CHICAGO -- Time for another round of debating what Jake Arrieta’s next contract will look like. And for which team he’ll be providing his services. Just listen to talk radio or check your social media feed, as someone will have an opinion on it and -- more than likely -- five minutes later, you’ll see or hear a differing angle.
After Stephen Strasburg signed a seven-year, $175 million contract with the Washington Nationals, that deal thrust Arrieta’s situation back into the spotlight. What does a pitcher on perhaps the greatest run in history deserve? It’s what agent Scott Boras and Cubs president Theo Epstein need to figure out before the 30-year-old right-hander becomes a free agent after the 2017 season.
The reason you might be hearing differing opinions is because there are good points to be made both ways.
I won’t rehash it all here, but one side I don’t hear often enough is, if Arrieta leaves, who replaces him? The Cubs have a potential All-Star at every position and want to contend for the next five to 10 years, right? As with any front office, the Cubs' has to plan ahead. Think of what happens after 2017: The contracts of John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Arrieta will all be up, assuming the Cubs pick up the option on Hammel for next season. Maybe they extend Hammel’s deal even further, though Lackey isn’t likely to return at age 39, which he'll be in October 2017. And that’s the thing about predicting what scenarios will look like two years from now -- especially on the mound. It’s very difficult.
The Cubs could also finally trade for a young, somewhat controllable pitcher. Or maybe Kyle Hendricks takes a huge leap forward or someone else emerges. But for practical purposes, let’s assume they’ll need two or three starting pitchers as they continue into the middle of their contending years with Kris Bryant & Co. coming into their primes.
Pitching still paves the path to championships. There will be names out there in free agency along with Arrieta, but none who can be considered elite right now. Rays right-hander Alex Cobb could return to form after undergoing Tommy John surgery in May 2015; he is scheduled to be a free agent after the 2017 season. But unless you love Michael Pineda of the Yankees, Ubaldo Jimenez of the Orioles or other second-tier guys to lead the Cubs’ rotation along with Jon Lester, then sticking with Arrieta is still the best route. Bigger-name pitchers will be available the following offseason, but Marlins ace Jose Fernandez isn’t coming cheap, either. And there’s something about dancing with the devil you know, instead of starting over with a new big name and him possibly dealing with overwhelming pressure. See Lester and Jason Heyward for proof.
And remember, any other potential free agents who could climb the charts over the next couple of seasons could still sign back with their teams, taking them off the market before the Cubs even get to them.
It might be different if the Cubs were grooming their own No. 1 and No. 2, but that doesn’t seem to be happening, either. Opposing scouts don’t see someone like that coming from Chicago's farm system, and if you think they’re all down at A-ball just waiting to burst onto the scene, then every team is thinking the same thing. “We have great prospects at the lower levels” is something you hear often in baseball. That’s not to say flamethrower Dylan Cease or even Triple-A pitcher Pierce Johnson won’t get there, but you can’t just hope they emerge.
So the bottom line is that the Cubs will have enough to worry about on the mound in the coming years. Locking Arrieta up and crossing their fingers that he and Lester will be effective at the top of the rotation for a few more seasons is worth the gamble. The money is always going to be insane and out of whack, particularly at the end of the deal, but at least the Cubs know they’re not signing, say, an overweight pitcher with an arm about to explode -- or at least that’s not what it looks like from the outside looking in. Arrieta is the epitome of what the Cubs have become: a hard-working, likable team he’s been a part of turning around. You can’t name the Pilates room the Arrieta Room and then let him leave.
Here are three things we know:
The closer Arrieta gets to free agency, the less likely he is to re-sign with the Cubs without 29 other teams having their say.
Signing him right now would be at his peak as far as the Cubs and Boras are concerned.
There’s little doubt the Cubs have been good for Arrieta. It might not be necessary for him to stay in order to continue his success, but there isn’t a player who actively wants to leave a good situation.
So what’s the answer?
The Cubs can wait until the end of this season with better a view of knowing for sure that Arrieta is among the elite of the elite -- or maybe even in a class by himself, if his ridiculous run continues. Even if he gets back to “normal” ace production, he will have once and for all proved he’s a force to be reckoned with. He probably has already, but there’s nothing wrong with Epstein and Cubs owner Tom Ricketts seeing it play out a few months longer. We pretty much already know the answer (unless there’s an injury): Arrieta’s stuff is fantastic, he’s in the best shape of perhaps any pitcher in the league and now he knows how to pitch even when he’s not at his best.
Now, the Cubs can’t wait past spring training of 2017, and they’ll have to pay close to market value. Arrieta claims he won’t give a discount, but there needs to be at least a little one. If he indeed wants full market value, he could well go to free agency. The one caveat is the Cubs love their pitching infrastructure, starting with pitching coach Chris Bosio. Maybe they think they can figure things out at the top of the rotation without Arrieta.
In any case, after 2016, the Cubs and Boras need to hammer the contract out. Yes, it has to be for seven years and at least $200 million. Forget age and forget the final two digits on the front of that deal: $210 million or $215 million or $220 million, what’s the difference? If it hamstrings the Cubs five years from now, so what? Maybe by then they will have groomed a No. 1 or No. 2 starter. Barring injuries, it’s the last big contract the Cubs have to take care of until the bashers come up for free agency. Replacing Hammel, Lackey and even Hendricks is much more doable. That’s where a trade or signing of a Tyson Ross or a Danny Salazar could come in. But how do you replace Arrieta?
You don’t. You keep him.