You Got Played: How the Cubs Salvaged The Orioles' Failed Pitching Prospects

The Chicago Cubs are making a killing off of the Baltimore Orioles' failed pitching prospects. How in the hell did this happen?

by Jonathan Bernhardt
Aug 29 2014, 3:24pm

Photo via Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Arrieta's last start as a Baltimore Oriole went about as well as the four starts he'd made to begin the 2013 season, four April starts in which he twice walked five batters, twice gave up five runs, and not once pitched through the sixth inning. He returned from minor league banishment on June 17 for a night game in Detroit, facing Max Scherzer, who would go on to win the AL Cy Young. Arrieta's line: 4.2 IP, 10 H, 5 ER, 1 BB, 3 K. There was nothing particularly remarkable about it for Baltimore fans—that's what Arrieta is now. He'd only been summoned back to the big league club because Jason Hammel had a stomach virus, and he was gone after the game, sent back to the AAA Norfolk team from whence he'd came. It was the last night he'd wear an Orioles uniform.

On July 2, he and underperforming reliever Pedro Strop were dealt to the Chicago Cubs for pitcher Scott Feldman and minor league catcher Steve Clevenger, and Orioles fans hoped that was that last they'd ever see of either man. Nothing personal, you understand—just the usual sensitivity every fanbase has when they trade off a talented young disappointment in return for a veteran rental: Please don't let this come back to hurt us.

It's been almost 14 months since Jake Arrieta became a Cub, and but for injuries and Clayton Kershaw he'd be a candidate for the 2014 National League Cy Young Award. Oh, and last week he shut the Orioles down over seven breezy innings of 1-run ball. Was this predictable? No, a young pitcher's command going from pitifully unacceptable (4.0 BB/9 in BAL) to damn good (2.3 BB/9 this year) off nothing more than a change of scenery is never predictable. But Arrieta is just the most notable pitcher in the recent Baltimore-to-Chicago pitching pipeline that has dramatically reshaped the Cubs' rebuild over the last year.

There's also the aforementioned Strop, a hard-throwing reliever famous for having better command of his slider than his fastball. Strop's command issues weren't solely a product of his time in Baltimore—Texas dealt him because they'd already given up on him learning consistency—but the Orioles failed to make any lasting corrections to his mechanics. The transition from Baltimore (4.9 BB/9) to Chicago (3.6 BB/9) isn't quite as dramatic for him as Arrieta's, but the command improvement also came with a spike in strikeouts (10.2 K/9 in Chicago, 8.4 K/9 in Baltimore).

Then there's the two pitchers Baltimore can't be blamed failing to hold onto: starter Jason Hammel, who came to Baltimore in the Jeremy Guthrie trade with Colorado, and Tsuyoshi Wada, a NPB soft-tosser signed along with current Oriole starter Wei-Yin Chen. Hammel spent a good portion of his time in Baltimore sidelined by injury, while Wada never even took the field for the big league club, missing both 2012 and the beginning of 2013 due to elbow surgery. He spent the end of last season in Norfolk working with the Orioles' minor league pitching instructors—and putting up an ERA over 4.

Both went to Chicago, Hammel for 1 year, $6 million and Wada on a minor league contract. The Cubs turned Hammel's great first half (plus their own Jeff Samardzija's even better one) into elite shortstop prospect Addison Russell; Wada, meanwhile, joined the Chicago rotation in the second half of the season and has thrown 45.2 innings of 2.56 ERA baseball with peripherals almost as good as Arrieta's. In each of the four stories, the general beats are the same: pitcher comes to Baltimore, pitcher works with Baltimore staff, pitcher has command problems that no one seems to know how to fix, pitcher comes to Chicago, pitcher almost immediately starts walking one fewer batter per 9 innings, and looks like a completely different—and much better—pitcher.

What's going on here? Well, with Jake Arrieta it's fairly clear: he has developed and is being encouraged to actually use his cutter by the organization that traded for him. Those that have followed the adventures of Baltimore's Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette and his Director of Pitching Development Rick Peterson will remember this bizarre sidestory from 2012, when Duquette and Peterson ordered every pitcher in the organization to just… stop using the cutter. But the problem wasn't with the cutter itself: the problem was that no one in the Baltimore minor league organization under either Duquette or his predecessor, Andy MacPhail, was able to teach Baltimore's prospects how to effectively use the pitch—and so the new regime decided, at least publicly, to just toss the thing out the window.

The Cubs, on the other hand, love the cutter. Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson, and Kyle Hendricks all feature the pitch; Samardzija did too, before he left town. The pitch that Duquette semi-famously derided as just "a fastball [that] moves" serves a specific, tangible purpose in a pitcher's arsenal by being just that: a pitch that moves at fastball speed, but with more lateral movement. Many pitchers find it easier to locate than their slider, and they're not using it to blow hitters away; they're using it to get strikes, establish their zone, and induce bad contact. The lunacy of throwing the cutter out of the toolbox just because no one in the organization is able to teach it becomes clear when you realize the specific pitcher Duquette was dismissing with his "fastball [that] moves" comment was none other than Mariano Rivera.

The cutter is not a cure-all, nor are the Cubs using it as one—it wasn't added to Hammel's repertoire, nor Strop's. After all, perhaps the only thing more nonsensical than demanding that no one throw the cutter is insisting that everyone add it; pitching solutions are not one-size-fits-all, top-down ideological mandates. And the beauty of having a top-level pitching development staff as quietly effective as the Cubs have been over the past season or so is that Chicago can take take in guys that other teams have given up on—your Jake Arrietas, your Jacob Turners, your Dan Strailys—and hope to hit big on one of those guys with sustainable major league success.

Which isn't to say Chicago is set on pitching for next year. A rotation of Arrieta, Hendricks, Wood, Jackson, and Wada would terrify me were I a Cubs fan; Jackson's still a mess, Wood is a back of the rotation guy and Wada hasn't yet thrown 100 innings. But this is the Chicago Cubs we're talking about; they should be about ready to open the checkbook in the way big market clubs do in the offseason. And when they do, they should already have some great young pitching to build on—young pitching that wouldn't be there, save for the Cubs being able to harness the potential another team couldn't.