MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Lester, Arrieta could form dynamic duo for Cubs

Lester, Arrieta could form dynamic duo for Cubs

CHICAGO -- It was the bottom of the fourth inning in a scoreless game on a cold, foggy Wednesday at Wrigley Field, with the wind blowing in from left field, and Mike Matheny was playing the Cardinals' infielders in against the Cubs' No. 3 hitter, Anthony Rizzo.

Make of this what you will.

At first blush, you think that the dead-ball era has returned (and with six Opening Day shutouts, maybe it has). But Cubs manager Joe Maddon said he often plays his infield in during similar situations, even this early in the game. The key, he says, is whether the batter has the speed to make you pay double if he reaches base on a ball that might have been played by an infielder at normal depth.

"On a defense-and-pitching kind of day, take all the defensive chances you possibly can,'' Maddon said. "You've got to take those kind of chances. Why give the other team a run?''

But there's another way to take Matheny's strategy.

With Jake Arrieta pitching for the Cubs, this wasn't likely to be a good day for Cards hitters, no matter the temperature and the wind direction. He hung up a 1.21 ERA in four starts against St. Louis last season, striking out 28 in 22 2/3 innings.

And this wasn't a fluke, as Arrieta showed by outpitching Lance Lynn by a whisker to give Maddon his first National League victory. He pitched around two first-inning walks to work seven blue-collar innings in the 2-0 victory, sending the Cubs off to a weekend series in Colorado with a 1-1 record.

Arrieta shuts down Cards

"This guy is really good,'' Maddon said about Arrieta, and it's hard to argue.

After all, among NL starters, only Johnny Cueto and Clayton Kershaw were tougher to hit than Arrieta last season, when he held batters to a .203 average while hanging up a 0.99 WHIP. He's now made 35 starts since Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein acquired him and reliever Pedro Strop from the Orioles, and he's a pitched to a 2.72 ERA.

Arrieta's 2.53 ERA last season was the best for a Cubs starter over a full season since Mark Prior's 2.43 mark in 2003. You can see why the O's had him as their Opening Day starter three years ago, before a crisis in confidence that forced Arrieta to rebuild his psyche and take refuge in a workout routine that has contributed to his success.

"This guy's workout is incredible,'' Maddon said. "He deserves everything that he's gotten. I saw him in Baltimore. I'm seeing him right now. He's definitely matured as a Major League pitcher.

No one was more excited when the Cubs signed Jon Lester than Arrieta. They figure to give Maddon one of the best 1-2 starter combinations in the NL, assuming that Lester's abbreviated start on Opening Night (three runs on eight hits in 4 1/3 innings) was only a hiccup.

Lester fans six in debut

Lester tweeted afterward that he knew Arrieta was going to pick him up, and Arrieta replied, "That's what we do brother, watched you do it for years.'' He gushes about working alongside the guy who carried the Red Sox to a championship in 2013.

"His presence alone is one that elevates everybody,'' Arrieta said. "I think that's what Jon has done for me. I've always admired him from afar, from the other side. The second part of the tweet I said, 'I've watched you do it for many years.' That's what I want to incorporate into my game. Those are things we're going to have to do for each other throughout the year. We're all going to struggle at times. But the starter the next day has the ability to go out there and right the ship, save some arms in the 'pen and get us rolling again.''

With two early off-days and Tuesday's game postponed, Maddon could have leaned on Lester and Arrieta to start five of the Cubs' first eight games. But he has chosen to keep them in order, with Travis Wood, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks starting this weekend against the Rockies in Denver.

How those three do will go a long way toward determining if the Cubs contend in Maddon's first season or merely continue to creep toward .500 as they work to build one of baseball's most dangerous lineups.

They have some pitching talent working its way up from the Minors, with C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson the closest to Wrigley Field. They should also have the ability to go out and add a veteran starter at midseason, when lots of them may be on the trade market.

But little would lift the Cubs more than for Wood, Hammel and Hendricks to deliver on the potential they've flashed at different points in time the past two years.

Wood, 28, has made 89 starts with a 4.08 ERA for the Cubs over the past three years. That's nothing special, but he did build a blueprint for success in 2013, when he had a 2.79 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP in his first 19 starts, headed toward his only All-Star appearance and 200-innings season. Wood had to earn a rotation spot in a battle against fellow veteran Edwin Jackson this spring, but didn't seem to mind the challenge.

Hammel, 32, stands 6-foot-6 and started his career pitching for Maddon with Tampa Bay. He's pitched like a fifth starter for much of his career, but he went 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA in 17 starts for the Cubs at the start of last season, before the A's insisted he be included along with Jeff Samardzija in a trade that landed the Cubs shortstop Addison Russell, one of baseball's best prospects.

Epstein re-signed Hammel with a two-year, $20 million contract that contains an option for a third season. He and pitching coach Chris Bosio have been working to get him back in the same rhythm he had consistently worked into the seventh inning last season.

Hendricks, a 25-year-old with an economics degree from Dartmouth, is the X-factor in this mix. Epstein landed him from the Rangers in a trade for Ryan Dempster in 2012, and he has been very quietly setting down hitters ever since.

Hendricks worked 452 1/3 Minor League innings between the Rangers' and Cubs' farm systems, using a 90-mph fastball and an assortment of pitches with surprising movement -- especially his changeup -- to compile a 2.69 ERA. That success carried over nicely to the NL after his promotion last July, suggesting that maybe he will jump ahead of Wood and Hammel to be a middle-of-the-rotation arm, if not better.

Arrieta believes there was nothing fluky about the 7-2 record and 2.46 ERA he had over 13 Major League starts last summer.

"Hendricks is probably one of the most underrated guys in baseball,'' Arrieta said. "He's in his second year. Not really everybody knows about him yet. Just watching this guy for the past couple of years, his composure is incredible. He understands the game plan. He works well with catchers, and he's got an advanced pitchability that not many guys have at his age. He's going to be huge for us. I think he's going to continue to fly under the radar, maybe for some time. But he's fine with that. He's as even-keeled and laid back as anybody you'll meet, and I think that's what makes him so good.''

Arrieta knows what it's like to be underrated. But when it's the fourth inning and the infield is in with the score 0-0, well, maybe the word is starting to get around.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.