The Cubs Might Be a Problem for Jake Arrieta

I’m writing this Thursday for publishing Friday, and that’s always a risk when you’re dealing with a player on the market, because you never know when circumstances might change. My topic is Jake Arrieta as a current free agent. He could, at any moment, cease to be a free agent at all. This is the chance I’m taking, but, I have to say, I like my odds. It doesn’t seem like Arrieta’s about to make a decision.

So let’s think about that for a few minutes. Arrieta is one of several Scott Boras guys out there, and he’s one of the higher-profile starters in baseball. It wasn’t long ago at all that it seemed like Arrieta might be the best starter in the sport, and even his most recent ERA was only 3.53. Arrieta’s at that point where he’s right between young-ish and old, so you’d think he’d have some years left in his arm — he’s only about five months older than fellow free agent Yu Darvish. But there hasn’t been very much Arrieta buzz. Not that those of us on the outside always get to know precisely what’s happening on the inside, but there haven’t been many Arrieta rumors. His market still hasn’t fully developed as expected.

Darvish would have something to do with that. Various trade options would have something to do with that. Yet, potentially, there’s also an additional factor. Jake Arrieta is out there, to be signed. Where are the Cubs?

What got me thinking along these lines was reading a recent article from Bob Nightengale. An excerpt, from a section about Arrieta’s market:

One of the biggest fears for teams seeking Arrieta: What do the Cubs know about him that the rest of baseball doesn’t? The Cubs and Arrieta barely even engaged in contract talks this winter, leaving a reunion as unlikely as a Bill Belichick comedy show.

It’s only one account, so it could be misinformed, but it goes along with much of the information to date. Arrieta has not been considered likely to re-sign. And when I asked around earlier, I heard general agreement. The Cubs are there, somewhere on the periphery, but their priorities have seemingly lied elsewhere. Even if it’s not exactly a red flag, it’s — what’s after red? Yellow? Orange? It’s a troubling flag of some color. Other teams have a decent idea of what the Cubs have tried to do.

It would be one thing if the Cubs were simply trying to avoid any big commitment for a free-agent pitcher. But it’s no secret at all they still want help in the rotation, and they continue to be linked to Darvish. As noted earlier, Darvish and Arrieta are nearly the same age. And while I guess you could point out that 2017 Arrieta had some hamstring problems, Darvish has had actual Tommy John surgery, in the not so distant past. Other Cubs target Alex Cobb is now also in his 30s, with a Tommy John scar on his arm. There are some real concerns about Darvish. There are some real concerns about Cobb. And yet, at least by appearances, the Cubs have only more concern about Arrieta. It raises the eyebrows.

Even independent of all this, Arrieta’s case made some people uneasy. It’s true that, not far back, Arrieta was nearly unhittable. He was everything Clayton Kershaw was. Going off expected wOBA allowed, from Baseball Savant, 2015 Jake Arrieta ranked No. 2 among big-league starters. The following year, he ranked No. 30. This past year, he ranked No. 37. Arrieta remains effective, but cracks have developed. He’s thrown fewer strikes than he used to. He hasn’t been able to rely on his slider. And the stuff has been down. Between the last two seasons, Arrieta’s average fastball dropped two miles per hour. That’s the eighth-biggest drop, out of 171 starters. Unintentional velocity drops are seldom a good thing.

Arrieta has three things going in his favor. One, he was very great, recently. He hasn’t lost all of that shine. Two, his repertoire is still bananas, based on how the individual pitches move. He doesn’t throw anything flat. And three, Arrieta’s delivery is deceptive, because it’s as if he’s releasing the ball from shortstop or something. The Orioles tried to coach that out of him, but the Cubs allowed him to be himself. It worked out. Arrieta still possesses a number of positive traits. But free agency, of course, is forward-looking, and Arrieta has some worrisome indicators. As a team person texted a few months ago, Arrieta “scares the hell out of me.”

Last October, Arrieta struck out nine Dodgers in 6.2 innings, and a lot of the swings looked helpless. Now, in that same game, Arrieta was wild, but the upside was evident. Look at what his pitches can do. See how they make hitters look. Imagine if the command were a little bit better. Arrieta acknowledged down the stretch that his mechanics were off, and he spent a lot of time working on them. What if Arrieta re-gained some of his lost precision? There might still be an ace in there. You can’t teach that kind of movement.

But this is where it’s concerning that the Cubs have apparently backed off, setting their sights elsewhere. Maybe they just have no patience for Scott Boras’ negotiating techniques, but the Cubs want a quality starter. Right now! They have the money to spend. They know Arrieta the best. To another team, the Cubs’ position seems like an expression of concern, and that counts as a variable. It seems like the Cubs might think that Arrieta will get hurt. Alternatively, it seems like the Cubs might think that Arrieta won’t re-find his lost strikes. That he’ll just get more and more erratic over time. Given how parts of Arrieta’s game have trended, signing him was always going to require taking a risk. Other teams might notice the Cubs’ behavior, and decide it isn’t worth it. Obviously, there’s some price point at which Arrieta makes good sense, but it looks like the Cubs could be keeping that price point down. It’s not a great look that they haven’t enthusiastically pursued a guy who’s been so valuable for the ballclub.

Arrieta wants to get paid for what he was. Maybe that’s not fair — it’s more like Arrieta wants to get paid for what he is, and what he believes he is is someone still close to being what he was. It was Arrieta’s misfortune to have his best years while still under club control, and that’s something that will eventually have to get fixed. Now, Arrieta will sign some manner of lucrative contract. I just don’t think it’ll be as big as he’s expected. It’s possible the reporting in here is wrong. Maybe the Cubs really do want Arrieta back. And even if they don’t, it’s possible the Cubs have more concern than is necessary. Arrieta could go on to be terrific again. But this is an investment that’s about as risky as it gets. Other teams would be looking for any reason to take the plunge, or for any reason to stay away. How do you suppose it looks that the Cubs appear to want Darvish more? They’re not doing Arrieta any favors.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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4 years ago

In hindsight, it seems Arrieta would have been better off trying to sign an extension after that 2015 season rather than doing the typical Boras thing and waiting to hit the open market. His value was never higher.

Kull Story Bromember
4 years ago
Reply to  Hornerfan

It seems to me the Cubs front office historically doesn’t do extensions especially on older pitchers. Even if Arrieta/Boras pursued that route I don’t think it would have gone anywhere.

Original Greaser Bob
4 years ago
Reply to  Kull Story Bro

The Cubs FO tried to extend Arrieta in 2016 but he supposedly wanted more years. That might also play a part in the Cubs apparent lack of interest.

Kull Story Bromember
4 years ago

I wasn’t aware of extension talks. I know Arrieta made comments that he wanted what Strasburg got, 7 years for $175 million. That would have killed any possible extensions talks I would think… considering they only gave Lester 6 years and $155 million, not to mention he was a more proven commodity and a year younger.

4 years ago
Reply to  Hornerfan

“Scott Boras overplays his hand and it blows up on a player” is an increasingly common story line. Boras gets to average his commissions across a lot of top players, so it makes sense for him to maximize expected earnings. A player has only one fairly short career to earn money, and a rational player will act with significant risk aversion – at least until he has a huge sum in the bank.

4 years ago
Reply to  Alan

Yup….Boras is going to have egg on his face this year. And I’m happy. His ridiculous demands are no longer working.

4 years ago
Reply to  montreal

Yeah, how dare he try to get these world class athletes who spend a significant amount of every day working on their craft for their relatively short careers after which they have few non-baseball skills the maximum amount of wages from their billionaire bosses?

4 years ago
Reply to  dl80

That’s fine, but the problem is he’s relied on teams’ willingness to give large contract to past-their-prime players for too long, without realizing the market was bound to change as teams got smarter. It’s not so much “we hate Boras for trying to maximize his clients’ earnings” as “finally teams have gotten smart and players (and Boras) are finding out that their demands aren’t realistic any more.”

4 years ago
Reply to  Jon

I’m all for the players getting the money instead of the agents, but this is starting to sound absurd. This isn’t some guy on a mlb minimum who might have to actually get a job after retiring. What real difference would 100m or 200m make?

I understand what the premise is, but don’t start to make these guys out to be the exploited ones. That is the guys on rookie contracts.

4 years ago
Reply to  carter

Seems to be a common thread- fan makes good point, fan supports point with some emotion, attorney (?) makes snarky case that CBA based market correction is the end of player rights, fan makes market correction point, fan makes point we’re between millionaires and billionaires.