WASHINGTON – What if Jake Arrieta had been ready Opening Day and pitching like this in April?
A Cubs team that absolutely needed a fast start will never know the answer to that question. But it’s an interesting hypothetical on the Fourth of July, a mile marker for a long season and a time when buyers and sellers start to emerge.
[RELATED - What if Samardzija was compensation for Theo?]
“The past is the past,” manager Rick Renteria said. “I can’t worry about what we didn’t have. All I know is that right now the guys that we have are doing a nice job.”
The Cubs went 15-13 in June and then finished off the Boston Red Sox, sweeping the defending World Series champs while Arrieta almost threw a no-hitter at a sold-out Fenway Park.
It’s still too little, too late, as Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel will be traded away by the July 31 deadline. It might have been impossible anyway to convince Theo Epstein’s front office this team could be a wild-card contender in 2014 (or at least worth not blowing up).
But the Cubs do have 60 percent of their rotation performing at an All-Star level, Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro anchoring the middle of the lineup and a bullpen stocked with power arms and left-handed options.
What if Arrieta’s right shoulder hadn’t felt tight over the winter, forcing the Cubs to slow down his throwing program in spring training and put him on the disabled list?
“It’s tough to say, because you look at what Samardzija’s done,” Arrieta said. “The results haven’t been – as far as wins go, haven’t been where we would have all liked them to be. It’s hard to say. I feel like we might have a couple more wins under our belt. (But) at the end of the day, it’s really hard to (know) that.”
Samardzija didn’t get his first win until Memorial Day and led the majors in ERA on June 1. Maybe Arrieta would have lost games 1-0, or gotten burned by ex-closer Jose Veras.
The Cubs went 1-3 in the four April games started by Carlos Villanueva, who’s helped stabilize the bullpen. They’re still stuck in a division that produced three playoff teams last season, plus the Milwaukee Brewers, who have the National League’s best record.
Arrieta (5-1, 1.81 ERA) didn’t join the rotation until May 3 and has shown why the Baltimore Orioles once had such high hopes. The Cubs thought he could step forward and become part of The Core, but he’s exceeded everyone’s expectations.
Cubs GM Jed Hoyer heard it this week at Fenway Park while talking to Red Sox players about Arrieta.
“They all felt like this was a guy with Baltimore they saw a ton, who had great stuff and couldn’t quite harness it,” Hoyer said. “He was probably always somewhat looking over his shoulder in Baltimore, knowing he might go to the minor leagues, or knowing he might go to the bullpen. It’s one of the beauties of our situation with our opportunity.
“He knows he’s going to be in the rotation. He can pitch with confidence, and I think you’re seeing a guy watching his confidence grow every start. (The Red Sox) saw a different guy pounding the strike zone, and certainly the cutter/slider he was throwing was the talk of those guys.”
But all the talk surrounding the Cubs this month will still be about the trade deadline.
“I don’t worry about things that I can’t control,” Renteria said. “Right now, the most daunting task I have in front of me is today right here. I think that those guys in there also are the same way. I think they’re thinking in the same direction. They think about today.
“I’m really proud of the way they’ve been going about their business, because you all know there’s a multitude of distractions and conversations and speculation, all that stuff. And they’ve been playing, so you got to tip your hat to them.”