If Arrieta’s for real, Cubs might be closer than we thought

Jake Arrieta extended what could be a breakout season with a gem against the Red Sox Monday night.

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So here’s an odd, only-in-baseball sort of thing …

It’s well known that the Chicago Cubs have a pitching problem. See, they’ve got all these bright young hitters – Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro in the majors; Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and others in the minors – but almost no pitching prospects at all. Sure, they might have an exciting lineup as soon as next season … but who’s going to pitch?

What’s odd is that the Cubs have plenty of good pitchers right now. Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel have both pitched wonderfully this season, while Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson have both pitched better than their inflated ERAs. The Cubs’ staff as a whole has been better than league average when you account for Wrigley Field.

And then there’s Jake Arrieta, who opened this season on the disabled list, but Monday night against the Red Sox, he whispered sweet nothings to a no-hitter and now sports a 1.81 ERA in his 11 starts.

Is Arrieta for real, though? Once regarded as a fine prospect while in the Orioles’ system, Arrieta’s star dimmed considerably when he posted a sub-par ERA with crummy peripherals in his first three seasons (or partial seasons) in the majors. Last year he was even worse with the big club, and in early July the Orioles shipped him, Pedro Strop and a duffel bag full of sawbucks to the Cubs for Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman. Steve Clevenger remains Steve Clevenger, while Feldman pitched adequately for a team that finished seven games out in the Wild Card standings, then left for the biggest money he could find.

This isn’t looking like a great deal for the Orioles at the moment, since Arrieta’s pitching better than anybody who’s actually pitching for the Orioles right now.

Again, though, is Arrieta for real? We know his numbers are ridiculously improved over everything he’s done before. But has he become a different pitcher, really?

As is often the case in these cases, FanGraphs beat me to it. A couple of weeks ago, Eno Sarris pointed out that Arrieta is throwing far more cutters this season than ever before. Why didn’t he try that before? As Sarris pointed out a couple of years ago (and re-pointed out a couple of weeks ago), Orioles GM Dan Duquette is not a fan of the cutter. That alone might have been enough to keep Arrieta from doing more than the occasional experiment.

Or maybe Arrieta’s actually throwing a lot more sliders this season. Everybody in baseball’s been calling it a cutter, but PITCHf/x thinks it’s a slider. Either way, he’s clearly throwing many fewer four-seam fastballs this season, and it’s working. It’s really working. Doesn’t mean it will keep working. But in a very short time, Arrieta has gone from suspect to respect.

Which brings me to the point of this little essay. The Cubs might be closer than we thought. Rizzo and Castro are good. Kris Bryant is, at this moment, the top Rookie of the Year candidate in 2015. There are still holes in the lineup, especially if Junior Lake and Mike Olt aren’t going to hit. But there’s some real potential here.

So does it really make sense to trade Jeff Samardzija, who remains under team control for 2015? Might it make sense to see if Hammel’s interested in signing a one- or two-year contract extension, instead of letting him test the free-agent waters next winter? With Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood both locked up through 2016 and Arrieta under team control through 2017, isn’t now the time to win?

Well, not now. But fairly soon. The Cubs can’t win without good starting pitchers, and I don’t know if it will ever be easier for them to construct a good rotation than almost exactly right now.

I think Hammel’s probably lost. His value will never be higher than right now, so the Cubs might as well see if someone’s willing to pay (in prospects) for that ERA. Samardzija, though? I’m not so sure. Might be best to go for it next year, then make the qualifying offer and grab the draft picks when he goes for the really big dough.

If so, then don’t be surprised if the Cubs are a popular dark-horse pick next spring. Everybody thinks the rebuilding process has taken longer than it should have. But when this thing turns, it might turn fast.