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Ace of Cubs: Improved command helps Jake Arrieta near elite status

LOS ANGELES -- There is no greater compliment a player can receive than one from his peers. In Chicago Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta’s case the adulation comes from teammates and opponents alike. It has his high-powered agent, Scott Boras, excited for the possibilities that lie ahead. Arrieta is still two years from free agency but his status among the game’s elite is becoming a reality now.

“His stuff is as good as anyone’s out there,” Giants All-Star Buster Posey said after Arrieta beat his team earlier this week. “He can go through a lineup several times.”

“Stuff” has never been Arrieta’s problem. Command of his pitches was. But that was before his trade to the Cubs in July of 2013, when Baltimore moved him along with reliever Pedro Strop for starter Scott Feldman and catcher Steve Clevenger. It’s becoming one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory, as Arrieta takes the mound Sunday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers as a Cy Young award candidate. He’s 16-6 with a 2.22 ERA on the season, but has he entered Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke’s club of great pitchers?

“He can get there,” Dodgers third-base coach Ron Roenicke said Saturday. “His stuff is that good. I’ve seen the command get better and better from him. First time we saw him, great stuff but the command wasn't there. If you can command that stuff, you're going to be one of the elite pitchers.”

Roenicke saw plenty of Arrieta when he managed the Milwaukee Brewers, and he saw what everyone else has: the ability to make a baseball move in so many different ways as it approaches a hitter.

“The ability to manipulate the baseball like he can is amazing,” teammate Jon Lester said. “A lot of times guys that can do that don’t have the best command because the ball is moving all over the place. He’s able to do the criss cross, the X’s. That’s what really confuses the hitters.”

He wasn’t always able to command it. He showed flashes in Baltimore, but he left town with a mediocre 1.35 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2013. Last year, it was 4.07, and this year it’s up to 4.14. Everything changed when he came to Chicago.

“When the Cubs brought him over, the one thing I like is they really let Jake be Jake,” Boras said. “They let him bring forward a lot of what he was in college, when I knew him. That freed him to grow.”

Arrieta became a workout and health freak. His diet, exercise and workout routine might be matched by other starters but it won’t be surpassed. Along with some natural maturing, he’s become the complete package.

“It doesn’t really change from day to day, and it’s been an evolution over the course of my life,” Arrieta said recently of his fitness. “I’ve refined it in Chicago and always want to feel optimal when I take the mound.”

With 13 consecutive quality starts, he’s been pretty optimal, reaching a career-high in innings already. If this path continues, he’ll cash in when he’s eligible for free agency after the 2017 season -- or before if the Cubs and Arrieta can come to terms. It still might be a little early for that.

“The issue with the Cubs is going to be the commitment level their ownership is going to take because you’re talking about winning baseball in a major market franchise,” Boras said. “It’s going to be $180 million to 220 million payroll to keep five to seven star players. The economics will work out with television rights and the appeal of the Cubs. A lot of decision-making will be made on the part of Tom Ricketts and ownership.”

The Cubs might hit the free-agent market this winter to add another big name to pitch alongside Arrieta and Lester, but eventually the Cubs righty will get his payday. If he’s healthy, his stuff is just too good.

“He comes across his body with a 96-mph sinker,” Posey said. “Or maybe 89 to 93 cutter, with a plus-curveball. It’s going all sorts of directions. There’s not many that can go both ways with that kind of velocity.”

Giants rookie Matt Duffy also got a taste of Arrieta. It’s safe to say he didn’t see the kind of movement we’re talking about coming up through the minors.

“Impressive stuff,” Duffy said. “Everything moves a lot. It’s subtle differences. Pitches move a little later, maybe a little more. You can’t point to one thing. But they [elite pitchers] have something different.”

Lester added: “He puts the hitter on the defense. He’s got five plus pitches that make it difficult for a hitter to look for one thing at one speed.”

Movement at different speeds. It’s what any pitcher is striving for when he takes the mound. Arrieta will take center stage Sunday night with his two closest competitors for the Cy Young award in the opposing dugout -- and with the Cubs on a four-game losing streak as they battle for a postseason bid for the first time since 2008. Arrieta is 7-1 pitching after a Cubs' loss. He’s their stopper. Their ace.

“I remember seeing him in Baltimore,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “The stuff was good there, too. A lot of weapons for lefties and righties. Just a handful. Your guy is going to have to pitch good. You stay in the game and hopefully you scratch for runs late.”

It’s about the only way to beat Arrieta, if he can be beaten at all these days.