The Cubs' rebuilding process isn't simply cashing in on high draft picks (Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and others), a key part of the strategy has been to also target low-cost pitchers who they could flip at the trade deadline for higher-ceiling players. They may very well do that with Jason Hammel this season, but one such deal is already paying dividends.
The Cubs turned three months of above-average pitching from Scott Feldman in 2013 into Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop at last year's deadline. Arrieta made 14 starts between the Cubs and Orioles last year, returning about replacement level value. He started this season on the DL with shoulder issues, making his first start on May 3. Less than two months later, he's showing why the Cubs have been smart to target pitchers like Feldman and Hammel the last few offseasons.
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Arrieta had his best start in a Cubs uniform on Wednesday, allowing one run on five hits and a walk while fanning a career-high 11 in a win over the Marlins. The 28-year-old sat at 94-95 mph with his fastball, and hit 93 while facing his second-to-last batter of the day. He had his heat, cutter and curveball all working for him, looking like the pitcher the Orioles always hoped he'd become before giving up on him last year.
Arrieta's outing wasn't an outlier. He has been very good in most of his starts this year, allowing one run or fewer in seven of his nine times out. He has been particularly strong of late, allowing just one run on 17 hits with 29 strikeouts in his last 24 2/3 innings, a stretch covering four starts. He had a .325 BABIP entering Wednesday's start, so, despite a small sample, there's little reason to think he has been fortunate.
Rather, Arrieta has been missing more bats than ever before and keeping the ball on the ground when hitters do put it in play. Before his 11-strikeout performance, he had a 9-percent swinging-strike rate and 52.1-percent ground-ball rate. Both of those would be career bests. According to Brooks Baseball, four of Arrieta's five pitches -- all but that 94 mph fastball -- have a ground-ball rate of at least 50 percent. He has lived at the bottom of the strike zone, with 53.3 percent of his pitches hitting the very bottom of the zone or just beneath it. In other words, it seems Arrieta has figured it out. And that could be a very good thing for the Cubs as they inch back toward relevance.
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A report recently surfaced that the Cubs were listening to trade offers for not only Jeff Samardzija and Hammel, but Arrieta and Edwin Jackson, as well. While Jackson's name did not come as a surprise, it seems off-script that the Cubs would be shopping Arrieta. Not only is he a player who appears to be just on the cusp of realizing his potential, he's still very affordable. He's making just $544,500 this year, and is entering his first year of arbitration eligibility. While he's due for a raise, it's one the Cubs would be able to absorb. Arrieta has shown himself worthy of a rotation spot when the team is ready to compete again. He doesn't turn 29 until March of 2015, and with the first wave of big-name prospects set to hit Wrigley late this year and early next year, it stands to reason that Arrieta would factor into the organization's long-term plans.