Pose the question in September 2015, and it’s a laughable one. Jake Arrieta’s long-term status was not in question at that point, and even into the 2016 season, he remained entrenched in the future plans as far as Cubs fans were concerned.
But his slightly wobbly regular season—he put together quality numbers on the whole, but showed real signs of mortality—and his advancing age have perhaps unfairly cast a shadow over Arrieta’s pitching career beyond the upcoming season.
Though Phil Rogers of MLB.com compellingly argues the case that Arrieta does deserve an extension from the Cubs in spite of these things, that’s just not the case. The thrust of Rogers’s argument is that Arrieta would fill the need the Cubs have had for a controllable starter and that assuming he can be replaced is dangerous water to tread.
And that’s probably somewhat true. It is known that the Cubs are in the market for controllable starters, though preferably of the younger variety than Arrieta, and have been for a few years now. It is known that the Cubs will have gaps to fill in their rotation after the 2017 season. And, in many ways, Arrieta could fill one of those gaps rather nicely.
The problem is that, as a Scott Boras client and as a recent Cy Young winner, Arrieta’s price tag is going to be hefty. Rogers acknowledged this and said that he would go as high as seven years and $200 million if it came to it. Thankfully, Rogers is not in charge of the Cubs’ payroll.
By presumably approaching Arrieta’s free agency prepared to let him leave, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are making the right decision. First, the aforementioned contract size—both in dollars and years—would be potentially prohibitive for a team that will be looking to retain the offensive core just a few years from now. And the market for any free agent past 30, especially pitchers, is not as inviting as it used to be. Rogers would counter with examples like Kevin Brown and Max Scherzer, but there is a much longer list of pitchers past 30 whose contracts have proven to be an albatross for their respective clubs.
Even tossing those concerns aside, some of Arrieta’s numbers in 2016 are reason enough. Simply stacking 2015 against 2016 would be unfair to any pitcher, but his WARP was cut in half, from 6 to 3, and his 4.6 WARP in 2014 was still notably higher than last season. Pick any measure from 2016 and it is worse than 2015, but they’re almost all worse than 2014, too.
Even a cursory look at Brooks Baseball shows a slight drop off in his velocity in 2016 compared to 2014, and it becomes an even bigger dip when compared to his 2015 season.
This admittedly might not prove anything, but given his age, it’s not unreasonable to think that his trajectory is simply heading downward. Yes, he is an Adonis, but even physical specimens featured in ESPN’s body issue wear down after a while. His effectiveness as a pitcher depends greatly on his strength and his ability to stay consistent in his delivery, and as he gets older, that does not get easier.
Finally, though the Cubs would struggle to replace him now, that does not mean they will in the future. The free agent class for starting pitching this winter is paltry, but in biding their time until the winter before the 2018 season, the Cubs are setting themselves up for the likes of Madison Bumgarner, Yu Darvish, Johnny Cueto (if he opts out), or even Francisco Liriano or Masahiro Tanaka.
It is never wise to pin many hopes on pitching prospects, and the Cubs don’t have many who will be major league ready in the near future, so they will need to build a rotation beyond 2017 through trades or acquisitions. It is possible that Arrieta might justify a new contract from the Cubs this year, but now is not the time to extend him—not before he has pitched an inning of the 2017 season.
Like Dexter Fowler before him, Arrieta’s free agency needs to happen, regardless of how Rogers or the fans might feel. The Cubs are thriving now because of maximizing the value of their roster, and a part of that means letting players like Fowler and Arrieta go before their cost too greatly outweighs their performance.
In the short term, the Cubs have at least one more year of one of the best non-ace starters in baseball, and beyond that, letting him ride off into free agency is a shrewd move for the long-term benefit of the club.
Lead photo courtesy Ken Blaze—USA Today Sports