Slow market could bring Jake Arrieta back to Cubs

Thanksgiving is over, Christmas is gone, and the New Year has begun, yet none of the top-tier free agent starting pitchers or position players have been signed. Many around the game believed that after the Giancarlo Stanton and Shohei Otani sweepstakes resolved the market would open up and some of these players would come off the board, yet on January 4 players like Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer, and J.D. Martinez are still looking for work.

Mega-agent Scott Boras made it abundantly clear throughout the season and most recently at the Winter Meetings his clients won’t settle even though the market has been slow.

Despite his best efforts, 75-page binder and all, the market for Arrieta and other free agents has not been anything near what they thought it would be. If that pattern holds and Arrieta is without a contract by the end of January, could the Cubs take advantage of the market and bring him back?

Arrieta is clearly one of the better starters on the market and while he won’t likely sign until after Darvish does, there is an opportunity for the Cubs to take advantage of his market or lack thereof. The Cubs have reportedly “kicked the tires” on Darvish, but if the Cubs strike out on him, it could bring Arrieta back into play.

The team signed starter Tyler Chatwood to a three-year, $38 million contract to begin free agency, but have been quiet since. Chatwood fills one of the Cubs’ two open rotation spots to go along with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana with Mike Montgomery, Drew Smyly, and Eddie Butler providing rotation depth.

If the Cubs were to miss out on Darvish, it makes it more feasible for Arrieta to return next season and be able to do it at their price point. During the season, I wrote about what it would take for Arrieta to return and how it could benefit both him and the Cubs.

As we get closer to spring training, free agents may have to take shorter “prove-it” deals. Due to Arrieta’s age and his decrease in velocity this season, it wouldn’t be surprising if teams are wary of giving him the five or six-year deal he is looking for.

Arrieta will likely have to compromise on the length of the contract. No players have gotten a contract longer than three years yet and while that may not last much longer, Arrieta may not get more than that. If a team decided that Arrieta is a fit, they may give him a higher AAV ($20-30 million) and remain flexible in terms of the years on the deal. And maybe even include an option format.

According to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, the Cubs’ interest in the 2015 Cy Young Winner has picked up and the club would be willing to offer him a four year, $110 million contract, but wouldn’t go to the six years Arrieta and Boras want.

However, the Cubs re-signing Arrieta on their terms still leaves the team’s rotation with more questions than answers. What does Chatwood translate to away from Coors? While Theo and Jed believe Chatwood’s numbers—specifically his road splits—translate better outside of Coors Field (3.49 ERA in 13 away starts and a 58 percent groundball rate), but until you see how he fares, it’s still a question mark.

The other question is if the Cubs re-sign Arrieta, how much longer can he be effective at 32 years old with decreasing velocity? Arrieta had struggles early in the season adjusting to his decreased velocity, but while there were some bumps in the road he was able to adjust and put together a solid season. The stuff is still nasty, but can he continue to get outs with his two-seamer hovering around 91 miles-per-hour? And for how long?

This may be one of the many discussions the Cubs’ front office has discussed with new pitching coach Jim Hickey already. There’s no secret that the Cubs love Arrieta, but if they don’t see it benefiting the club going forward, it really doesn’t make sense to bring him back.

While the Cubs’ have been quiet on the free agent market, it’s still very likely the team is active in the trade market. They have the pieces to get a deal done and if they can’t land the “big fish” in free agency, they may still try to acquire one from elsewhere. But, for now, the breakup between the Cubs and Arrieta isn’t as inevitable as it seemed last month.

Lead photo courtesy Jim Young—USA Today Sports

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