Jake Arrieta Open to Extension, Plays a Little Coy Just the Same

Jake Arrieta is an exceptionally talented pitcher, that much is not in question. What is in question, however, is his future with the Chicago Cubs and how much he’ll be paid to throw a baseball for them over that indeterminate period of time. We do know that the Cy Young winner is assured a significant raise over the $3.6 million he earned in 2015, whether that comes from arbitration or a mutually agreed-upon bump.

Even a $10 million total for the ace would be a steal, given the incredible value he’s provided the Cubs over the last couple of years. And if his varied approach to both training and pitching continues to work wonders, even another big raise for 2017 would make all kinds of sense. But do the Cubs want to let their best pitcher reach free agency and does Arrieta want to test the waters?

“I don’t think either side wants it to draw out,” the hirsute hurler said Thursday during a Cubs Caravan event at a local elementary. “Just get it done.”

On the surface, that sounds kind of like a guy who might be willing to take the proverbial hometown discount. It’s dangerous to assume such things, but one doesn’t have to stretch the imagination to think that Arrieta likely feels some gratitude toward the organization that resurrected his career and that has put together a team that can compete well beyond the next two seasons he’s guaranteed to play with them.

“It’s hard to look at [Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and John Lackey] right there and feel like we’re not the favorite,” Arrieta explained. “I know that’s only on paper. You have to go out there and perform and show you’re the team to beat. But right now, it looks like we are.”

Okay, it feels like we’re getting somewhere here. You have a pitcher who clearly knows what kind of opportunities the Cubs have in the future and who sounds like he’d enjoy being a part of them. But, and there’s always a but, Arrieta made sure to temper a bit of the enthusiasm lest he remove all his leverage. He is, after all, represented by the sharkiest shark who’s ever sharked.

“You know what type of money is out there,” the Scott Boras client admitted. “You know what the market is. But that doesn’t mean that things won’t happen.”

And then a bit of a passive-aggressive throw-off to close out the topic:

“I’m going to be a Cub for the next two seasons, which I’m very excited about. And if it goes longer than that, then that would be nice, too.”

It might not seem like much at first glance, and maybe it’s not even upon further review, but I think we can unpack a little bit of real meaning in that last sentence. Arrieta is saying all the right things here and he’s not mincing words in doing so. He’s good with his current situation and would enjoy staying in Chicago, but he knows the big money is going to be there for him one way or the other. I think that’s really the best way, the only way, he should be viewing it.

For their part, the Cubs aren’t likely to make any moves in the very near future though. If a long-term deal is to get done, I can’t imagine it coming at any point before or during the 2016 season. Considering how well Arrieta performed relative to his own history and that of baseball in general, it would be very unwise to lock him up at the going market rate for aces right now. The innings and pitch totals he accumulated were far and away career highs, and his second-half ERA was an all-time low. That’s a combo for a massive over-valuation.

Have you heard that Theo Epstein isn’t a fan of paying for past performance? That’s a really nice concept, but it’s largely unavoidable when you’re talking about pitching. Unless you’ve developed some arms through the system, you’re going to have to commit some serious dollars to acquire starters, as evidenced by the contracts being handed out these days. It’s obvious that the market rate for a pitcher of Arrieta’s caliber is incredibly high, but you have to think it’s at its peak right now.

As such, the Cubs would be wise to give it another year and see what happens with Arrieta in 2016. Actually, let me take that a step further and say that the Cubs would be very unwise to pay a guy coming off of such a dominant stretch of baseball. I don’t necessarily think we were looking at an aberrant performance, per se, just that Arrieta can’t possibly hope to replicate that second half. That doesn’t mean he won’t still be great, just that the Cubs need to get a wider view before talking extension.

I wrote back in October that I thought a deal in the neighborhood of 5 years and $100-115 million ($20-23M AAV) would get a deal done, and I think I still feel pretty comfortable with that. Johnny Cueto — who’s basically the same age as Arrieta — got about $21.7M AAV over 6 years from San Francisco though, so perhaps we need to bump the Arrieta total up by $5-10 million. Then again, Jake Arrieta isn’t being compared to Johnny Cueto.

When we look at Clayton Kershaw, David Price, and Zack Greinke all earning between $30 and $34 million AAV, you’re talking about a deal for Arrieta that looks more like 6/$180M or so. Not bad in the grand scheme of things, but perhaps problematic in light of the current $165-ish million payroll and the necessarily evils of arb raises and extensions for the team’s core hitters. Of course, you’re also looking at the $10 million owed to Jason Hammel coming off the books after this season and the $30 million for Lackey and Miguel Montero disappearing after 2017.

Hmmm, there’s a nice little dovetail in that latter figure. Again though, extending Arrieta at the high-end AAV for aces effectively eats the whole of that newly available petty cash. Unless, that is, the Cubs continue to be creative with what appears to have become the newest form of currency in contract negotiations. Opt-outs are becoming all the rage and can be very valuable to players who want to secure their immediate future while not locking themselves in to a below-market-value deal.

Scott Kazmir actually got an opt-out after one year in his new contract with the Dodgers. Okay, so Kazmir’s 3-year, $48M deal isn’t anything like what Arrieta will command. But you get the point. Perhaps a more accurate contract comp, at least in terms of general structure, would be that which Jason Heyward signed. Of course, he’s a few years younger than Arrieta and will still be in his prime at the time his opt-outs come due.

All that said, I think this is a situation in which both parties have a mutual interest in getting a deal done but in which neither is any real hurry to throw something together. I can see the Cubs wanting to evaluate their ace’s performance for another season before offering a deal that will be fair to him while still providing some club-friendly structure. For his part, I believe Arrieta will be willing to take a little less than what he might be able to get on the open market after the 2017 season in order to stay in Chicago on a more long-term basis.

Now that I’ve said all that, the two most likely outcomes will be that Arrieta plays the next two years out under his arb raises and then bolts for a huge deal elsewhere or that the Cubs announce an extension tomorrow at CubsCon. So basically, either of the events I didn’t predict.

What are your thoughts on a deal? Do Arrieta and the Cubs really want to get one done and, if so, when does it happen?

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