Cubs, Jake Arrieta reunion restores swagger to clubhouse, ‘nuts in trees’

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Gordon Wittenmyer
·4 min read
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Arrieta restores missing swagger to Cubs clubhouse originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Is it possible to buy low and win big twice with the same player in one competitive window?

The Cubs might find out after landing former championship linchpin Jake Arrieta on a team-friendly free agent deal Friday that returned at least some of the National League-leading swagger they’ve been missing in their clubhouse the last three years.

It’s too much to ask Arrieta to come close to replicating, at 35, what he did during a spectacular five-year run for the Cubs that included a Cy Young Award, two no-hitters, an All-Star selection and nine postseason starts — including two big World Series victories in 2016.

His modest, one-year deal (pending a physical) for $6 million after spending all but the final week of the winter on the market says that much.

But it’s hard to overestimate the kind of tone and competitive edge Arrieta brings to a clubhouse smarting from recent playoff failures and trade rumors involving every remaining core player.

As his agent, Scott Boras, said after the 2017 season, “Jake Arrieta is a big squirrel with a lot of nuts in his trees.”

He’s the last Cubs pitcher to win a playoff game — going 6 2/3 innings and allowing one run in the Cubs’ only win against the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series that October.

He’s also the only Cubs pitcher to pose for ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue.

Talk about swagger. Not to mention nuts in his trees.

But the Cubs spent their free agent attention — and $126 million — on Yu Darvish after the 2017 season instead of pursuing Arrieta, then spent a year and a half regretting that signing until Darvish turned a dominant corner in the middle of 2019.

It’s tempting to look at this Arrieta signing as a one-year do-over after the Cubs jettisoned Darvish and the final three years of his contract to the Padres in a salary dump in December.

But this isn’t the Jake Arrieta who had a 2.73 ERA and 8.9 strikeouts per game during his Cubs run and earned a three-year, $75 million deal from the Phillies at 32.

Since then, he struggled at times during a 31-start debut season for the Phillies, and a bone spur in his elbow shortened his season to 24 starts in 2019. After a rough August in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he pitched well in three September starts before a hamstring injury sidelined him the final two weeks.

What can the Cubs expect for their modest investment?

Mostly, a chance.

That’s something that looked unlikely at best — even in the worst division in baseball, on paper, heading into 2021 — after the Cubs’ rotation experience was gutted by the Darvish trade and free agent departures.

If Arrieta is healthy, few pitchers in baseball bring as much swagger to the mound — not to mention the kind of anti-launch-angle stuff that has resulted in one of the highest ground-ball rates in the game in recent years.

Swagger? Nuts in trees?

After his 2015 finish for the ages (16-1, 0.86 in his final 20 starts) and an epic wild-card performance in Pittsburgh, Arrieta pitched a scoreless gem against the Angels on Opening Day in 2016 and said he expected to keep up the Cy Young pace,

“Numbers-wise it’s tough to expect that. But I do,” he said. “I still do. I expect to pitch this way every time I take the mound.”

If nothing else that confidence and veteran foundation for a pitching staff in flux also gives the payroll-slashing Cubs some credibility when they’re able to start selling tickets again — perhaps not coincidentally sales for 25-percent-capacity spring games starting Monday.

Maybe Arrieta and his Pilates-and-kale regimen pick up where he left off before last year’s hamstring injury and gives the Cubs 30 starts, 175 innings and an ERA around 3.00. Maybe it’s enough in a rotation that also includes Kyle Hendricks, Zach Davies and Trevor Williams to hold off Nolan Arenado’s Cardinals and the PECOTA-loving Brewers in the National League Central.

Maybe none of that happens, and it turns into just another bitter reminder of how far this team has fallen since that magical, rainy night in Cleveland.

But betting against Arrieta historically has not proven to be profitable. Just ask the Orioles, who dealt him and Pedro Strop to the Cubs in 2013 in a trade that turned out to be the best in Cubs history.

“There’s not many like me. That’s just how it is, man,” said Arrieta, a few weeks after signing with the Phillies during a lengthy talk about his Cubs career, his bittersweet free agency experience and what he expected next.

“I view myself as very different than most,” he said that day. “I’m not saying I have the best stuff or I’m the best pitcher or I have the best command. But just what I do is pretty unique to me. The whole thing.

“I don’t care what the situation is, I bet on myself to get the job done.”

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