CHICAGO -- It was almost a wasted road trip. Chicago Cubs strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss went to Austin, Texas, this winter to visit with National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta. Buss sees as many Cubs players in the offseason as he can to monitor their fitness.
But Arrieta is one player Buss never has to worry about. How did Arrieta compare to others?
"He's definitely at the top," Buss said. "Jake puts so much time into it. The duration [of the workout] is so much longer. He's in the best shape of anyone I've ever been around."
That's good news, because Arrieta needed every ounce of fitness last season in blowing by a previous career high of 156 2/3 innings pitched, landing at nearly 250, including the postseason.
Arrieta's fitness routine -- heavy in Pilates -- is becoming legendary. Last season, he often worked out on a Pilates machine in front of reporters as manager Joe Maddon held pregame news conferences just feet away. It was hard to focus on Maddon as Arrieta went at it. Then there's the running. It's constant.
But even Arrieta will tell you none of that prepared his arm for an extra 78 innings above what he pitched the previous season.
"It's kind of the unknown," he said recently at the Cubs fan convention. "Regardless of how you prepare or the shape you're in, there are certain things [that are] difficult to prepare for; but having that workload under my belt, I think moving forward, I'll be very capable of handling it again."
And that's the key for an even better season in 2016 -- if that's possible. Arrieta went 22-7 with a 1.77 ERA in 2015 while coming from way behind to overtake Zack Greinke for his first Cy Young Award.
His arm ran out of gas late in the postseason, but the sentiment around the Cubs is that the next time around, his arm, mind and body will be better prepared for that kind of punishment.
"We'll be smart about how he goes about his spring training and how we manage his workload early," said Theo Epstein, the Cubs' president of baseball operations. "The fact that he was able to throw a ton of innings last year and stay healthy throughout the whole season is a really good sign for him."
The Cubs haven't yet detailed how they'll back him off, but delaying his spring debut or giving him a day off from a scheduled start later in the year are good ideas -- though Arrieta isn't the type to back off anything.
In the spring of 2014, his then-manager Rick Renteria had him progressing slowly from offseason shoulder soreness, but Arrieta seemed miffed at the snail's pace. He didn't want to miss the first month of that season -- though the final five months were a precursor to his domination in 2015.
"The main concern is that when the season is over, you have to take time to let your body heal and recover," Buss said. "A lot of guys don't want to do that.
"We stressed it to everyone, especially him, because of his workload."
Arrieta said his throwing program has been about normal -- Buss watched him and newcomer John Lackey play catch -- with an eye toward improvement.
"I've had more than a couple weeks now, working on my deliveries," Arrieta said. "Dry deliveries. That helps when I get the ball back in my hand -- like I never really stopped throwing. The goal for me is to increase arm strength."
Recent history suggests the 2015 workload isn't a big concern. Five pitchers, including Cy Young winners Corey Kluber and David Price, along with Homer Bailey, Jose Quintana and Madison Bumgarner, all made similar jumps in innings pitched from one year to the next.
All five threw similar inning totals the following season, meaning they were healthy, while three had higher ERAs from the previous season and two had lower. There's no reason to believe Arrieta can't be really good again, though some might believe his cross-body delivery could lead to shoulder issues. Similar concerns could probably be issued for the majority of pitchers, however.
"The numbers are hard to control," Arrieta said. "I anticipate having a very good season. Whether I go under a 1.70 [ERA] or over 22 wins remains to be seen. I think it's possible."
Arrieta has enjoyed his newfound fame, saying his award is something "no one can ever take away from him." In Austin, not exactly a baseball town, he has become more recognizable. Same in Chicago, where fans flock to see him pitch.
"Immersing myself in the Wrigleyville area was special to me and my family," Arrieta said. "The season I had was the icing on the cake. The support is already there."
Repeating his terrific season is enough motivation for Arrieta, but finishing what the Cubs started last year is the bigger concern. Getting swept in the National League Championship Series by the New York Mets left a bad taste for everyone, even if the young Cubs went further than anyone believed they could. To finish the job, they'll need a crisp and dominant Arrieta come October.
"We have to be smart about it, to keep him fresh for the most important time of year," Epstein said.