Time For Cubs to Lock Arrieta Up Is Now, While It’s Cheap

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Jake Arrieta is the unquestioned ace of the Cubs pitching staff.  He will also be a free agent after the 2017 season.  And after winning the 2015 National League Cy Young award, talks regarding an extension have understandably reached the point where some of the game’s elite pitchers reside.

From the player’s perspective, long-term security should be an important part of a contract.  It makes perfect sense for Jake Arrieta to ask for a contract that will keep him with the Cubs for a long time.  By his own admission, he likes playing in Chicago with the Cubs.  So when the news was broken that length of the deal was the sticking point, it shouldn’t have been a big surprise.

Before the discussion goes further, it is important to note that the timing of the extension talks are likely an important factor in this reporting.  If the Cubs were offering 5 years including the 2016 season (that is to say, before Arrieta’s pending arbitration hearing was settled), it makes sense that he would walk away fairly quickly from a negotiation that would only push out three years beyond the current team control the Cubs have.  It would severely hamper his one true opportunity to be a free agent and cash in on the renaissance his career has undergone in Chicago.

For Arrieta, the framework he might be looking for should be in the 7 year, $210 million dollar range that Max Scherzer signed.  His numbers over the last two seasons support such a contract.  He has been among the best pitchers in the National League since the beginning of the 2014 season, ranking 10th in innings pitched, 7th in K/9, 12th in BB/9, 2nd in FIP, and 2nd in fWAR.  He has matured into one of the game’s true aces.  For anyone to expect Arrieta to get paid at a level less than that just isn’t being reasonable.

Theo Epstein is not unreasonable.  He understands that the Cubs have one of the game’s best pitchers for at least the next two years.  His obligation is to ensure that the Cubs put the best product on the field, not just now, but years from now.  It would have been a terrible negotiation to ask Scott Boras to name Arrieta’s price and sign off on it.  It makes sense for him to ask for five years to open the negotiation.

It also makes sense for him to be easily swayed to go to 7 years.  First of all, Jake’s fitness regimen is deep, finely tuned for his own body, and committed.  Every front office is looking for players who can stay healthy, stay in shape, and stay at the top of their game for as long as possible.  Arrieta is that guy.  His commitment to flexibility and keeping his body loose are uncommon.  And because he keeps his body so loose, his muscles are almost never tight enough to cause unnatural tension in his soft tissue.  The translation to all of this is that Jake Arrieta may someday need to have Tommy John surgery or he may someday blow out a tendon or a ligament that requires rehabilitation…but it will not be because Jake didn’t do absolutely everything in his power to avoid it.  Sometimes things are unavoidable.  The other things, Jake has covered.

Last season, Arrieta threw 229 innings in the regular season.  That was a career high over his 156.2 innings in 2014.  Those are the highest he’s thrown at the big league level, surpassing his previous high in 2011 (119.1).  795 career major league innings are low mileage for someone who just turned 30 years old.  Between the aforementioned training he puts himself through and that comparatively low number of innings, the general wearing out of an arm shouldn’t be something that slows Arrieta to the extent that it may slow other players.  In a world that is short of “good bets”, Jake is one of them.

It’s been opined that the Cubs have plenty of time to talk extension with Arrieta and that he hasn’t yet put together back to back 30 start seasons, only has a 2 year track record of success (although the two seasons have been demonstrably awesome), and that with 2 seasons before he becomes a free agent, there is no hurry.  Those are all pretty fair points.

The counter is *Jake Arrieta has two more seasons to expand on his last two awesome years and can drive his price point up. WAY up.*

For the sake of argument, let’s take Jake Arrieta’s average numbers since the start of the 2014 season and apply them for the next two seasons.  That would give him 4 seasons, which is a track record that is plenty of time to make a massive investment in a player for some team with TV money burning a hole in its pocket.  With a 2.08 ERA, 2.31 FIP, 0.915 WHIP, and 9.4 K/9 over the four years immediately preceding his free agency, he would probably be the best player available that winter.  And he would still be a relatively low mileage pitcher entering an age 32 season where he (and Scott Boras) could reasonably ask for 6 years at about $240 million dollars.

There is an uncomfortable reality about Jake Arrieta.  His track record is comparatively short.  He hasn’t had success year after year after year to this point.  For those reasons, it would be a little bit of a risk to push market value money to him two years before he is scheduled to hit the open market.  On the other hand, there is absolutely no good reason to believe that Jake isn’t going to have more success near the level he has had the last two seasons.  He probably won’t match the insanity that he put together in the second half of 2015 because that was unprecedented.  But what happens when he posts another great year?  Or two?   And with the way Arrieta takes care of himself, there isn’t any reason to think that can’t last at a high level for another 6 or 7 years.

The conventional wisdom is that it would be irresponsible to pay market value two years before free agency.  The flip side is, paying his current market value could very likely look like a bargain price when compared to his future market value.  The trend line for baseball contracts must be considered.  The trend line for Arrieta’s future performance must be considered.  And everyone can be quite certain they have been by both Arrieta and the Cubs.

That might make this spring the best time for the Cubs to lock Arrieta up for the rest of his career.

 

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About Andy

Sometimes I write stuff about the Cubs. Sometimes it's even good. But don't get your hopes up. Basically, my writing is like the pre-2016 Chicago Cubs.

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