When he arrived in Mesa for spring training back in February, Jake Arrieta was confident that he still had “a lot left in the tank” and that the Cubs could “succeed at the highest level again.” One of those predictions lasted about a month into the season, the other not much longer. After getting out to a 3-2 record with a 2.57 ERA over his first five starts, the wheels have completely fallen off for the former Cy Young winner.
His second stint with the Cubs officially came to an end Thursday when he was placed on unconditional release waivers, which is a bit more final than another phantom IL designation.
Jake Arrieta has been placed on unconditional release waivers.
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) August 12, 2021
In 15 starts since April 25, Arrieta is 2-9 with an 8.95 ERA and just 48 strikeouts with 28 walks in 58.1 innings pitched. He had gone fewer than four innings in nine of those starts, the 11th time since 1901 that a Cubs starter has had as many games of that kind (per Jordan Bastian). In fact, Arrieta has averaged only 3.89 innings per start over that time and has given up four or more earned runs on eight occasions.
One of those came Wednesday night as he surrendered seven earned runs on 10 hits in the first inning alone. It’s actually the second time in as many starts against the Brewers that the game opened with a seven-spot in the top of the 1st inning. This time, however, Arrieta was the one giving up the touchdown. He allowed hits to eight of the 11 batters who came to the plate in that opening frame, including the first three and then four in a row after a groundout.
“It’s tough,” Arrieta told reporters after the game. “Made quite a few good pitches and they found holes, whether it was in the infield or the outfield. Only one or two balls that were really hit hard. But obviously it accumulated.”
While it’s true that circumstances conspired against him to an extent, this wasn’t an aberration in any sense given how bad the righty has been for a prolonged period now. He hasn’t seemed willing to admit it, either, blaming the results on bad luck or one of several maladies that seem to have befallen him after another in a series of what has become far too many bad starts.
There was the lacerated thumb in Cincinnati (7 ER), the food poisoning in San Francisco (6 ER), and the balky hamstring that cropped up after the start against the Phillies (7 ER). Lord only knows what excuse the Cubs will find for the eight earned runs Arrieta was forced(?) to wear over four innings as Brewers starter Corbin Burnes looked like his counterpart circa 2015 in striking out 10 straight batters, but it doesn’t sound as though David Ross is ready to throw in the towel on his old buddy.
“Aside from being the manager, I would definitely say, yeah, I would like to give him as much runway as possible,” Ross said after the game. “I think this game is harsh, at times, too, right? There are some hard realities in this game that don’t always allow that.”
The hard reality for the Cubs is that they’re a very bad baseball team right now with zero concern about actually trying to win ballgames. Perhaps that’s why Arrieta was allowed to keep going on Wednesday and why it’s almost surprising he wasn’t allowed to continue as part of a rotation that recently expanded to accommodate Justin Steele. I mean, if you can tank for a top-10 draft pick while also giving starting experience to a young lefty, that’s the best of both worlds.
Except that the Cubs also have Keegan Thompson waiting in the wings to get work as a starter after cutting his teeth in MLB as a reliever. Arrieta had little to offer in the way of an explanation when asked Thursday about his prolonged struggles.
“I got nothing for you, man,” Arrieta said. “I’m doing the best I can. And that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
That’s more or less what he’s been saying the whole time, but it felt less genuine each time and was certainly harder to believe as the bad starts piled up. It was also becoming harder to believe Arrieta still had much value as a leader, whether it’s because the team is clearly going to be moving in a different direction or because of the surliness he maintained throughout the season.
Look, I’m not expecting the dude to suddenly adopt humility as his default disposition because that’s just not who he is. That said, a willingness to more readily embrace the diminution of his skills might have actually helped him as a pitcher. And the way he flippantly asked a reporter to take off his mask during Wednesday’s postgame media availability was a dick move that served no purpose other than as an outlet for his frustration from the events of the evening.
As things were going, Arrieta was doing his best to surpass Tom Ricketts when it came to pissing away a tremendous amount of goodwill in a short period of time. While Arrieta will forever have a legacy from that incredible 2015 season and the title that followed a year later, he left on somewhat negative terms after 2017. That was forgotten when he returned this past winter, but his subsequent words and actions — not getting vaccinated, giving up loads of runs, making excuses for performance, etc. — soured more than a few fans.
With the obvious understanding that fandom — particularly as expressed via social media — can be extremely fickle, there’s never been much benefit of the doubt for someone who’s performing very poorly.
There had been an open question about exactly how much runway the Cubs would afford a once-great player and whether Arrieta had either the wheels or gas needed to make it any further anyway. We now have the answer, so all that remains is to see whether Arrieta still wants to play and, more importantly, whether another team believes he still can. His stubbornness didn’t softened by repeated poundings from opponents, though, so I’m not really sure what it might take to get him to change.
It’s disappointing that things ended the way they did for Arrieta in Chicago, but time should buff away most of the patina that tarnished his legacy over the past few months. Plus, it feels at least a little encouraging that the Cubs felt that roster spot was best served for buoyancy rather than ballast as whatever’s left of the ship lists drunkenly to port over the next few weeks.