Chicago Cubs

Jake Arrieta's future and how Cubs plan to build their rotation for 2017 and beyond

Jake Arrieta's future and how Cubs plan to build their rotation for 2017 and beyond

Even if Jake Arrieta would never admit to feeling slighted, there were times where he almost appeared to be an afterthought during a playoff run where big, bad pitchers like Madison Bumgarner, Clayton Kershaw and Corey Kluber were all supposed to shut down the Cubs and end their dream season.

"Not at all," Arrieta said after beating the Cleveland Indians a second time in the World Series to force a Game 7 for the ages. "I feel like I've already proved the naysayers wrong a long time ago."

If Arrieta's historic Cy Young Award performance in 2015 set impossible standards for the encore, he still won 18 games, put up a 3.10 ERA, threw a second no-hitter and earned his first All-Star selection. He showed durability by making 31 starts and accounting for almost 200 innings, finishing first in the majors in batting average against (.194) and second in opponents' OPS (.583).

Arrieta might not be truly appreciated until after the 2017 season, when he will become a free agent and the Cubs could be faced with replacing 60 percent of their rotation. That uncertainty surrounding the pitching staff might be the fastest way to silence the giddy dynasty-building talk that will fuel Cubs Convention this weekend at the Sheraton Grand Chicago.

"We knew this day was coming," team president Theo Epstein said after making this offseason's signature move, trading a wildly talented, inconsistent extra outfielder (Jorge Soler) to the Kansas City Royals for an All-Star rental closer (Wade Davis).

"One of the reasons that we've invested heavily in position players in the draft and in the international markets and some trades we've made is because they're good bets to return value.

"We've identified a core of guys who we really believe in and have gotten here and helped us win a championship already. Those guys are going to be guys who are really hard to move. We feel like some of our prospects have a chance to join that core. But other ones, we're going to end up trading. That was part of the plan all along."

A glamorous lineup obscured the fact that the Cubs really thrived as a pitching-and-defense unit. But by Opening Day 2018, Jon Lester will be 34 years old and feeling the strain of throwing more than 2,000 innings in The Show (plus so much accumulated playoff experience that it essentially equals another season of stress on his left arm).

John Lackey is 38 years old and entering the final season of a two-year, $32 million contract. The Cubs believe the pitching infrastructure that helped transform Kyle Hendricks into a Cy Young Award finalist will benefit Mike Montgomery, but the 6-foot-5 lefty is still a project with only 18 big-league starts on his resume.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Reports continue to link the Cubs to Tyson Ross — who's making a deliberate decision while recovering from surgery to fix thoracic outlet syndrome — with Travis Wood (last seen shirtless holding the World Series trophy at the Grant Park rally) mentioned as a possible fallback option.

Of the organization's top-10 prospects on the Baseball America list released last week, only four are pitchers and none have played above the A-ball level yet.

"That’s the nature of it," Epstein said. "You can't necessarily develop all your position players and all your pitching both homegrown. The plan all along was to take some of the position players and turn it into pitching.

"We've done a good job building a young nucleus of position players, and then finding some more established pitching, whether it's on the free-agent market or in trade. That served us well, finding a way, year to year, of putting the pitching staff together around a nucleus of position players that is going to have a nice, long run together.

"I'm not saying it's on the immediate horizon. But over the next couple years, we'll certainly make more trades where we say goodbye to some position players who are hard to part with but bring us the pitching that we need.

"A lot of that was by design. We knew coming into this winter that we didn't love the free-agent market for pitching — starting pitching especially — and we planned in advance to not have to dive too deep into these waters."

MLB Trade Rumors projects Arrieta will earn a $16.8 million salary through his final year in the arbitration system. Super-agent Scott Boras has compared Arrieta to another Cy Young Award-winning client — Max Scherzer — who two winters ago signed a seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals.

"Our attitude is that we're open to listening to the Cubs about anything they choose to do with Jake," Boras said during the winter meetings. "Like we did last year, we'll evaluate it. Our doors are open to listen to what they have to say."

There's also a sense that Arrieta simply wants to become a free agent and experience that process — and Boras Corp.'s track record certainly points in that direction. The Cubs have a fear of long-term commitment with over-30 pitchers and a strong belief that their scouting/game-planning systems can identify and shape a next generation of arms.

The Cubs also shouldn't take aces for granted or think that they can patch together a pitching staff every season with overpays, change-of-scenery guys and rehab cases.

"My main motivation now is just to win for the 24 other guys that I have in the clubhouse with me," Arrieta said. "I know (how) much guys appreciate it when they have teammates they can count on and trust that when they're out there, they're giving it everything they got. Whether they win or lose, they're giving us their best effort and best chance to win every time they go out."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

lester.jpg
USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000), Chris Hine (Chicago Tribune) and Jordan Bernfield join David Kaplan on the panel. Jon Lester, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras all work out with the Cubs before their game. Which player’s return with have the biggest impact down the stretch?

Plus, the guys discuss how many snaps Mitch Trubisky should take with the first team, debate who won the big Cavs/Celtics deal and Scott Paddock drops by with the latest NASCAR news.

Listen to the SportsTalk Live Podcast below. 

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

mike_montgomery_0821.jpg
USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

Jon Lester isn’t expected to be on the disabled list for long, which of course is great news for the Cubs.

But while he’s there, it’s once again time for Mike Montgomery to audition for a spot in the team’s 2018 starting rotation.

The Cubs are facing the possibility of losing two members of that starting staff this offseason, when both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey will be free agents. Montgomery seems like a logical replacement, but he’ll need to be better than he’s been as a starter this season. He’s put up a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.

He’ll get another opportunity to show his stuff over the next week or so, as he makes one or two spot starts with Lester on the shelf resting up his left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

“I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially our ace. But it’s a challenge. I’m looking forward to going out there and helping the team win,” Montgomery said over the weekend. “I’m going to go out there and prepare and be ready to help this team get to the playoffs.”

Montgomery doesn’t have to worry about instilling confidence in his bosses. Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein both lauded Montgomery’s efforts since he was acquired about a year ago, in the middle of the 2016 team’s march to that curse-smashing World Series win. It was Montgomery who earned the save in Game 7.

And again this season Montgomery has given plenty of reason for those guys to have confidence in him. He’s turned in a strong 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances, one of the more reliable arms out of what is becoming an increasingly shaky bullpen. This past Thursday, he relieved the early-to-depart Lester, pitching 4.1 shutout innings and allowing just three hits and a walk against the Cincinnati Reds.

Throw in the versatility of being able to effectively switch between starting and relieving, and that’s a recipe for sticking on a big league roster.

“He’s good about bouncing back and forth,” Maddon said. “He’s been invaluable to us the last couple years. He’s still learning his craft. Every time I talk to him it’s kind of like the little lightbulb constantly goes off for him regarding his stuff and how to utilize it. That’s what I’ve been talking about with him the last couple years. This guy’s got all kinds of tools in the toolbox but he doesn’t really know how to utilize them all, and I think he’s finally understanding the cutter, the curve, the changeup to go with the fastball. He’s one of those guys that he should never get wild with his fastball because his pitches are so good and he can throw them for a strike.”

Montgomery’s reliability has been enough that Epstein said there’s no plan for the Cubs to add another starting pitcher before this month’s waiver trade deadline. Of course, the fact that Lester’s injury isn’t as bad as initially feared and the July acquisition of Jose Quintana factors into that, as well.

“We’ve expended a lot of prospect capital trying to make this team better. We think it’s just a start or two (that Lester will miss), and Mike Montgomery is more than capable of filling in,” Epstein said. “He’s thrown the ball really well, like what we saw from him (Thursday). So we’re going to fill that vacancy internally with Mike and go from there.”

While every start made by any pitcher this season seems important — the Cubs entered Monday’s day off with just a two-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central standings, with a playoff spot hardly guaranteed — Montgomery’s efforts could have just as great an effect on next season. If Arrieta and Lackey both end up departing via free agency, the Cubs will need some replacements. Montgomery figures to be among the first options, especially if this midseason audition goes well.

Of course, Montgomery is happy to do whatever he needs to to help his team. He’s not complaining about a bullpen role or one that has him shuttling between the relief corps and the rotation. But he admitted that starting is his goal, meaning the importance of this moment likely hasn't been lost on him.

“Yeah, absolutely, I wanted to start. But also I wanted to be a guy who could fill another role and hopes that makes our team better,” he said. “If me starting makes us better in their mind, then that’s what I want ideally. But I’ve realized I can’t always control that, I can go out there and pitch well. If I pitch well, they’re probably going to give me more opportunities, which is probably going to lead to starting.

“I think it’s because I spent five years in Triple-A from the time I was 21 and I had a bigger ego. And then you realize that you just want to be in the big leagues and that Triple-A kind of stinks. I think it’s just how I’ve gotten to this point. And coming here last year from a team that was trying to get in the playoffs to a team that was clearly going to win the division, you realize that your role isn’t to come here and start making demands, it’s to come here and just do your job.”

Right now, the Cubs need Montgomery to fill the void while Lester rests up. And if he can make his starts look a little more like his bullpen outings, he’ll do just that. And if that’s what happens, maybe they’ll call on him next season to do a whole lot more.