The Cubs are bringing back Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop.
This does almost nothing to the Cubs’ ability to win the NL Central, or postseason games.
Jake Arrieta is a low-cost bet that a once-great Cubs icon can rekindle some of what made him a fan favorite for four remarkable seasons.
Notice I used the term “fan favorite,” and not “historically dominant lynchpin of a division champ.” That’s because there should be almost no expectation that what Chicago is getting in this 35-year-old version of Jake Arrieta will consistently resemble the Cy Young winner of 2015, or even the 2017 vintage of Arrieta who barely ever made it past 6 innings due to high pitch counts and spotty command.
Jake is a different pitcher now than the last time he used the home dugouts at Wrigley Field… he relies less on his curve, but he’s no longer able to generate the swing-and-miss movement on his other pitches (like his slider… oh, that slider) Cubs remember so fondly. You’ll lose a lot of money in Vegas betting on Jake to go 7 innings in any starts this upcoming season.
2020 was a weird year for everyone, so it’s important to take his most recent season with a grain of salt when trying to use that as an indicator of how he’ll perform in 2021 for the Cubs. But one thing that occurred last year CAN be relied upon: Jake got a year old. He’s going to be 35 for the entire 2021 season and many of his metrics are going in the wrong direction as he gets further into the twilight of his career: he only struck out 16.8% of hitters in 2020 (his lowest since 2010 when Arrieta was a rookie); his slider velocity was down to 92.5 mph (his 2nd-lowest of his career after 2017’s 92.4 mph), and he almost never throws his curveball – just 7.3% of the time last year, nearly half of his career average.
All that would be okay if he was still getting outs. Jake got barreled up on pitches 7.8% of the time in 2020, the most since Fangraphs started recording Statcast data on its site. He got hit hard 38.3% of the time, also his most ever.
These numbers have gotten worse almost each year since 2015, so turning Arrieta’s fortunes around would require almost a reversal of the aging process at this point. He’s getting older, and therefore is not able to get hitters in ways he used to, and his changes to his pitching repertoire are making him easier to hit hard. Simple as that. Cubs fans are not getting anything more than a #4 or #5 starter who will be lucky to throw 150 innings in 2021. I’m putting the over/under at 120 innings pitched. Fangraphs has it at 114.
Pedro Strop is back to the Cubs on a minor league deal, so any hopes of him breaking camp with the Big League club should be tempered by the fact that the Cubs themselves aren’t convinced he will do so. The dude struggled mightily in his last season as a Cub, and only appeared in four games at all last season with the Reds. He’s barely a Major League Baseball player at this point, and the only thing that could change his fortunes – his command – hasn’t been reliable since 2018. He allows too many runners on base to score, he gave up too many homers in his last season as a Cub, and he is 9 months older than Arrieta. All of these things work against Strop making the Cubs’ Opening Day roster.
If you are trying to find positives that favor Strop finding “it” again, it’s that he is still able to strike guys out and he didn’t have enough of a sample size in 2020 to allow that to be held against him… so maybe 2019 was just a fluke and he can be more like his 2017 self if given the chance.
To that I say: Nope. Hoping that a reliever will just “find it” again after a multi-year period of barely qualifying as a reliever worthy of a roster spot is an awful recipe for success. Sure, it happens on occasion, but Pedro does not profile out as someone who will stay in the strike zone enough to rekindle some of that magic from 2014-2018, where he was the most consistent reliever over the longest period of time in the history of the Chicago Cubs. Nobody can take that period away from him, but I worry that nothing will give the stuff from that era back to him either.
So these two moves are ultimately gambles that will likely be in vain, familiar faces that will make compulsive Cubs fans happy but have almost no impact on whether the Cubs finish first in the NL Central or 3rd.
My big hope is just that the moves don’t hurt the North Siders’ chances of making the playoffs. Because that could happen, too.
Cover Photo: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin