Through the first two months of the MLB season, it seemed as if Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta was cruising toward a nine-figure contract and recognition as one of baseball’s best at his position.

Arrieta followed up his 2015 Cy Young campaign by posting a 1.74 ERA through his first 15 starts, the highlight of which was a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds on April 21. Then on June 27 against the same Cincinnati team he no-hit a little more than two months earlier, it all came to a screeching halt, and Arrieta’s surging stardom took a U-turn.

That day, Arrieta needed 93 pitches to make it through five innings, walked five and gave up five earned runs. His ERA since then has been 4.44. Since August 29, he has played even worse, posting an ERA of 5.30.

Reading those numbers might make you think your eyes are failing you, given the high hopes the Cubs had for their once infallible ace.

Truth is, Arrieta has looked little like a Cy Young Award winner through most of this season, and hardly the Cubs’ ace. Really, he’s been irrelevant to any success Chicago has had.

It was all underscored Wednesday, when Arrieta pitched his worst game of the year against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The right-hander lasted only five innings and gave up seven runs on 10 hits.

His ERA remains respectable at 3.10 but is the product of his hot start. It’s not representative of the pitcher he has been since late June—definitively Chicago’s No. 3 starter.

More specifically: He can no longer be relied upon to win games in October.

Luckily for the World Series-starved Cubs, though, they have enough in their arsenal to make Arrieta’s struggles a footnote in a still promising season.

While debate about how Chicago might set its rotation for the playoffs has permeated the clubhouse since the team clinched the NL Central, Arrieta’s most recent performance has almost assured that lefty Jon Lester and right-hander Kyle Hendricks will be the team’s top two starting pitchers in the playoffs.

Hendricks (1.99) and Lester (2.28) are one-two in MLB ERA, giving the Cubs all the pitching the team needs to win a World Series.

Sure, it would be nice if Arrieta could channel his mojo from earlier this season. But two upper-echelon pitchers is all a team needs to have success in October.

Having clinched the division so early, Chicago will be able to choose whom it wants to pitch in each game of the NLDS. In such a scenario, a team’s top two pitchers will pitch three games in the five-game series, exactly the number needed to win.

So as long as Hendricks and Lester pitch as they have throughout the 2016 season, it won’t matter how well—or poorly—Arrieta performs. If the two aforementioned win their scheduled games, the Cubs will advance.

Similarly, the Cubs’ top duo will pitch, at least, four games in a potential seven-game NLCS or World Series. Again, the exact number of games needed to win each of those series.

This isn’t to say the Cubs are somehow the same team when Arrieta struggles. That’s like saying a sundae tastes the same without whipped cream.

Of course the Arrieta of old would make the rotation better.

And if he continues to struggle in the playoffs, it certainly puts more pressure on Lester and Hendricks. The latter’s playoff experience is the same as Arrieta’s. The two got their first taste of October baseball last season.

But Lester has two World Series rings and 14 postseason starts to his name. His experience in the playoffs is the chief reason the Cubs signed him to a six-year, $155 million deal prior to the 2015 season.

They weren’t counting on Arrieta being Cy Young-worthy in 2015. That he was only strengthened Chicago’s rotation.

While Arrieta certainly earned the right to be designated the team’s ace heading into the 2015 playoffs, the original plan was for Lester to be Chicago’s Game 1 starter in the NLDS.

What transpired between his signing and now is irrelevant. Lester has proved all year that he is capable of leading the Cubs staff. He hasn’t allowed more than two earned runs since July 24, riding a streak of 11 straight quality starts.

If that isn’t enough, his 2.85 career playoff ERA should erase any doubt as to whether Lester can handle duties as Chicago’s playoff ace.

So while Arrieta’s ride toward stardom may have made a sudden stop, his poor play will not hit the brakes on the Cubs’ 2016 season.


Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.

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