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.

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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."

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Gift Ngoepe might not have had the weight of the world on his shoulders but he felt like a continent was counting on him.

Ngoepe, the first African to reach the major leagues, singled in his first plate appearance and Josh Harrison led off the bottom of the first with a home run Wednesday night to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 6-5 victory over the Chicago Cubs.

Ngoepe was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis and entered the game in fourth inning as part of a double switch and finished 1 for 2 with a walk. The 27-year-old South African, who signed with the Pirates in 2008 as an amateur free agent, led off the fourth with a hit off winless Cubs ace Jon Lester.

"To accomplish this only for me but for my country and my continent is something so special," Ngoepe said. "There are 1.62 billion people on our continent. To be the first person out of 1.62 billion to do this is amazing."

It was so special that Ngoepe nearly broke into tears when he trotted from the dugout to take his positon at second base.

"I told myself not to cry because I'm in the big leagues and I'm a big guy now," Ngoepe said with a smile. "(Catcher Francisco) Cervelli hugged me and I could feel my heart beat through my chest."

A year after winning 19 games in helping the Cubs win their first World Series title since 1908, Lester (0-1) is still looking for his first victory after five starts. The left-hander was tagged for six runs - five earned - and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings.

"It's probably the best I threw the ball all year," Lester said. "That's baseball."

Wade LeBlanc (1-0), who pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of rookie Tyler Glasnow, got the win.

The fifth leadoff home run of Harrison's career keyed a two-run first that included an RBI double by Cervelli. Andrew McCutchen and Phil Gosselin hit run-scoring doubles in a three-run third that pushed the Pirates' lead to 5-1.

After the Cubs got within two runs, Josh Bell gave the Pirates a 6-3 lead with a solo home run in the sixth inning off Lester. The rookie first baseman has reached base in 11 straight games.

Anthony Rizzo's two-run homer deep into the right-field stands in the eighth inning off Daniel Hudson drew the Cubs within 6-5. Tony Watson then got the last four outs for his seventh save in as many chances.

Glasnow remained winless in nine career starts, allowing three runs in 3 1/3 innings and requiring 89 pitches to get 10 outs.

Rizzo had four RBIs and Kris Bryant had three hits as the Cubs lost for just second time in eight games while stranding 13 runners. The Pirates won for the third time in nine games.

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

It was just over a week ago when Cubs fans were freaking out about the bullpen's struggles in a weekend series with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

It was understandable, given Cubs relievers allowed 11 runs in the course of blowing two late leads to end that three-game sweep at the hand of the Bucs.

But since then, the Cubs bullpen has been fantastic.

In eight games entering Wednesday night's series finale with the Pirates in Pittsburgh, the Cubs bullpen is working on a stretch where they've posted a 1.56 ERA and 0.94 WHIP over the last 28.2 innings.

In that span — in which the Cubs are 6 — relievers have allowed six runs (five earned) while striking out 33 batters and surrendering just one homer.

They've been especially stingy over the last three games, allowing just five baserunners in eight shutout innings, including three straight scoreless frames to close out a 1-0 victory Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Wade Davis has been the anchor at the back end of the bullpen the Cubs were hoping he'd be when they traded Jorge Soler for him over the winter. Davis is a perfect 5-for-5 in save opportunities and has not allowed a run in 9.1 innings, allowing just three hits and a pair of walks in the season's first month.

Setting up in front of Davis, Hector Rondon and Carl Edwards Jr. have combined to allow one run and three hits in 15.1 innings.

Brian Duensing — who started the year on the disabled list after a back issue sapped his spring training — is still searching for a rhythm and has surrendered six runs and 10 hits in 6.1 innings on the season. Over the last week-and-a-half, the 34-year-old southpaw has allowed more runs (three) than the rest of the Cubs bullpen combined.

Take Duensing's numbers away from that same eight-game stretch and the Cubs bullpen has been even more fantastic — 0.73 ERA and 0.81 WHIP.

Of course, it's still not even May yet, so this stellar stretch is just another small sample size. 

But just like that, the Cubs suddenly have a Top 10 bullpen, tied for the Colorado Rockies for ninth in Major League Baseball with a 3.07 relief ERA.