Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday)


Expectatio­ns lower for Arrieta in his 2nd tour with Cubs

- RUSSELL DORSEY | @Russ_Dorsey1

MESA, Ariz. — It’s rare that an athlete gets to complete a tenure with a team and achieve individual and team success. In Jake Arrieta’s first run with the Cubs, he achieved both, winning the National League Cy Young Award in 2015 and helping the club win the World Series in 2016.

For Arrieta, returning to the Cubs wasn’t a matter of having unfinished business or needing to have a sense of closure. The 34-year-old right-hander isn’t returning to the rotation he once led to be an ace, but he still has something to prove.

“Everybody at this level, regardless of where they’re at in their careers, are trying to prove something,” Arrieta said. “It might not be to one person, it could be to themselves. It could be people in their past who didn’t think that they were capable of performing at this level or a former organizati­on. Fill in the blank.

“There’s always things to prove. Not that that’s in a negative way. It’s really just to prove that I’m still capable of performing at a high level, the level that I expect to perform at.”

Cubs fans’ memories of Arrieta will always be ones of dominance, and it’s hard to blame them. His 21-game run in 2015-16, in which he went 19-0 with a 0.77 ERA and two no-hitters, is one of the most dominant stretches in MLB history.

But those days have passed, and Arrieta is a different version of the pitcher fans last saw donning the blue pinstripes.

Even as an older version of himself, the Cubs are confident that he still can pitch at a high level. Manager David Ross said he expects Arrieta to be near the top of the rotation but doesn’t want to put pressure on him.

“He is really comfortabl­e here in this Cubs uniform. He’s got a longstandi­ng history,” Ross said. “I’ve watched him perform at his best. He’s trying to get back to that version or as close as he can to that.

“But I know he’s going to help out our starters and our starting rotation. His presence, who he is, what he’s done in this game, his mentality, his work ethic, is all plus to be around. And he’s going to pitch big innings for us.”

“I don’t necessaril­y think I’m going to be 97, 98 [mph] anymore, and that’s completely fine,” Arrieta said. “That’s just kind of the natural progressio­n of your career, and as you get a little bit 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, and I’ve got a good support system around me.”

The rotation has several questions to answer this spring and into the season, and Arrieta will be a big part of that. His three years with the Phillies didn’t yield the results many expected. He 22-23 with a 4.36 ERA.

The Cubs don’t need Arrieta to be the Cy Young version of himself to make this tenure with the team successful, but they do need him to stay healthy, pitch quality innings and compete with the mentality that made him a household name.

“The last three years weren’t to my expectatio­ns,” he said. “I had to deal with several physical setbacks — a meniscus that I pitched through all of 2018, which was tough, but didn’t want to have surgery during the season. Then in 2019, ultimately had to have bone spurs taken out of my elbow again. So there were some slight physical limitation­s.

“But having said that, I just 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 Cubs uniform again.”

It’s fair to say that the Cubs are not currently in their fans’ good graces. The team probably has surveys and pie charts to tell me I’m wrong, but all the emails and social-media posts I’ve seen seem to suggest that, if the franchise’s decision-makers were to suddenly lose engine power during a trans-Atlantic yacht trip, it would be quite

OK with Cubs fans. As would the yacht’s radio system failing.

There are various reasons for the ill will. The dynasty that was predicted after the team won the 2016 World Series never materializ­ed. The Cubs didn’t spend money on free agents last offseason and appear on the way to considerin­g a competitiv­e

“timeout’’ down the road. They traded ace Yu Darvish in a luxury-tax salary dump this offseason, a terrible betrayal by a major-market franchise. Team president Theo Epstein, who guided the organizati­on through a painful rebuild to a championsh­ip, walked away this offseason. The team parted company with popular manager Joe

Maddon after the 2019 season.

The Ricketts family, which owns the franchise, too often seems more interested in creating new revenue streams than in creating a winner. The Cubs’ TV network, unveiled in 2020, continues to hack off fans by its very — money-grubbing — existence.

Finally, and perhaps most damaging, many of the Rickettses are vocal, involved, dyed-inthe-wool conservati­ves during a time when politics in this country are incredibly painful and divisive. To many fans who lean left, the only thing remotely blue about the Cubs are the uniforms. I know more than a few who have switched allegiance to the crosstown White Sox for this very reason.

Those are a lot of issues to confront for an organizati­on still trying to sell fun at the old ballpark — whenever Wrigley Field gates open during the pandemic.

So what can the Cubs do to get back on the good side of their fans? I have some suggestion­s.

Invite President Joe Biden to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day.

This would let Cubs fans know that the team understand­s it has a serious image problem, that it respects different opinions and that it’s trying to distance itself from patriarch Joe Ricketts’ more virulent, farright, “Muslims are naturally my enemy’’ views.

Biden, a Democrat, could throw out the first pitch for the Cubs’ 1:20 p.m. opener at Wrigley on April 1, then be back in Washington to do the same for the Nationals’ opener that night.

As vice president, he threw out the first pitch for the Orioles on Opening Day in 2009, getting reasonably close to backup catcher Chad Moeller’s target. As a pitcher, Biden is an avowed righty.

If this idea infuriates the Republican Cubs fans out there, don’t make me unveil Plan B, should Biden be unavailabl­e: U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez throwing to Joe Ricketts.

Show 2021 games for free on Marquee Sports Network.

Insanity, right? Bad business. An MBA’s nightmare. But when the Cubs cry about all the cuts they’ve had to make because of COVID-19, they don’t seem to understand how brutal the virus has been for the millions of non-Cubs employees who have lost jobs because of the pandemic. What a patriotic gesture it would be if they gave struggling fans a chance to watch all the games on TV for free this season.

Make team chairman Tom Ricketts sit atop a dunk tank at Wrigley every time he gets the urge to say, “We have no money.’’

Nobody wants to hear that the owner of a baseball team in the third-largest TV market in the country is out of money. One, because it’s not true and, two, because there should be a law that if you want to be the big-boy owner of a legacy team, you have to spend big-boy money.

Let the dunk tank be filled with year-old milk. And let fans throw the balls at the target.

Keep Javy Baez.

Everybody’s a genius now because of analytics, and there’s less room for loyalty than ever in sports. But how about throwing one bone to the fan base and declaring to the baseball world that Baez is going to stay a Cub for a long time? Yes, he is coming off a down year, but the shortstop remains one of the most exciting players in the game. Give him a contract extension.

Many Cubs fans feel like something is slipping away, and even though they know they don’t have any control over what their team does in personnel matters, letting them believe they’ve been heard just once would go a long way toward repairing a fractured relationsh­ip.

Let kids into Wrigley for free when it opens again.

OK, not all kids. We don’t want the ballpark to turn into a day-care center. How about this: When spectators are allowed to return to Wrigley, one fan 13 and under per adult gets in free.

This addresses both the franchise’s reputation as being only money-driven and Major League Baseball’s problem attracting young fans. It would be a win-win for a team that doesn’t figure to be flying the “W’’ flag as often as fans would want in 2021.

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 ?? GETTY IMAGES ?? Jake Arrieta was dominant in his first stint with the Cubs. Now the team is just looking for quality innings from the 34-year-old.
GETTY IMAGES Jake Arrieta was dominant in his first stint with the Cubs. Now the team is just looking for quality innings from the 34-year-old.
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 ?? SUSAN WALSH/AP ?? Donald Trump meets with the 2016 World Series champions. But that Cubs dynasty never materializ­ed.
SUSAN WALSH/AP Donald Trump meets with the 2016 World Series champions. But that Cubs dynasty never materializ­ed.
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 ?? GAIL BURTON/AP, MARK BLACK/AP ?? Some ideas for Cubs goodwill gestures: Joe Biden throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day, showing games for free on Marquee and re-signing fan favorite Javy Baez.
GAIL BURTON/AP, MARK BLACK/AP Some ideas for Cubs goodwill gestures: Joe Biden throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day, showing games for free on Marquee and re-signing fan favorite Javy Baez.

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