The combination of a Cy Young award, a strong postseason track record, a relatively low total of innings thrown, and a history free of major arm injuries was supposed to carry Jake Arrieta to a nine-figure free-agent deal this winter. Agent Scott Boras was said to eye Justin Verlander‘s $180 million extension and Max Scherzer’s $210 million free-agent contract as ballpark figures for and templates for Arrieta. But in a winter during which the hot stove’s pilot light went out, the 32-year-old righty didn’t come anywhere close to landing such a megadeal. Instead, he settled for a three-year, $75 million contract with the Phillies, albeit one with some bells and whistles that could make it considerably more lucrative.
Via FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman, Arrieta will make $30 million in 2018 and $25 million in 2019, before having a chance to opt out. If he doesn’t opt out, he’ll make $20 million in 2020. If he does opt out, the team has the option to override that by triggering a two-year extension at a minimum of $20 million per year, with incentives (whose exact parameters are unknown at this writing) based on 2018-19 games started that could take those years to $25 million, and further incentives based on Cy Young finishes that could take them to $30 million. The maximum deal becomes five years and $135 million.
Nobody is going to weep for Arrieta, but based upon the guaranteed money, it does appear that Boras overplayed his hand. In early January, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported that the Cubs, for whom Arrieta pitched from mid-2013 through 2017, were willing to bring Arrieta back via a four-year deal “for about $110 million,” which represents a higher average annual value ($27.5 million) than he ultimately got, unless one simply assumes he’ll opt out without the Phillies overriding. A month ago, just before they closed a six-year, $126 million deal with Yu Darvish, the Cubs reportedly circled back to Arrieta with a similar offer. As he had done when the team tried to secure him via long-term extensions in 2016 and 2017, Arrieta declined.
Thus, even in a market where he was either No. 1 or 1A among rotation options, Arrieta wound up with just the fifth-largest deal of the offseason, after those of Eric Hosmer ($144 million), Darvish, J.D. Martinez ($110 million) and Lorenzo Cain ($80 million). If it’s any consolation, he did bring home the winter’s highest AAV, but that number is down from last year’s leader, Yoenis Cespedes ($27.5 million), to say nothing of Zack Greinke‘s $34.4 million and David Price’s $31.0 million from the year before. Arrieta’s AAV is tied with those of Felix Hernandez and Steven Strasburg for seventh among pitchers, with Greinke, Price, Clayton Kershaw ($30.7 million), Scherzer ($30 million), Jon Lester ($25.83 million) and Verlander ($25.7 million) all ahead of him — and all via contracts that were signed anywhere from two to five years ago to boot.
Arrieta was supposed to place higher on that list thanks largely to his incredible 2015 season (22-6, 1.77 ERA, 2.35 FIP, 7.3 WAR) and his October resumé (5-3, 3.08 ERA, a complete-game shutout in the 2015 NL Wild Card game, and a pair of 2016 World Series wins). With Darvish and second-tier starters Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb all having undergone Tommy John surgery within the past three seasons, Arrieta’s relative health stood out. The worst of his arm injuries has been a bout of bone spurs that required season-ending surgery in 2010 and a six-week absence due to shoulder inflammation in 2014.
Also notable was the relatively low mileage on his arm relative to Darvish (1,669.0 professional innings versus the Japanese righty’s 2,127.2). In terms of major-league innings through age 31, Arrieta’s total of 1,161 is hundreds fewer than the figures recorded by Mark Buehrle (2,271.1), Ervin Santana (1,882.2), James Shields (1,683.1), Edwin Jackson (1,640.1), Ubaldo Jimenez (1,585.0), Matt Garza (1,494.1), Ricky Nolaso (1,471.2), Mike Leake (1,446.1), Ian Kennedy (1,430.1), Ryan Dempster (1,425.0), Cliff Lee (1,409.0), A.J. Burnett (1,376.1), Anibal Sanchez (1,334.0) and Jordan Zimmermann (1,359.1), all of whom signed deals of at least four years in the past decade.
Beyond the effect of the competitive-balance tax on Arrieta’s earning potential — which, most notably, removed the Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox, and Yankees from the list of potential suitors — is the hard fact that his trend arrows point downward. Though he pitched well enough to make the NL All-Star team in 2016, his ERA and FIP rose to 3.10 and 3.52, respectively, and his strikeout and walk rates both moved in the wrong directions (from 27.1% to 23.9% for the former, and from 5.5% to 9.6% for the latter). His WAR fell to 3.8.
And most of those numbers were even worse in 2017: 3.53 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 23.1% K rate, 7.8% BB rate (an improvement!), 2.4 WAR. His three-year innings trend, from 228.0 to 197.1 to 168.1, told its own story, with those 52.2 innings in October perhaps responsible for the declining peripherals; meanwhile, his home-run rate tripled, from an unsustainable 0.4 per nine in 2015 to 1.2 in 2017. And then there’s the velocity: via Pitch Info, Arrieta’s average two-seamer velocity fell from 95.3 in 2015 to 94.4 in -16 to 92.4 in -17, with his four-seamer dipping from 94.9 to 92.6 in that span, and his secondary pitches losing a couple of mph as well.
Arrieta did offer a glimpse of his top form via an 11-start run in July and August, during which he recorded a 1.69 ERA, though his 3.49 FIP in that span was more telling; he whiffed just 21.8% of hitters in that interval and rode a .217 BABIP as far as it would take him. A right hamstring strain wrecked his September, but he was solid in two postseason starts, the last of them the team’s lone victory over the Dodgers in the NLCS.
Back in November, Dave Cameron estimated that Arrieta would land a four-year, $96 million deal, with the median crowdsource entry at five years and $122 million. MLB Trade Rumors predicted four years and $100 million. When I ran Arrieta through my WARcel-based What’s He Really Worth model for SI.com — that is, Tom Tango’s WAR-based version of his Marcel the Monkey forecasting system, with a 6/3/1 weighting of his past three seasons, 20% regression in the first year, and 0.4 WAR per year annual regression for pitchers over 30 years old — the outcome was a more modest four-year projection of 8.2 WAR, with a value of $84.1 million, using parameters of $9 million per win and a 5.9% rate of inflation.
Retrofitting the Cubs’ then-newsworthy four-year offer to his performances given those parameters implied a 3.3-WAR first year — an assumption that Arrieta would be close to his 2016 value — and a 10.7-WAR yield for the four years. Two months of surprisingly light contracts later, we can certainly question whether $9 million is the right figure to use, to say nothing of that inflation rate (which was based upon Ben Markham’s study of 101 free-agent deals from last winter at Viva El Birdos), but then the implication is an expectation that Arrieta would be better than 2016 (more WAR at a lower dollars-per-win to fill out that $110 million).
One way or another, Arrieta didn’t get the expected guarantee — though, of course, the opt-out stuff clouds the issue. But even if he pockets $55 million for the first two years and then opts out, this frosty free-agent winter suggests that the likelihood of anyone giving him a $100-plus million guarantee heading into his age-34 season is small, and if he’s seeking that heading into his age-35 seasons, it’s even smaller. And even without knowing the thresholds for starts and Cy Young finishes, one has to figure that ninth place (as he finished in 2014 and 2016, the only other seasons for which he’s received Cy Young votes besides the year he won) isn’t adding $5 million per year to those options. If he pitches like he did in 2015, he’s out the door, and he probably has to pitch closer to that than to his 2016 performance to run the contract to the maximum five years and $135 million. Again, the chance appears slim. If he pitches like he did in 2016, healthy and effective but with no real Cy Young presence, he might effectively wind up with a slightly smaller three-year reset of $70 million ($20 million plus two times $25 million) and a total pact of $125 million.
From the standpoint of the Phillies, this appears to be a very good deal. First and foremost, the guarantee portion is relatively short. Consider the collection of starters who got three-year deals over the past three winters: Scott Kazmir ($48 million) and J.A. Happ ($36 million) after the 2015 season, Rich Hill ($48 million) and Ivan Nova ($26 million) after 2016, Tyler Chatwood ($38 million) and Mike Minor ($28 million) this winter. Risky guys, for the most part, and nobody broke the bank to get them. Here on February 9, just before Darvish signed, Jeff Sullivan suggested that the Cubs’ relative lack of interest in Arrieta, despite their intimate knowledge of him, implied greater risk than met the eye.
The Arrieta deal comes at a moment when the Phillies — whose president Andy MacPhail, general manager Matt Klentak, assistant GMs Scott Proefrock and Ned Rice were all part of the Orioles’ front office during the pitcher’s tenure with the franchise — are on the upswing. Yes, they dipped from 71 wins in 2016 to 66 last year, but this year, they’ll have full seasons of highly touted shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford and late-2017 power sensation Rhys Hoskins — plus, second baseman Scott Kingery (25th on the FanGraphs top-100 list) could be up by midseason. Joining them are free-agent additions Carlos Santana (the only regular who will be past his age-28 season), Pat Neshek, and Tommy Hunter. Even with Arietta slotted in, Philadelphia currently projects as just a 78-win team, but the error bars on those projections are historically in the six- to eight-win range. The average projection misses the mark by that much, some by more, some by less.
All told, it’s not inconceivable that this team could find itself in the Wild Card hunt in 2018, particularly given the voluntary lollygagging — er, rebuilding — that’s going on around the league. To update something Craig Edwards noted last week in a piece about the Phillies’ spending: 10 of the NL’s teams besides the Phillies project for 82 wins or fewer. Barring collapses by the Nationals, Cubs, Dodgers and Cardinals, all projected for at least 87 wins, somebody from among that 82-and-under camp has to rise up to claim a wild card spot.
Realistically, they Phillies may be a year away from that, but they’ve shown that they’re ready to spend, and a deal like Arrieta’s hardly precludes them from pursuing Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, or whoemver their hearts desire next winter. Look out, National League.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.