Healthy Arrieta has 'quite a bit left to offer'
Jake Arrieta is excited to take the mound in a Cubs uniform again, and he’s hoping the No. 49 emblazoned on his back won’t be the only similarity to his first tenure with the club.
Back with Chicago on a one-year, $6 million contract after three seasons with the Phillies, Arrieta is looking to recapture the ace form he showed previously. The right-hander posted a 4.36 ERA over 64 starts with Philadelphia (including a 5.08 mark in 2020), up from 2.73 across 128 starts with the Cubs from 2013-17 -- a stretch that included winning the '15 National League Cy Young Award and the '16 World Series.
Although Arrieta will turn 35 years old on March 6, he believes he still has a lot left to offer when he takes the ball.
“The last three years weren’t to my expectations,” Arrieta said Saturday in a Zoom call with reporters. “I had to deal with several physical setbacks. The [left] meniscus [tear] that I pitched through all of 2018, which was tough, but I didn’t want to have surgery during the season. And then in ’19, I ultimately had to have bone spurs taken out of my elbow again. So there were some slight physical limitations, but having said that, I didn’t perform the way I was capable of.
“But I have a lot in the tank, I have a lot to still accomplish in this game and I’m excited that it’s going to happen in this Cub uniform again.”
Arrieta returns to a Cubs team that has undergone some big changes since he departed after the 2017 campaign. Most notably, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and manager Joe Maddon are no longer with the franchise. But Arrieta knows their replacements, Jed Hoyer and David Ross, quite well. Hoyer has been with the organization since '11, and Ross was Arrieta’s teammate for two years and caught the second of the two no-hitters the righty threw in 2015-16.
Ross has high expectations for Arrieta, despite the righty’s struggles with the Phillies.
"Jake is still a top-of-the-rotation-type pitcher,” Ross said Friday on Zoom. “And I know he hasn't had the years he's wanted, but sometimes getting back to familiar coaching, familiar places, can really elevate your game. I think he's had some time to really analyze what -- and we have, too -- what he's done well, and where his success and failures may have come from. And the willingness from him, I've definitely seen a willingness from him, to make some adjustments in his game.
“Do I think he's the Cy Young-type pitcher that I saw in 2015 and '16? I would say, right now, no. But does he have the ability to get back to a version of that? Absolutely. I don't want to put any of my players in a box and ever minimize what their capabilities are. I know Jake feels like he can get back to that form. And that's all that matters to me is that he's going to work to get back to the guy that he believes he is, and that presence he carries already from having the resume he has.”
As Ross alluded to, the Cubs’ pitching infrastructure is largely similar, which should make it easier for Arrieta to find his comfort zone. While pitching coach Tommy Hottovy didn’t assume his current role until 2018, he was a coordinator in the team’s Major League scouting department for most of Arrieta’s initial tenure. Associate pitching coach Mike Borzello, meanwhile, has been with the Cubs since '11.
Arrieta will also see plenty of familiar faces around the clubhouse, including first baseman Anthony Rizzo, third baseman Kris Bryant, shortstop Javier Báez, catcher Willson Contreras and fellow pitcher Kyle Hendricks.
Rizzo, Bryant and Báez are all heading into the final season of their respective contracts, something Arrieta has experienced twice since 2017.
“It is kind of a bittersweet thing for each one of those guys,” Arrieta said. “They’ve all been here for a long time. It’s tough to take the Cubs uniform off, which I’ve been through. But just trying to focus on the here and now, and what’s most important -- and that’s their health and preparing for a full season with this organization. If things change along the road, then we have to deal with that as it comes.”
While Arrieta is hopeful that returning to the team with which he reached the pinnacle of his career could help him get back on track, he knows that his health is also going to be a significant factor.
“I think some of the physical limitations caused me to have variations in my delivery, my mechanics,” Arrieta said. “And sometimes those things happen unintentionally, as in this case. My arm slot was not where it needed to be, it wasn’t as effective. I was more on the side of the baseball. My offspeed [pitches] didn’t necessarily have the depth or the late life that I was accustomed to. And that’s what we’re working on currently to get back to that. The past couple mound sessions that I’ve had here have been really good. There’s eyes on me that have seen me in the past and have seen me at my best.
“I don’t necessarily think I’m going to be the 97-98 [mph guy] anymore, and that’s completely fine. That’s kind of the natural progression of your career as you get a little older. Some of those attributes might decline slightly, but I think my ability to perform at a similar level is still there. I’m healthy, I’ve got a good support system around me, as well as fantastic teammates, and I’m just really excited about that.”
Off the field, Arrieta said he wants to take on a mentorship role for anyone who needs it, whether it’s young players or veterans, pitchers or position players. But the Cubs also need him to be a major contributor on the mound. After Chicago traded Yu Darvish to the Padres and opted not to re-sign Jon Lester, Arrieta is expected to open 2021 as Chicago’s No. 2 starter behind Hendricks.
“From everything I’ve seen, there’s no reason that we can’t succeed at the highest level again, regardless of getting rid of a couple guys [or] not re-signing a guy,” he said. “The talent’s still here. And I think the mindset has to be just that -- regardless of who’s here, we have the group that’s capable of getting the job done and playing deep into October.”
As for his Cubs legacy, Arrieta isn’t thinking about that just yet.
“The only thing I’ve been thinking about is just the opportunity to be at Sloan Park again, to perform in Wrigley Field and to wear the uniform again,” he said. “Those are the things that excite me. Those are the things that I know are going to be a reward thing and already have been. Being around some of these familiar faces and guys that I’ve competed with for a number of years -- in this city and in this division and done some incredible things together with -- that’s kind of where I’m at. That’s what I’m thinking about. When healthy, I pitch really well.
“As far as legacy goes, I don’t put a lot of thought into that. I think that’s more something that you might put some attention to as your career comes to an end. But I think I’ve got quite a bit left to offer in this game.”