CINCINNATI — When the Cubs re-signed Jake Arrieta during the offseason, there were questions about his success since leaving for the Phillies as a free agent in 2018 and — more pointedly — whether he could still perform.
Arrieta felt coming home to Chicago would help him get back to being the pitcher he believed he still was. And in April, the 35-year-old right-hander seemed to be on track, keeping the rotation afloat while the Cubs went through some early-season troubles.
But since then, the magic has worn off. Since coming off the injured list May 14, Arrieta hasn’t been what the Cubs have needed. In Wednesday night’s 15-7 debacle against the Brewers, they scored seven runs in the first inning, but Arrieta was gone after 1⅔, charged with six runs (three earned), including two as a result of his own throwing error. The performance brought to a head the issues the Cubs now face with Arrieta.
“It’s been tough,” he said. “I didn’t get the job done, period. . . . This one’s on my shoulders. There’s no way around it.’’
The eye test hasn’t favored Arrieta, and the numbers aren’t trending in the right direction, either. Since May 14, opponents have a .919 OPS and 6.53 ERA against him. That includes an 8.31 ERA in June — statistically his worst month so far this season.
Asked if he thought his performance had put his spot in the rotation in jeopardy, he declined to discuss the possibility.
“I really don’t care to think about that,” he said, directing the reporter to manager David Ross. “You can ask David if you want to ask David about that.”
While Ross didn’t say Arrieta (5-8) was out of the rotation, it’s a conversation that needs to be had.
“We’re going to reset [on the day off Thursday] and then go from there,” Ross said. “I don’t know who we would replace him with.”
There are some options that don’t involve making a trade. Right-hander Trevor Williams is on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Iowa after recovering from an appendectomy and likely would get his spot in the rotation back once he’s ready.
Other short- and long-term solutions may already be in the organization. Left-hander Justin Steele and right-hander Keegan Thompson have both been versatile pieces in the bullpen and are seen as starters long-term. Steele, who’s also on a rehab assignment, has been building himself back up from a strained right hamstring. It’s not unrealistic to think he or Thompson could start or even be used as openers as the Cubs try to improve a season-long area of need. Such a move would give the rotation a different look and the Cubs a possible glimpse of the future.
“Definitely two options as we continue to get these guys stretched out and be creative with how we want to do things,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “I think we’ve shown that one recipe for success for us is to get to the bullpen with the lead and hand the ball over to [Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin and Craig Kimbrel]. There’s a lot of different ways to do that. You could have two guys throw three innings each and get to the seventh. You could have one starter throw five and get to the sixth. So there’s not one way to do it.”
Regardless of whether the Cubs are in the National League Central race in four weeks, the time has come for them to evaluate their options and decide with what to do with Arrieta and his spot. The conversation won’t be easy, especially given his place in the team’s history, but it’s one that needs to happen right now.