From unknown to legendary: Proven to be among MLB’s best, Jake Arrieta is going to get a lot of money soon. But don’t count on it coming from the Cubs.
You remember July 2, 2013, right? It’s the day one of the most significant trades in Chicago Cubs history went down. Maybe the best trade in the history of the franchise — Addison Russell and Anthony Rizzo are still writing their story. One can’t forget the 1992 trade that saw Slammin’ Sammy Sosa come to the Cubs from the White Sox for George Bell in a you know this would be a good one crosstown doozy. But on this day, we’re talking about Jake Arrieta. The man, once lost in Baltimore, looked upon to crack a top-five rotation spot in Chicago.
Let alone becoming an ace and rewriting record books along the way.
What in the world did you expect to happen? A Cy Young, two no-hitters, one of the most dominant months in the history of baseball by a pitcher? Theo Epstein, the man, the myth, the legend himself, probably couldn’t have envisioned that. But he knew the potential that was Jake Arrieta, and he got all of that, and more when he sent all of Scott Feldman to the Baltimore Orioles.
What’s at stake
Jake Arrieta’s tenure could have an official end date in seven months time. As he embarks on his first crack at free agency, he’s made it known his services will not come cheaply. Understandably so.
Two schools of thought on this: I fully endorse athletes getting every dollar they can in free agency. Athletes earn the right to shop around, and if someone’s going to pay them, you can’t blame the player for the game’s constructs. All of you would take $200 million. I’ve often thought, why not take a hometown discount of $150 million, or whatever the going rate might be? What does another $50 million really get you?
But that’s beyond the rational scope of the monetary sports system.
That being said, from the Cubs standpoint, it may not be in the organization’s best interest to lock up another pitcher — just for the record Jon Lester has four years left — in a long-term contact, and one who will be 32-years-old by Opening Day 2018.
The following are just some of the scenarios, options, beyond the scope numbers and comparable pitchers and contracts to provide backstory, history and potential insight as we try to gauge into Theo Epstein’s crystal ball.
Shades of Arrieta
Jake Arrieta is coming off a very good 2016 season. Many people considered his 18-8, 3.10 ERA to be a down season. Yes, his walk rate (9.6%) and walks per nine (3.47) were the highest of his Cubs career. He suffered through a winless July. At times it appeared that the magic and allure of Arrieta had dissipated. Was he tired and overworked from the previous 2015 season that saw him throw career-high innings (229.0) pitched?
He also started 2016 with a stretch of dominance that made you think he might be even better than how he ended 2015. An April ERA of 1.00 and just barely above that a month later (9-0, 1.56 ERA through May). Then in June, average Arrieta started to rear its head. No longer going as deep into games and pitch counts getting the best of him, his ERA for the month hit 3.54. His 15 walks for June equaled his total for May, and he only got out of the 7th inning once. The worst game he pitched still resulted in a win, when he allowed five earned runs. The highest single game total allowed since 2014.
His July was winless, his walk totals down, and he was getting deeper into games. His August was perfect but not all that pretty and his September was merely average. Not having the feel for his famous “slutter” pitch (cutter+sinker) throughout the season, he began to rely more on his curve and, with extra rest, righted the ship in the playoffs.
Through it all, the 2016 season is a season any pitcher will take, and most teams will pay the premium for. Jake finished tied for fifth in wins with 18, just outside the top 10 in ERA, first in hits Per 9 IP. He gave up half as many home runs as Cy Young winner Max Scherzer. He came up big on the World Series stage, even putting together the longest no-hit bid in a World Series game in 47 years. While he battled inconsistencies at times, no one was going to replicate the prior season of 22-6, 1.77 ERA, and particularly an August that turned the clock back to the likes of Stan Musial.
2015 Jake Arrieta: A man among boys
In 2015, Arrieta became nothing short of legendary, and lest we forget, he wasn’t even an All-Star.
He suffered his worst month in May (1-3, 3.99 ERA) allowing 17 earned runs, yet didn’t allow more than 10 any other month. His worst ERA of any month outside of May was June’s 2.45. By the time the Midsummer Classic came around he stood at 10-5 with a 2.66 ERA. The games’ best will take those numbers.
As great as his first half was, it was hardly a forecast of what laid ahead.
Arrieta lost his last game of 2015 on July 25. The day the Cubs were no-hit by Cole Hamel‘s Phillies. Allowing three runs and walking just three, he did his part. He had a 1.32 ERA the entire season outside of May. That’s 28 earned runs. 45 for the season. The best second half in the history of baseball. And it’s not hyperbole. Jake Arrieta really had the best finish to a season. Ever. Period. Like a string of 20 consecutive quality starts between Aug. 1 through the Oct. 2 season finale according to ELIAS good.
A streak that dates back to 1913, the year the earned run became a thing, and better than teammate Jon Lester‘s 19 in 2014, and Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Seaver. When the success carried over into 2016, it appeared no one could figure out this guy.
A full offseason for hitting gurus to comb over any flaw in a pitcher’s mechanics, by way of every conceivable manipulator — tape, DVD, stats, high school charts — could dissect the best overnight sensation. But surely no one could really think this run, as rare and dominant as was inexplicable and unforeseen just months prior, could be sustainable.
So maybe Arrieta’s not too far off when basically setting his future price, though any pitcher over the age of 30 signed to a long-term contract defies all logic this far into baseball and analytics in year two-thousand-seventeen.
The 200 Club
If Jake Arrieta’s upcoming campaign finishes in line with his career averages, and Fangraphs project anywhere from 13-7, to 17-8 and ERA from 3.02 to 3.20, do you still shell out $200 million? It’s interesting to look at the list of pitchers — David Price, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Zack Greinke — in MLB history to ink a contract of at least $200 million.
- David Price: 31-years-old, $217 million, seven years.
- Clayton Kershaw: 28-years-old, $215 million, seven years
- Max Scherzer, 32-years-old, $210 million, seven years
- Zack Greinke, 33-years old, $206.5 million, six years
Opening Day Age
- David Price: 30-years-old, Opening Day 2016
- Clayton Kershaw: 26-years-old, Opening Day 2014
- Max Scherzer: 30-years-old, Opening years 2015
- Zack Greinke, 32-years-old, Opening Day 2016
Unforeseen risks aside with any contract, Kershaw arguably represented the best gamble at the signing of his contract, given his still 25-years-old youthfulness and impending prime years.
Injury (Pre/Post $200 million contracts)
- David Price: 2013 Strained left triceps.
- Clayton Kershaw: 2014 Left shoulder strain. 2016 Mild disc herniation
- Max Scherzer: Never been on DL.
- Zack Greinke: 2011 Fractured left rib. 2013 Fractured left collarbone. 2016 Left oblique strain.
Kershaw, following his mega-contract months prior, made his Opening Night debut for L.A. in Australia, then subsequently missed time until May. Regardless he threw a no-hitter in June and still put up one of his best seasons en route to the Cy Young. Routinely at the top of the league in FIP, WAR and many other statistics, the best pitcher in the game has had some nagging injuries but they have yet to affect his ability on the mound.
Scherzer’s best year came in 2013 when he won 21 games en route to the Cy Young. He had a great 2015, his first in D.C. when he went 14-12 with a 2.79 ERA, 2.77 FIP, 6.4 WAR and threw a no-hitter. In 2016 he won 20 games — his highest total since 2013 — and second Cy Young. His FIP and WAR were slightly down, but Cy Young seasons don’t go unnoticed when you lead your league in wins, starts, innings pitched, strikeouts and WHIP. His strikeout to walk ratios were down from the prior year, but still good enough to lead the league in that category both years.
Price has been a very good pitcher — great really — his entire career. The 2016 season goes down as his worst — career-high 3.99 ERA — but he also pitched his second-most innings since 2014, when he split time between Tampa Bay and Detroit.
He led the league in 2016 for games started, innings pitched, hits surrendered, and batters faced. Things such as park adjustments always factor in, and for Price, adjusted ERA significantly suffered from 2015, when you factor in Fenway Park.
You don’t need advanced metrics to understand Price’s October bugaboo — 2-8 with an over five ERA. He did have a gem of a start for the Tigers in 2014, but the lack of run support wasted it. Otherwise, the Rangers have spoiled his October fun the most, a 5.52 ERA in five postseason starts versus the Rangers. His career postseason ERA is 5.54.
Greinke went from his well-documented bout with anxiety that nearly derailed his career, to winning the Cy Young in 2009 and becoming one of the games’ best pitchers. His first year in Arizona following the signing was less than desired, and a far cry from his 2015 in L.A. when he nearly broke the MLB record for consecutive shutout innings. A season into his D-Backs career, Greinke should have a better 2017 — can’t do much worse than a +4 ERA — and is at least more familiar now with the homer-friendly Chase Field. He surrendered 23, his highest total since 2008. ESPN MLB park factors rated Chase Field No. 2 in home runs for 2016, with Dodger Stadium sitting 20th. Just a year prior Dodger Stadium (16th) ranked ahead of Chase Field (24th).
Arrieta has averaged 13.5 wins since joining the Cubs. He has a 2.52 ERA in that span and will eclipse the thousand inning mark for his career in April. Even after this upcoming season, he will far fewer miles on his arm than when the other four signed for $200 million.
Theo Epstein, the only architect to reverse two of the most iconic World Series droughts, will end up in the Hall of Fame someday. His success ranges from spending pretty wisely, to rebuilding and replenishing organizational depth, to bringing in key midseason pieces. He’s made more deals that worked out than those that didn’t.
He has never signed a pitcher anywhere near the contract asking price that Arrieta is said to be seeking. Epstein’s largest contract doled out, a considerable flop, belongs to Carl Crawford. Daisuke Matsuzaka signed for $52 million with Boston but it took nearly that much just to win the rights to negotiate with him. Even all total, $103.11 million is still less than Arrieta’s asking price, and Daisuke had some solid years in Boston, but he didn’t deliver as much as the hype suggested.
Largest contracts under Epstein’s tenure
- Jon Lester – $155 million, six years
- Adrian Gonzalez – $154 million, seven years
- Carl Crawford – $142 million, seven years
- Daisuke Matsuzaka – $52 million, $51.11 million posting fee
Even when John Lackey was signed by Epstein — the first time, in 2009 — he was 32-years-old on Opening Day 2010, having signed for $82.5 million. Lackey averaged nearly 12 wins and 3.81 ERA during his Angels tenure up to that point; the largest free agent signing among pitchers following the 2009 season. A combination of the times and the skill of pitchers available.
By contrast, Jeff Samardzija signed for $90 million prior to the 2016 seasons. Before signing with San Francisco, his career totals were barely marginal (47-61, 4.09 ERA). Since Samardzija became a full-time starter in 2012, his FIP is 54th among qualified starters (3.72). John Lackey, in that same span, is 57th (3.75). Maybe not the equivalent to one another, but both similar in salary, just six years apart.
All wins not being equal, since becoming a starter in 2012, Samardzija ranks 21st among qualified starters among WAR (14.7). In the same span, Bartolo Colon ranks just behind (14.4). To put it in perspective, dating back to 1997, Colon’s rookie season, and among qualified starters, Colon’s career WAR is 50.4. Since then only CC Sabathia, Kershaw, Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez rank higher among active.
Projections only go so deep
According to Bill James ahead of the 2015 season, Arrieta projected for a season of 12-10 with a 3.55 ERA. That would be considered nice, certainly not bad, and in line with a pitcher such as Samardzija — I’m not saying Arrieta and Samardzija are the same pitcher.
You know, Samardzija is confounding in his own way.
He put together a lone All-Star appearance in 2014, much less to do with what his two wins and more to do with his NL eighth best sub-3 ERA, and eighth best FIP, before being packaged to the A’s to headline a World Series potential rotation.
His numbers out there were virtually in line with those on the North Side that year. Unsurprisingly, ESPN’s park factors rated Wrigley and the Coliseum virtually the same in terms of home runs for 2014. Samardzija still gave up six more home runs in Oakland, in just 3.2 innings difference than in Chicago, but surrendered fewer walks and featured a better WHIP in the Bay.
The Coliseum’s home run rate is typically on the low side, where Wrigley’s has been anywhere from the bottom to inside the top 10. In 2013 Wrigley was rated 11th in home runs, and through the course of a whole season, 25 by Samardzija left the yard. The fifth most in the NL.
Maybe that speaks to some luck for Samardzija for 2014, and then some bad luck in 2015. That 2015 season from U.S. Cellular Field displayed his worst season as a starter. The home run rate there favored the hitter an eighth best. He served up a career-high 29. Snake’s FIP fell all the way to 60th in MLB. The White Sox defensive numbers, which were simply not good, likely also underscore Samardzija’s poor season.
In 2016 in San Francisco, he gave up 24 home runs on the season, but just seven of those from At&t Park. Madison Bumgarner had the same numbers but allowed two more on the road.
The 2015 season notwithstanding — AL hitters Park, poor defense, among the worst offenses — and Samardzija’s sub-.500 career record aside, the Giants made the move they thought made sense for them.
A better offense and great defense in a pitchers park can do wonders. It’s important to remember 2015 was the same offseason Price, Greinke, Johnny Cueto, and Jordan Zimmermann all headlined the starting pitching market, and the Giants had already missed on signing Greinke.
Do you need to pause so you can scrummage around for your high school economics book to refresh on supply and demand?
Before getting too deep in the economics of the Giants dishing out a cool $90 million for a pitcher who has largely underwhelmed, yet also proven durable — averaging over 200 innings since 2013 — healthy and viable top of the rotation piece under the right circumstances.
At least that’s what the Giants are hoping for the next four seasons. It was an overpay but the price for pitching is never cheap.
The Giants paying $90 million for Samardzija might feel as confounding as Samardzija himself, but it also kind of feels like paying $90 for shoes. You might be able to get the bargain elsewhere, but you’re sold on what makes that price tag considered justifiable.
Mike Montgomery and Brett Anderson figure to draw into the rotation throughout 2017 and could help make up the 2018 rotation. If Lackey retires or pitches elsewhere in 2018, the Cubs shouldn’t have much trouble finding a comparable option to fill Lackey’s spot. Epstein could swing a trade or dip into the free agent pool.
2018 Cubs Rotation
2017 Starting Pitching Market
The starting pitching market is set to feature Arrieta and then a lot of question marks. Cueto, Masahiro Tanaka, and Yu Darvish can all exercise their opt-out clause and test the market. Wei-Yin Chen and Ian Kennedy can also opt-out. Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, Michael Pineda, Francisco Liriano, Tyson Ross, Chris Tillman and Marco Estrada will also be available, and possibly Lackey.
Arguably the biggest potential name on the market, Arrieta’s price could be bolstered, or weakened, based on the availability of other big name pitchers. It’s also worth mentioning the Cubs, who have been previously linked to Ross and Cobb in the past, and even Chris Archercould always pick up more steam.
For the first time since 2015, the Cubs hold first round draft picks in the upcoming June draft, but the focus on pitching began last year as the Cubs took seven in last year’s draft.
The not-so-distant future includes a combination of top 100 prospects and Cubs top 30 prospects. Minor League pitcher of the Year Trevor Clifton and Duane Underwood are two notables in the wings. Behind them include Dylan Ceases — top 100 prospect — Oscar de la Cruz, Adbert Alzolays, and last year’s first draft selection, Tom Hatch.
Jason McLeod, Senior VP of player development and amateur scouting, and a highly regarded official around the sport that has turned down GM jobs to stay in Chicago, McLeod understands the importance of young pitching.
“What I am happy about now is that we do have pretty good depth in the organization, and now there’s starting pitching to be excited about, pushing into Double-A now.
We haven’t had any of the high-profile arms get up there yet. Some of that is definitely on us. We haven’t developed some of those pitchers yet. Some of it is just the fact that we’ve taken position players with our first picks, our first-round picks the first four years we were here and then last year we didn’t pick until the third round.
So when you look at major league rotations, the number is somewhere near 50 percent of major league starters that came out of the draft were taken in the first round. So when you don’t draft pitching in the first round, you limit yourself somewhat in terms of the upside. But that’s not an excuse by any means. We need to be better. We understand that.” — Jason McLeod via CBS Chicago
Clifton put together a 7-7 record, 2.72 ERA, with Myrtle Beach in 2016 and a startling strikeout to walk ratio: 129:41. He coughed up four home runs. As you figure he will pitch at the AA level in 2017, he could be one to make contributions as early as 2018 at the major league level.
It’s not really about money
Money isn’t an issue.
The Cubs are an elite brand, and that brand is only bolstered by a winning image. Which is why potential talks to launch their own TV network starting in 2020 would only line their pockets with boocoos wads more cash.
But from a money standpoint, the on-field current contracts for Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward are constructed in a way that suggests they’ll have deeper pockets to take care of Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber as they will enter their arbitration years. Zobrist will bring in $12 million during the 2019 season. Heyward could opt-out after 2018 or 2019. Though there’s no indication he would do that — a potential luxury in the Cubs’ back pocket if he doesn’t solve his 2016 hitting woes — it would save the Cubs at least $86 million.
As the 2017 season soon gets underway, and Jake Arrieta gets back to doing what he does best on the mound, all factors in play will help the Cubs decipher the ultimate question.
Do you believe in the value of signing a pitcher north of 30 long-term and upwards of $200 million will prove as fruitful as the results of his initial post-Orioles days?
What do you think? We can continue the conversation at @willchase_.
Also published on Medium.