MESA, Ariz. -- We are not only in the Cactus League and Grapefruit League seasons but in projection season, a time when historical precedent and other figures and factors compel the number-crunchers to peg this guy to 20 homers or that guy to a 3.50 ERA. And there is value in the process, for those inclined to make predictions or those filling in their fantasy rosters or those simply too impatient to wait for the real thing.
But the beauty of baseball, ultimately, is the stuff you can't project or expect, and that beauty was especially evident on a sunny Wednesday at Sloan Park, where the Cubs' Jake Arrieta (the 2015 National League Cy Young Award winner) and the Indians' Corey Kluber (the 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner), two of the more unlikely major award winners in recent memory, toed the rubber for their respective clubs.
This showdown of Cy Young Award winners, a 5-3 Indians win, was a mere exhibition (two perfect innings for Arrieta in his 2016 debut; three scoreless for Kluber in his second spring outing), but it exhibited two highly undervalued trade acquisitions who made good -- and then some.
No man in the house was more qualified to assess the similarities in storyline that accompanied the ascents of Arrieta and Kluber than current Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer, who holds the noteworthy distinction of having traded for one guy and traded away the other.
"These guys transformed themselves," Hoyer said. "And they had the makeup to make those changes."
That, more than any mechanical overhaul or renovation of repertoire, is the fundamental factor that allowed for those ascents. A change of scenery means nothing if the player has neither the work ethic nor the aptitude to make the most of the move, and that's why it's important for clubs to scout more than the stat line.
For the Cubs, the scouting process involved in the Arrieta acquisition was far more detailed -- and far more time-consuming -- than many fans probably realize. The Cubs first identified Arrieta as a potential trade target as far back as the summer of 2012, when they were looking to move right-hander Ryan Dempster.
The one benefit to being in a clearly defined rebuild situation is the ability to dole out innings or at-bats to intriguing guys who the contending clubs have no room to mess around with, and the Chicago scouts' initial interest in Arrieta's raw stuff led to some sleuthing about his makeup, and that process carried into the summer of 2013, when the Orioles were one of the teams that called about former Cubs right-hander Scott Feldman.
Oddly enough, one important character in the lead-up to the Cubs' July 2, 2013, acquisition of Arrieta and reliever Pedro Strop for Feldman and catcher Steve Clevenger was Jeremy Guthrie, a pitcher who has no affiliation with the Cubs whatsoever. Kyle Evans, an advance scout for the Cubs who had played with Guthrie in the Tribe's Minor League system in the mid-2000s, polled his ex-teammate Guthrie about Arrieta, as the two had pitched together in Baltimore.
"My feeling," said Guthrie, "having gone through it a little bit myself and seen it for a number of players, was that if you can get another opportunity where the mental stress is relieved or there's a better meshing of personalities, you can succeed, and I thought Jake was an excellent candidate for that. He worked so hard, and I could see that if he were to go somewhere else, he could be every bit the pitcher that we have seen him become."
Arrieta called Baltimore a "tough environment" for him, one where the big league staff's emphasis on altering his mechanics affected his ability to pitch with conviction and confidence. When he arrived to the North Side, he had a 5.46 ERA in 69 career Major League appearances. Suffice it to say, there wasn't much external conviction and confidence about Arrieta's ability to become an elite arm at this level.
"I was changed to something different," Arrieta said of his time in Baltimore. "All I was worried about was mechanics. When Miguel Cabrera steps up to the plate, you can't worry about where your front side is. You've got to worry about executing a pitch. That's the mindset adjustment. Mechanical adjustments are made on side day, on long-toss day, on recovery day. And then, in between the lines, that's the fun part, that's the easy day."
Arrieta's renewed relationship with his slider-cutter hybrid, a pitch he backed away from in Baltimore either as a result of injury (he had a bone spur removed at the end of 2011) or organizational emphasis, has helped him, unquestionably. But so has a return to the across-the-body mechanics that the O's, fearing injury, asked him to abandon.
The Cubs let him be. In return, Arrieta has given them a 2.26 ERA over 67 starts and one of the greatest second halves of a season the sport has ever seen. (He gave up nine earned runs over 107 1/3 innings for an 0.75 ERA, the lowest ERA after the break in Major League history.)
"I pitched with confidence because I pitched the way I knew I was capable of pitching," Arrieta said. "I wasn't trying to be somebody who somebody else wanted me to be. I was utilizing a delivery that I used at an early age again."
Kluber's rise is different in that he had no prior Major League exposure for the Indians to draw on when they asked about him in mid-2010, as part of the discussion that would send Jake Westbrook to St. Louis and Ryan Ludwick to San Diego.
The 2010 season was Hoyer's first as GM of the Padres, and he can admit now that, like any first-year GM, he was still getting a firm grasp on the players in the system. The Tribe was the only team to ask about Kluber in trade discussions that summer, and the consensus among the San Diego scouts was that he was a No. 5 starter or bullpen guy, at best, because of the lack of life on his fastball. Hoyer's biggest regret, which he voiced in a lengthy recent analysis of his thought process behind the trade, is that he didn't put enough weight on the pitch analytics attributed to Kluber at Double-A San Antonio.
But here's the thing: The analytics were unavoidably incomplete anyway. Kluber's ace-type potential was untapped with a mix heavily reliant on a two-seamer used to set up a cutter. Both of those pitches have seen an uptick in popularity in recent years, and Kluber didn't employ either one in his San Diego days. He incorporated the cutter in 2011 and the sinker in '12. Even the Indians' higher-ups will tell you they were floored by how much Kluber changed since the trade.
"Cleveland's got a terrific pitching infrastructure," Hoyer said. "[Kluber] deserves credit for making those changes. I think one thing with athletes at this level is they're sometimes not a click away from being average, they're a click away from being terrific."
It was fun watching these terrific two get their work in under the Arizona sun, and Arrieta astutely pointed out afterward that he and Kluber are examples that "there's not a perfect formula to have success and have it on a consistent basis at this level."
Kind of makes you wonder who baseball's next out-of-nowhere notable might be.