The first days of spring training are always ripe with storylines. A player is suddenly in the best shape of their life. Some are looked on as potential breakout stars or prospects. Others, like Arrieta, turn to their increasingly murky contract situations. Over the next few months, the idea of an extension will loom over both him and the Cubs. Seeing a path to Jake Arrieta being in a Cubs uniform beyond this season is possible, but some sense has to be made of it.
Arrieta, who is a Scott Boras client, is poised to finally cash in on his spike in performance since joining the Cubs. Over his career with the Orioles and Cubs, he has earned about $16.3 million, which was stymied by the slow start to his career in Baltimore. He has unequivocally been a bargain for the Cubs, even as his salary grows to $15.6 million entering this season. Over his Cubs career, he has been a 13.8 pWARP pitcher, won a Cy Young, and has been one of the more consistent players on the roster. In many cases, this would be a slam dunk case, but Arrieta does have his warts.
Pitchers always carry risk. However, Arrieta’s detractors have no shortage of risk factors to be leery of outside of pitchers just being unpredictable. First, he enters his age 31 season this year. A long term deal would take him into his mid-to-late thirties, which would saddle the Cubs with some less-than-ideal years of his career at a high price.
Second, questions have been raised on his mechanics. Arrieta’s cross-body stride takes quite a bit of core strength to maintain control and repeatability, which is less of a problem for someone who does this regularly. The more extreme the step the more strain the muscles are put under. Last year was a clear sign of his fatigue as his mechanics became less repeatable and he missed his spots more frequently. Finally, last year was Arrieta’s worst year as a Cub. He set himself a high bar, but a dip in performance is always a worry.
Arrieta is also poised to enter what could be a strong pitching class. Yu Darvish is the only other guaranteed free agent that pops out as a top of the rotation starter. However, Johnny Cueto and Masahiro Tanaka may also opt out of their deals and seek “greener” pastures. And the possible presence of Shohei Otani in free agency would shake this market to its core. All in all, this is a class that boasts some strong depth and potentially a great top line as well.
Conversely, the Cubs are poised to be active in this market with or without Arrieta. Beyond this season, the Cubs only have two starters, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks, under contract. They’re likely to have another pitcher under contract for next season, but it’s safe to say that the dynamics of the fifth rotation spot are yet to be fleshed out. With a lack of young, developed pitching depth, the Cubs will likely turn to outside sources—both in the free agent and trade markets—to fill their rotation gaps.
This begs the question: What factors come in to play to make an Arrieta extension palatable?
I can’t foresee an in-season extension making sense. Arrieta and Boras have considerable amounts of leverage right now. Even after his “down year”, Arrieta is poised to be one of the hottest commodities on the free agent market this year. That alone is a massive hurdle that the Cubs will have to pay their way past.
However, the top of the rotation market saturation is potentially at its highest in years. With the aforementioned free agents, potential free agents, and trade pieces like Sonny Gray and Chris Archer, there are tons of options from pitching hungry teams to choose from. As they enter the free agency period, it’s fair to assume that the markets for each of these players can be stifled by one another. This dynamic can help the Cubs move the leverage back in to their corner to find a middle ground on Arrieta’s Greinke-esque demands.
That middle ground may come in the form of a contract structured similarly to Jason Heyward. Hewyard signed the 8 year, $184 million dollar contract last offseason. At signing, however, many did not view this as a contract that would be completely fulfilled. This is because of Heyward’s year three and four opt-outs. As a 26-year-old, these placed Heyward in a position to nab another huge contract as he would hit free agency in his prime years. His first season with the Cubs didn’t go quite as planned, so this idea may be in jeopardy. But, at the time, it was viewed as a happy medium for both to profit from.
A presumptive Arrieta opt-out wouldn’t put him in free agency in his prime years. But if Arrieta and Boras are bullish on his performance in the next two to three years, it could be a point where the Cubs can reconcile the risk of another long term, big money deal.
Another alternative is that his price just goes down. As I mentioned, these arms can play off of each other as the market develops in free agency. And, especially with a season ahead of us, there isn’t a lot of clarity as to who might be best positioned to cash in among the soon to be free agents. So, we could end up in a situation where Arrieta is more receptive to the Cubs’ overtures and a middle ground is more plausible. Obviously, this would result in that big money, long term deal, but at a palatable combination of dollars and term.
All in all, the Cubs have a pitching problem and Arrieta has his blemishes, but they may still find a point where they can both be happy together for the foreseeable future.
Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports