Cubs' big-money decisions start with Jake Arrieta

Jake Arrieta is 50-19 with a 2.42 ERA over the past three seasons. Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

MESA, Ariz. -- The price of winning is looming for Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.

Monetary decisions on young stars such as Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber are still a few years away, but the Chicago Cubs front office's first real test comes at the end of this season when 30 year-old pitcher Jake Arrieta becomes a free agent.

"It's one of the hardest challenges, especially when you've won," Hoyer said from Cubs camp on Monday. "You need to be focused on future performance, not past."

Hoyer acknowledges nostalgia can get in the way of a plan, but only if you let it.

"It's always about team first, but that sounds cold," Hoyer said. "I don't look at it that way. All the guys that have helped us win, you never forget the sacrifices they made and all the great performances. Ultimately, we're employed by the organization to make the right decisions. They're hard ones."

Arrieta's situation might be the toughest Chicago will face. His recent résumé screams big money -- he's 50-19 with a 2.42 ERA over the past three seasons -- but his age could point to a negative return on the back end of his deal.

Many free-agent pitchers who sign huge, long-term contracts don't pay off. See CC Sabathia for evidence -- and potentially Zack Greinke and David Price, both of whom signed for big bucks last year and didn't perform up to their paychecks, and that was in Year 1 of their deals.

"I don't have angst toward getting anything done," Arrieta said. "If we talk, we talk; if we don't, we don't. ... There is no resentment towards anyone. I'm grateful for the situation here."

Fans won't like to hear such an impersonal stance from both sides about something so emotional for them, but that's the business of doing sports. And there's more at stake than just what the Cubs are willing to pay Arrieta and how much he can get.

"He has enough money to last him the rest of his life," teammate Anthony Rizzo said. "What he gets a year from now is going to be icing on the cake. ... But he'll try to set the bar for the next guy just like the guy before us did."

So not only does Arrieta have to do what's right for him, but he also has to do right by the union. Smaller deals might not get as much attention, but a potentially massive one will have union eyes on it.

"Why would a guy take any less when he's six months from free agency?" Arrieta asked rhetorically. "I'm not even talking about myself."

Then he did refer to his own situation.

"Somebody will pay," he said. "That's a known fact. I'm healthy, in the prime of my career; I'm going to be good for a long time. Whether it's here or somewhere else, it remains to be seen."

Hoyer and Epstein have to decide where Arrieta fits into a bigger plan, with key players becoming more expensive every season going forward. Yes, they could match whatever someone else offers, but that doesn't make it the right decision. Of course, it doesn't mean it's wrong either; the Cubs don't exactly have Arrieta's replacement waiting in the wings. There are a lot of factors at play but keeping to business is No.1 for both parties.

"I think they have the right perspective on what they have to do to put a great team on the field this year, and they also have a longer-term perspective," owner Tom Ricketts said of his front office over the weekend. "Decisions this year can hurt us in a few years but I'll leave that up to him (Epstein)."

Next offseason, Bryant, Javier Baez and Addison Russell will start their trek through arbitration with Schwarber right behind them. When do Epstein and Hoyer approach any of them for longer deals? Rizzo's contract situation complicates the process as well, with the club holding options on him through 2021, when he'll be 31. Will they rip up his deal at some point and make him a Cub for life?

"It's going to be tough, and it's their job to figure out how to manage all that," Rizzo said of the front office's coming decisions. "It's a business, and it's hard to see what they see. I'm a player. I don't know the numbers."

While this might be uncharted territory for the Cubs, Hoyer has been here before. There was a core group that helped Boston win a World Series title in 2004 and again in 2007, but the team didn't get nostalgic when it came to saying goodbye to some of its own, including outfielder Johnny Damon.

"We were forced to make a difficult decision," Hoyer said. "Personally, Johnny was always wonderful to me. It was strange to see him with the Yankees, but we had to make that decision. You want those guys to have success. Damon and [Dexter] Fowler are very analogous."

Fowler landed in St. Louis after the Cubs showed no signs of offering the security he received from the Cardinals. Will Arrieta also be priced out of Chicago's plans? He hopes not, but he isn't giving out discounts.

"I don't think you can replace me," he said. "You can try. There is not a lot of great pitching in this game. That's why the guys that are high end get paid so much money. There aren't a lot of guys on the planet that can do it."