Second act in a Cubs uniform isn’t a farewell tour for Jake Arrieta: ‘I have a lot in the tank’

“I think everybody at this level, regardless of where they’re at in their careers, are trying to prove something,” Jake Arrieta said.

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AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

MESA, Ariz. — It’s rare that an athlete gets to complete a tenure with a team and achieve individual and team success. In Jake Arrieta’s first run with the Cubs, he achieved both, winning the National League Cy Young Award in 2015 and helping the club win the World Series in 2016.

For Arrieta, returning to the Cubs wasn’t a matter of having unfinished business or needing to have a sense of closure. The 34-year-old right-hander isn’t returning to the rotation he once led to be an ace, but he still has something to prove.

“Everybody at this level, regardless of where they’re at in their careers, are trying to prove something,” Arrieta said. “It might not be to one person, it could be to themselves. It could be people in their past who didn’t think that they were capable of performing at this level or a former organization. Fill in the blank.

“There’s always things to prove. Not that that’s in a negative way. It’s really just to prove that I’m still capable of performing at a high level, the level that I expect to perform at.”

Cubs fans’ memories of Arrieta will always be ones of dominance, and it’s hard to blame them. His 21-game run in 2015-16, in which he went 19-0 with a 0.77 ERA and two no-hitters, is one of the most dominant stretches in MLB history.

But those days have passed, and Arrieta is a different version of the pitcher fans last saw donning the blue pinstripes.

Even as an older version of himself, the Cubs are confident that he still can pitch at a high level. Manager David Ross said he expects Arrieta to be near the top of the rotation but doesn’t want to put pressure on him.

“He is really comfortable here in this Cubs uniform. He’s got a long-standing history,” Ross said. “I’ve watched him perform at his best. He’s trying to get back to that version or as close as he can to that.

“But I know he’s going to help out our starters and our starting rotation. His presence, who he is, what he’s done in this game, his mentality, his work ethic, is all plus to be around. And he’s going to pitch big innings for us.”

“I don’t necessarily think I’m going to be 97, 98 [mph] anymore, and that’s completely fine,” Arrieta said. “That’s just kind of the natural progression of your career, and as you get a little bit older, some of those attributes might decline slightly. But I think my ability to perform at a similar level is still there. I’m healthy, and I’ve got a good support system around me.”

The rotation has several questions to answer this spring and into the season, and Arrieta will be a big part of that. His three years with the Phillies didn’t yield the results many expected. He 22-23 with a 4.36 ERA.

The Cubs don’t need Arrieta to be the Cy Young version of himself to make this tenure with the team successful, but they do need him to stay healthy, pitch quality innings and compete with the mentality that made him a household name.

“The last three years weren’t to my expectations,” he said. “I had to deal with several physical setbacks — a meniscus that I pitched through all of 2018, which was tough, but didn’t want to have surgery during the season. Then in 2019, ultimately had to have bone spurs taken out of my elbow again. So there were some slight physical limitations.

“But having said that, I just didn’t perform the way I was capable of, but I have a lot in the tank. I have a lot to still accomplish in this game, and I’m excited that it’s going to happen in this Cubs uniform again.”

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