CHICAGO -- Who's next? That always seems to be the question for fans trying to envision a Cubs powerhouse, and nobody blames them for their suggestions, but sometimes a rhetorical question does the job.
Even after Theo Epstein landed Jon Lester in San Diego last December, there's been almost constant speculation about David Price, Jordan Zimmermann or whoever else would be the Cubs' next ace. Epstein tried to deal for a young arm like Tyson Ross or Carlos Carrasco before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, and lately there's talk about Zack Greinke as a possible offseason target.
We'd like to pause for a moment and interrupt the chatter to say this: Hey, how 'bout that Jake Arrieta?
Arrieta has been on the short list of the Major Leagues' best pitchers for the past couple of months, and he demonstrated that to the Giants on Sunday. His 7 2/3 shutout innings were the centerpiece of a 2-0 victory that concluded a four-game sweep for the Cubs, who have won 10 of their past 11 to build a 3 1/2-game cushion for the National League's second Wild Card spot.
The four-hit outing lowered Arrieta's ERA to 2.38, including a 1.23 mark in his past 10 starts. How's he feeling, you ask?
"Locked in, still with opportunities to get even better," Arrieta said. "The most gratifying thing for me is coming up big for your teammates. Win the first three [in the series], with a chance to sweep, I was in the mindset of coming out to dominate today, put us in a situation where we only need one of two [runs]. That's what I was able to do."
When Joe Maddon pulled Arrieta after 117 pitches, the Wrigley Field crowd rose and cheered him like this was October, not August. He compared it to the applause he received last July at Fenway Park, on a night Stephen Drew broke up his no-hit bid with two outs in the eighth inning.
"You guys probably saw me look a bit behind the plate, in left field," Arrieta said. "That's a special feeling. That's why you play the game -- for moments like that. I'm sure we're going to be fortunate enough to be in those type of situations even more often as the season continues to progress. It's kind of a position where you're speechless. You just try to enjoy it and take it in."
The bearded, one-of-a-kind right-hander has quietly emerged as an ace as he approaches age 30. Arrieta's confidence and command have skyrocketed in mid-career, putting him on the same trajectory that turned Max Scherzer into a $210 million free agent.
Maddon recalls early in Scherzer's career when he had "tremendous, tremendous stuff" but was beatable because of his inconsistency. Then, midway through the 2012 season, Scherzer started pounding the strike zone with his fastball.
"He had this video-game stuff," Maddon said. "It was just so good, and then he finally figured it out, and now he is who he is. There's a similarity there [with Arrieta] in regards to figuring out where his fastball is going and being able to play off it, because his other stuff is outstanding also. If your fastball isn't good, the other stuff isn't quite as good either."
Arrieta's emergence since being acquired by Epstein in a 2013 trade that sent Scott Feldman to Baltimore parallels Scherzer's ascension in many ways. Both throw in the mid-90s with a selection of secondary pitches, but they put themselves into holes early in their careers by not throwing enough strikes. Both became beasts when they started to hit the catcher's mitt with their fastball.
In his first 114 starts with the D-backs and Tigers, Scherzer went 41-39 with a 4.16 ERA; in his past 107 starts, including Sunday's no-decision against Colorado, he's 61-19 with a 2.81 ERA.
The turnaround for Arrieta is even more striking. He made 63 starts for the Orioles, going 20-25 with a 5.41 ERA; in 57 starts for the Cubs, he has gone 27-13 with a 2.62 ERA.
"That's what happens when a guy with really good abilities -- velocity -- the moment he's able to throw a strike when he wants to with his fastball, he becomes pretty good," Maddon said. "That's probably the best definition I can give you. David Price, when David became really good, he was able to throw a fastball for a strike when he wanted to. ... Jake's at that point now. If he's off with a couple pitches, he's able to readjust back in. When he really needs or wants to throw a strike, he can."
Arrieta isn't interested in spending any energy on explaining why he has been a late bloomer. He's thriving in the present and looking for ways to get better in the future.
"What I did before in my career, you can pretty much throw it out the window," Arrieta said. "That's kind of out of sight, out of mind. I've used things over the past several years to help myself move forward and continue to progress, the good and bad, and just continue to try to build. There's always room for improvement. Even today, there are always things you could do better but we'll take the sweep."
Scherzer was within two months of his 28th birthday when he hit his stride and led the American League in wins the next two seasons. Arrieta likewise was 27 when he joined the Cubs. But because he spent more than twice as long as Scherzer in the Minor Leagues, he'll have a longer haul until free agency. The Cubs control Arrieta's contract through 2017.
For him to ultimately have a level of value approaching Scherzer's, Arrieta will have to become a workhorse while maintaining his level of success. He's averaged 6 2/3 innings in his 23 starts this season and projects to throw 228 1/3 if he gets 11 more starts.
It's hard not to wonder how strong the Cubs could be in future seasons with a rotation built around Lester, Arrieta and, say, Price or another prime acquisition. With four rookies in the everyday lineup and more talented hitters in the wings, the Cubs can afford to invest heavily in starting pitching.
But if the Cubs wind up playing a win-or-go-home NL Wild Card Game in October, the guy they might want starting is a bargain earning $3.63 million. That's Arrieta, a baseball brand name in the making.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.