CHICAGO – When it comes to the Chicago Cubs’ starting staff, the future is a bit murky.
Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, both performing at an All-Star level for more than two months, are likely to be dealt before the trade deadline. After a breakout season in 2013, Travis Wood is suffering through a rough stretch and has seen his ERA balloon to 5.04. Edwin Jackson is signed on for another two years, but his inconsistencies have been well documented.
However, if 28-year-old Jake Arrieta can deliver more performances like the one Cubs manager Rick Renteria witnessed Sunday, there’s at least one spot in the rotation that becomes a little clearer.
“I don’t think about the uncertainty of where our rotation will be,” Renteria said. “I think it’s important for Jake to solidify who he is as a pitcher, regardless of any of the other circumstances that may or may not develop. All in all, I think he just has to be the guy that is a presence when he’s on the hill.”
Arrieta tossed six shutout innings, allowing three hits while striking out seven and walking none on Sunday. In delivering 93 pitches, he was more efficient than he had been in previous outings. But he could watch what has been a stout bullpen of late squander two leads in the Cubs’ 4-3 loss to the Miami Marlins.
“[Efficiency is] probably the biggest thing that I’d harped on,” Arrieta said following the rough loss that snapped the Cubs’ winning streak at five. “For a lot of reasons, but most importantly to keep some of our bullpen arms out of the game until a little bit later on.
“Yeah, efficiency was nice. I had a good mix today, a lot for strikes. And I was able to get us fairly deep into the ballgame.”
Arrieta has run up high pitch counts in many of his starts this season and tossed 105 in 4 2/3 innings in his previous appearance. And though his 8.4 percent walk rate is slightly above league average, it’s an improvement upon last year’s 12.7 percent mark.
“The command’s tightened up considerably over the last year or so,” Arrieta said. “I still would like to become even better in certain areas. Continue to improve the command of off-speed pitches and obviously the fastball. But, yeah, it’s getting better.”
Issues with his command are what made Arrieta, a former top prospect with the Baltimore Orioles, available to the Cubs in a trade last summer. The change of scenery, as well as working with Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio, may be just what Arrieta needs to put that spark back in his young career.
“We’ve worked on quite a few things together,” Arrieta said of Bosio. “Just trying to do a little bit less mechanically, and not being so concerned with where my body is in every facet of the delivery, and just kind of let it come naturally. Not try and be max effort as often or when I get ahead of a guy not trying to do too much and end up making a mistake. Just kind of stay within myself and execute.
“It’s paid off, for the most part. I still need to become more efficient with my delivery, but it’s in a good spot right now.”
Bosio is known for focusing on getting his pitchers to try to induce more groundballs by using their two-seam fastballs, rather than relying on the strikeout. While Arrieta did rack up seven strikeouts in his six innings of work, he also produced seven groundouts on the day, improving his ground-ball rate to what would be a career-best 51.0 percent.
One strong outing hardly means all is well for Arrieta, who has shown flashes before, only to lose his command in the next outing.
However, with the combination of strikeouts and ground balls, Arrieta appears to have a sound plan under the guidance of Bosio.
If he can continue to execute said plan and continue to iron out his mechanical issues, Arrieta, who is under team control for another three years after this season, could find himself becoming a key piece in the Cubs’ rebuilding efforts.