at that time,” Maddon said. “I didn’t know what to expect (from Archer). I saw him in camp. Great arm. Didn’t really have a good feel for command at that time.

“But when you talked to the kid, you couldn’t help but really like him a lot. He and I connected on more of an intellectual level regarding books and stuff, because he’s really well-read. He’s a lot smarter than I’ll ever be. I’ve always enjoyed my conversations with him. And then all of a sudden, he started finding the plate. And that slider’s electric.”

Maddon has already seen what the Cubs brand and Chicago platform can do for his baseball legacy, bank account and off-the-field interests.

Do you want Archer back?

“I didn’t say that,” Maddon said. “That’s something I cannot (say).”