There are two things you should know about Jake Arrieta before we begin, and they are: since joining the Chicago Cubs in July of 2013, he has been (1) very good, and (2) very inexpensive. Let’s start with very good: in the 343 innings he’s pitched since the midseason trade that brought him over from the Baltimore Orioles, he’s put up a 2.73 ERA, a 2.80 FIP, and 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. (Those numbers include, by the way, his somewhat pedestrian second half in 2013, wherein he put up a 3.66 ERA over 51 2/3 innings pitched.) In the two seasons since then, including this one, he’s put up the following marks:
Those are truly excellent numbers. Over the last two seasons, his WARP total of of 8.1 is second only to Clayton Kershaw in the National League, and Kershaw is on the fast track to the Hall of Fame. In summary, then: since arriving in Chicago, Arrieta has been everything the Cubs could have hoped for when they shipped Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger to Baltimore two years ago (incredibly, Chicago also got Pedro Strop in the bargain). Jon Lester may be paid ace money, and indeed he’s pitching like an ace these days, but Arrieta has been putting up ace-level numbers right alongside him.
And that other thing: Arrieta’s incredibly inexpensive. Arrieta doesn’t even become arbitration eligible until next year, and won’t become a free agent until after the 2017 season. For this season—one in which he’s putting up the numbers you just saw—he’s only being paid $3.6 million, meaning he’s producing approximately one win for every $1.5 million spent on him. In a market where the going price for a win is about $6.75 million, that’s incredible value. And it’s led many to propose that the Cubs do everything they can to lock Arrieta up for a multi-year extension, as soon as possible.
But what would that deal actually look like, and would both the Cubs and Arrieta be willing to make it happen? Let’s take a look at Arrieta’s 10-year PECOTA projections, courtesy of the BP stats team. You’ll notice that there’s a lot of ups and downs: that’s because these projections are based upon the top two or three most-comparable players. This means that if one of those players had a bad year in, say, their age-34 season, so will the projections. Over the course of a career, however, PECOTA smooths out these bumps so that the overall WARP total remains accurate:
Those are pretty solid numbers: PECOTA projects that Arrieta will be worth 19.9 WARP over the next nine full seasons of his career. That doesn’t mean that that’s what’ll happen, of course, but it does mean we shouldn’t be shocked if it does. It’s the best we can do with the information we have available to us right now.
And how much value will that production be worth? To find out, we can multiply the WARP Arrieta is projected to accrue by the value of a win, which we can expect to go up from its current value of approximately $6.75 million. Here, I’ve assumed that the value of a win will go up by a quarter of a million dollars every year, which is a standard assumption; your mileage may vary.
|Year||Age||WARP||Win Value (mm)||Value (mm)|
Thus, we can say at this point that any deal for Arrieta is likely to be worth it to the Cubs if they can get him through 2024 for less than $158 million. But that’s not quite right, either, because the Cubs can choose to do nothing, go to arbitration for the next two seasons, and pay Arrieta something which will probably be around $20 million in total for the 5.3 more WARP he’s projected to produce in 2016 and 2017. After that, they can let him walk and test their luck on the free agent market, or with young pitching prospects like Dylan Cease and Carson Sands. So the deal the Cubs are actually likely to be willing to do is something like $20 million for the first two years, which they’d be paying anyway, and then $121 million for the final seven years, bringing the deal to $141 million total for 2016-2024.
Is that a deal the Cubs should make right now? I don’t know. I don’t know what their evaluation of the pitchers coming onto the free agent market in the next few years is, and I don’t know what they believe they have in their minor-league system already. But I’m pretty sure the question is moot, because I don’t think Arrieta would take a nine-year, $141 million extension right now as it is. Last year, Lester signed a six-year, $155 million contract with the Cubs. Max Scherzer signed a deal for seven years and $210 million. This offseason, Johnny Cueto and David Price will sign for equally enormous sums of money. If Arrieta keeps up his level of performance for just two seasons—and PECOTA thinks he will—there is absolutely no reason to believe that some team won’t step up and beat $121 million for those final seven years. Arrieta’s going to get $20 million for the next two years anyway; his numbers are too good for the arbitrators to go any lower. His financial future is secure. But life-changing money is just over the horizon, and I’m sure he can see it there.
If I were the Cubs right now, I’d put an extension offer on the table that tops out at about six years and $100 million, covering everything through the 2021 season. It’s not an insultingly low amount, but it’s not an amount that Arrieta is in any real danger of accepting. He’ll know he can get more on the market when he reaches free agency after the 2017 season. If he doesn’t accept that offer, that’s fine: there’ll be other pitching available to buy on the market, for equivalent prices, and in any event they’ll still have him for dirt cheap through 2017. If he does accept it, the Cubs have a bonafide ace locked up at reasonable prices for a reasonable length of time, and stand to gain about $10 million in surplus value (if PECOTA is to be believed). Anything beyond that hypothetical contract, however, and the Cubs front office will have done what they’ve never done before (at least in Chicago), which is to pay primarily on the basis of past performance.
There’s lots of caveats here. For one thing, the value of certainty—to either the Cubs or to Arrieta—might be higher than what I’ve considered here. Arrieta might decide that $100 million is more than enough for a lifetime, and take a below-market offer. The Cubs might decide that they don’t like what they see in the free agent market, and spend a little extra to keep someone they know they like. The Cubs might decide that Arrieta’s medicals mean that they don’t believe the projections at all, and are hoping to get whatever they can out of him before he leaves via free agency. There are a million different unknowns here, and I know the answer to about four of them. This is a thought exercise, which I’ve come away from knowing this: if the Cubs do sign Jake Arrieta to an extension, it’ll almost certainly be because they believe he’s going to be productive well into his 30s. The only way he’ll sign that extension, meanwhile, is if he wants the certainty of a lot of money right now. Without those two things, no deal will get done. Until the day a deal is signed, however, let’s enjoy Arrieta for what he is: a true, top of the rotation ace.
Lead photo courtesy of Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports