The talk heading into last year’s Cubs Convention was all about whether the team would lock Jake Arrieta up long-term after an historic Cy Young campaign. For his part, the ace played the stock-answer card when the subject was broached: I love it in Chicago, I’ve got at least two more years here. An agreement on a raise, the largest ever for a second-year arb-eligible pitcher, was reached just days before the deadline and the talk was postponed for another year.
The air was let out of that balloon just before this year’s CubsCon was set to open, when it was announced that the two sides had agreed to a another not-small increase that would pay Arrieta $15.6375 million for his final year under club control. That $4.94 million bump is third behind Max Scherzer ($8.8M) and Carlos Zambrano ($6.5M) for pitchers with equivalent arbitration eligibility, in case you were wondering. As soon as the agreement was announced, I was certain it signaled the end of Arrieta’s tenure in Chicago.
Oh, don’t worry, he’ll definitely be pitching for the Cubs through the end of the season. I know there’s been a lot of discussion regarding the possibility of flipping Arrieta as we’ve seen with other assets that had reached peak value to the team, but it’s just not going to happen. Well, it better not.
First, unless Arrieta’s on a run like we saw down the stretch in 2015, there’s no way he’d bring back the kind of return as a rental that he would have with more team control. This front office isn’t generally too keen on that kind of deal. Then you realize that the only team(s) attempting to acquire the services of a pitcher with such a limited contractual obligation is one with eyes on the playoffs. Would you want to deal Arrieta to an immediate competitor if you’re the Cubs?
Finally, and this is the potential reality no one wants to face, the only scenario in which the Cubs would be willing to trade their number three starter is if they were out of contention for the postseason. Being consistently competitive remains the goal, just not at the expense of what is a very promising present. With all due respect to the rest of the Central, it’s going to take a lot of really bad breaks for this worst case to unfold. Dammit, I just jinxed them, didn’t I?
As for Arrieta sticking around beyond 2017, though, the options appear pretty limited. We’ve talked a lot — well, I’ve written a lot and you may have read some of it — about what an extension would probably have to look like in order for it to be amenable to the Cubs, and it’s nothing to sneeze at. But I can’t see Arrieta and Scott Boras being satisfied with “settling” for what makes sense to the Cubs when it’s entirely possible they can get another team to make a huge splash.
Call it a consequence of my overactive intuition, but my first thought when the new salary was announced was that the speed with which the two sides agreed meant there’d be no significant talks on an extension. I took it as a sign that business had been concluded and that Arrieta would be opening up the bidding come November. And to hear him discuss it this past weekend, that’s exactly the case.
“The timeline is kind of coming to an end as far as leading up to free agency,” Arrieta admitted at CubsCon. “I am here for one more year and I am going to enjoy every moment of it. If (a deal) happens, it happens. I don’t know where we stand. I really don’t. We do have some time to maybe work something out. If it doesn’t, I will become a free agent.”
Maybe you read that as Arrieta saying he’s keeping the door open, and that’s cool. I hear lip service, along with the farting raspberry of that deflating balloon from earlier. But you know what, this situation may actually work out really well for the Cubs. They get to benefit from the contact-year performance of an ace-level pitcher and then get to let someone else write the big check.
It can be tempting, what with all the World Series feels and the massive loads of cash being mainlined straight into the organization’s veins, to want the Cubs to be the ones ponying up to keep Arrieta in the fold. And I’d agree if this was all taking place in a vacuum. As it is, though, we’re dealing with an environment that will grow increasingly toxic for teams that exceed the luxury tax threshold. Paying an(other) aging pitcher top-of-the-market AAV is going to make it really difficult to extend all those young core pieces.
Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, and Javy Baez are all going to need to get paid at some point. Then you’ve got Professor Pickoffski to consider. More than any of those guys, you know damn well there’s no way in H-E-double-hockey-sticks the Cubs are going to let Kris Bryant get out of town in free agency. I mean, some of that is out of their hands, but it’d be a travesty to not lock up a guy who just won the NL MVP as a sophomore and who still has plenty of room to improve. And the best part is that Bryant knows he needs to get better.
“The moment you are satisfied then you suck,” Bryant stated bluntly in advance of one of last Saturday’s panels. “I hate being average or mediocre. I don’t want to settle or be complacent. I like improving. I like running the bases. I want more. I want more home runs.”
I know I can’t be the only one who has the urge to belt out a little Billy Idol after reading that. While Bryant’s not really one to sneer or unleash a rebel yell, don’t let the heartthrob’s appearance fool you. This dude knows how to work and he’s insanely driven. He’s also possessed of enough self-awareness to understand that it’ll take a boatload of effort to keep his meteoric career path from falling prey to the same deleterious effects of gravity and entropy that have pulled so many others out of orbit.
It’s not as binary as swapping a few more years of Jake Arrieta for a big-money contract to extend Kris Bryant, nor are those two moves mutually exclusive. For the Cubs, it’s a matter of getting the most out of each of these players for however long he remains on the roster and to be as fiscally responsible as they can while doing so. Sounds simple enough, right?