The Cubs already have a Cy Young Award winner, someone who was transforming into the hottest pitcher on the planet around this time in 2015, and then beat the Cleveland Indians twice on the road in last year’s World Series.
So the Cubs can keep discussing Justin Verlander and trying to figure out the price point where it makes sense, what caliber prospects they would have to give up and how much money the Detroit Tigers would have to kick in to cover a bill that could soar toward $90 million.
But Jake Arrieta showed why the Cubs might finally start to run away from the division and become a very dangerous team in October, dominating the White Sox on Wednesday night at Guaranteed Rate Field during an 8-3 win that vaulted them into first place in the National League Central.
“We expect to remain in first place,” Arrieta said. “We know it’s going to be a tough task, but that’s kind of what you deal with at the highest level of sports. You expect to have really good competition from teams that are either equal with you or close behind.
“We feel like we have the group to separate ourselves at this point in time and remain in first place for the remainder of the way.”
The Cubs probably don’t have the blue-chip prospects – and the appetite to raid their farm system again – to blow away the Oakland A’s and win a bidding war for Sonny Gray. The Cubs kick the tires on everything, but Yu Darvish would be a rental and the Texas Rangers are torn over what to do with their Japanese star.
This is another reason why the Cubs are focusing on adding a veteran backup catcher and strengthening the bullpen before the July 31 trade deadline: Arrieta Watch is back, taking a no-hitter into the fifth inning in front of a sellout crowd of 38,517 before Omar Narvaez drilled a ground-rule double into the right-center field seats.
The Cubs are 10-2 since trading for Jose Quintana during the All-Star break, erasing a 5.5-game deficit against the Milwaukee Brewers heading into this weekend’s showdown at Miller Park. At 53-47, the Cubs are a season-high six games over .500, and it all starts with pitching.
“I think we’ve got the pieces to get it done,” Arrieta said. “If there’s a situation where we can get another guy and not lose any key players, it might work in our favor.
“Obviously, when we traded for Quintana, that’s a huge addition to our ballclub. This guy’s really good. He works his butt off. And just seeing how he carries himself in between starts is a really great sign. To have a guy like that who works extremely hard and cares about the team winning ballgames – you can’t replace that.
“That trade right there in itself is one that’s going to pay huge dividends for this ballclub, not only for this year, but for the next couple years. But we’re a great team right now, and I think we have the pieces to get it done.”
Arrieta was on cruise control until Yoan Moncada launched his 98th and final pitch – an 0-2 curveball – 409 feet over the center-field wall with two outs in the seventh inning. Arrieta only allowed those two hits, giving up two runs and finishing with five strikeouts against two walks, continuing the correction super-agent Scott Boras predicted when the Chicago media and Cubs fans wondered about his flashes of diminished velocity and spikes in hard contact during a free-agency push.
Arrieta has methodically put together 10 wins and three straight quality starts after the All-Star break, chopping his ERA down from 5.44 in the middle of May to 4.03. Ricky Renteria’s White Sox are obviously tanking for the future and there are a lot of conditions attached to this statement:
But if Arrieta pitches like this, Jon Lester continues to be one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation, Quintana excels in a pennant race and Kyle Hendricks regains his feel and rhythm after six-plus weeks on the disabled list, then the Cubs might have a better playoff rotation than the one that ended the 108-year drought.
“We’re feelin’ it,” Arrieta said, thinking back to last summer, when Theo Epstein’s front office added 100-mph closer Aroldis Chapman to a team with close to a 99-percent chance of making the playoffs. “I remember last year we were in this clubhouse around this same time, and it’s no different.”
Look at the competition: The Washington Nationals might be forced into adding a frontline starter now that Stephen Strasburg is headed to the 10-day disabled list with a nerve impingement in his right forearm. The Los Angeles Dodgers are hoping a strained lower back won’t stop Clayton Kershaw from making a few tune-up starts in September before becoming their Game 1 starter in October.
With or without Verlander, the Cubs are ramping up to defend their title.
“I’m going to continue to get stronger as the year progresses,” Arrieta said. “I feel like my best baseball, my best pitching, is still ahead of me. And I’m ready for it.”
Nothing to see here, the Cubs insisted after a TV camera caught John Lackey and Anthony Rizzo arguing in the Wrigley Field dugout on Tuesday afternoon, a scrap overshadowed by Kris Bryant’s ejection and the White Sox getting eye-for-an-eye retribution.
It still became the pregame story on the South Side, even if it somehow didn’t immediately go viral on Twitter, or really register on the Cubs-Sox Richter scale that shook for Carlos Zambrano and Ozzie Guillen, Lou Piniella vs. Steve Stone and Michael Barrett vs. A.J. Pierzynski.
So what happened?
“None of your business,” Lackey said Wednesday with a big smile and the chuckle that punctuates most of his answers to the media. “It’s in that dugout.”
Minutes later, on the other side of the visiting clubhouse at Guaranteed Rate Field, Rizzo joked: “It was almost kind of like Zambrano and Derrek Lee.”
This wouldn’t have even come up during the anger-management sessions the Cubs forced Zambrano to attend after that incident here in 2010. Big Z showed up for spring training the next year and pronounced: “I’m cured. I got approval from the psychologist that I can be by myself.”
“It wasn’t a big deal at all,” Lackey said. “Like I said, none of your business.”
Frustrated by a potential double-play ball that found a hole with Tim Anderson running and shortstop Addison Russell covering second base, Lackey bumped into Rizzo in the dugout after a second inning that also saw White Sox pitcher Carlos Rodon hit a two-run double. Rizzo’s eyes widened and the franchise first baseman gestured toward the field with both of his hands. A muttering Lackey turned his back and started to walk away from Rizzo.
“Like I said, none of your business,” Lackey said. “Just two men talking.”
The Cubs are used to Lackey Being Lackey, which means glaring at hitters, jawing with umpires and sometimes showing up teammates for perceived lapses on the field (even when last year’s 103-win team played defense at a historic level).
“We won the game,” said Lackey, who also became the first Cub to hit four batters in a game since Moe Drabowsky in 1957. “Let’s move on. You guys are trying to stir s--- up.”
Everything all right with you and Lackey?
“Yeah, as far as I know,” Rizzo said. “We’re just talking, making sure he knows we’re going to give him some more runs, not to worry about it. That’s really it. It’s pretty funny I have to talk about this the next day.”
Either way, this probably won’t end well for Lackey, who is 38 and has a 4.97 ERA in the final season of a two-year, $32 million contract. But clashing with Rizzo during a 96-loss season contributed to manager Dale Sveum getting fired in 2013. And burying Miguel Montero during Rizzo’s WMVP-AM 1000 gig foreshadowed the veteran catcher getting DFA’d last month.
“I think it’s just a lot of uneducated speculation, to be honest, about our team,” Rizzo said.
Well, educate us then, a reporter said.
“I don’t need to educate you guys on in-house matters,” Rizzo said. “Lackey’s one of my probably best friends on this team. That’s the good part about this team. When you have friends, you can talk to them, and it’s nothing more than just friends talking to friends.”
Manager Joe Maddon – who has known Lackey since he was a rookie on the 2002 Anaheim Angels team that won a World Series – sounded like a press secretary during the pregame briefing.
“Not at all (unusual),” Maddon said. “I don’t know if I’ve seen it before. The thing is, I’ve heard about this and it’s really kind of funny. Really innocuous to the point where I had no idea.
“First of all, there’s two things: There’s really nothing to report. Second of all, if there is a little bit of that that ever occurs, there’s nothing wrong with it. Nothing wrong with guys calling BS on somebody else in the moment. But that’s not what happened yesterday.”
The truth is we will miss Lackey when he goes home to Texas and disappears. This is a great cartoon villain/media foil/old-school curmudgeon with three World Series rings. The Cubs-Sox rivalry needs more of those characters.
“He’s a competitor,” Rizzo said. “It’s really, really good for us. He does bring a lot of intensity every single start, and he expects the best out of everyone. That’s good for a team like ours with young guys. Five, six, seven years from now, they’re going to be talking about how Lackey used to play, and what he used to do to the younger guys coming up, and how he was locked in for every one of his starts.”