Through his first three starts in the 2017 season, Chicago Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta has pitched well. The 31-year-old has a 2.89 ERA through 18.2 innings, and his peripherals include stellar numbers such as 10.1 K/9 and 5.8 H/9—similar to the type of numbers Arrieta posted in his Cy Young season of 2015. It’s only a few games, but it’s all good for the player that is likely to be the most-coveted free agent on the market next winter.
Arrieta has dealt with a drop in velocity early in the schedule, down from his usual 95-97 mph to just 91-93. But that’s actually allowed him to command his pitches a bit better than he did down the stretch last season, when he was extremely wild and posted a 4.44 ERA over his final 16 starts. Building up the velocity gradually could help him have an even better year for a Cubs team looking to head back to the World Series.
But what about after that? Assuming Arrieta has another fine season, will he return to Chicago on a new contract? During spring training, he told our own Jon Heyman that a six- or seven-year deal isn’t out of the question, and that would mean major money. Let’s take a brief look at five teams that might be ready to pay up for Arrieta’s services.
- 5. Boston Red Sox
It’s still early, but with David Price on the disabled list, the Red Sox starting rotation looks extremely thin. It would be reasonable to assume that 2016 Cy Young award-winner Rick Porcello (5.32 ERA in 23.2 innings) will turn things around, and Chris Sale (0.91 ERA in 29.2 innings) has been magnificent. But Steven Wright, Drew Pomeranz, and Eduardo Rodriguez? Yuck.
Look, Wright had a nice year in 2016, knuckleballing his way to a 3.33 ERA in 24 starts and an All-Star appearance. And at 24 years old, Rodriguez still has some potential to be a solid rotation piece. But with Price an unknown going forward, the Red Sox are going to need more pitching to move the needle ever closer to a trip to the World Series.
Boston doesn’t have a ton of money coming off the books this offseason, which is part of what complicates things for them. Their payroll is over $200 million and the young talent on their roster isn’t getting any cheaper. But Dave Dombrowski knows how to get creative, and if he thinks Arrieta is a good fit I wouldn’t put it past him to make it work.
- 4. San Francisco Giants
Beyond Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, the San Francisco Giants don’t exactly have the most trustworthy starting rotation. Matt Moore, Jeff Samardzija, and Matt Cain will likely get you through the regular season, and maybe one of them will pop up and give the Giants a solid playoff game, but that’s not a World Series-caliber rotation.
In fact, with the Giants currently in last place in the NL West and Bumgarner out indefinitely with a left shoulder issue, it may not even be a playoff-contending rotation.
But let’s look forward to 2018. Cueto can opt out of the remainder of his contract and get new money, which may be to his advantage. Samardzija will still be around, and Moore should be as well—San Francisco has a $1 million buyout on his $9 million salary, but it’s unlikely to be used. Cain is due $21 million, but has a $7.5 million buyout that the Giants are just dying to exercise. That savings, along with a handful of lesser salaries, could open the door to signing Arrieta.
- 3. Los Angeles Dodgers
For as good as the Los Angeles Dodgers are, there’s one thing that remains abundantly clear: their starting rotation isn’t good enough. Clayton Kershaw is a god among men, but who is the No. 2 starter? Kenta Maeda has proven not to be the answer, and Rich Hill’s recurring blister problem continues to stand in the way of any forward progress.
Los Angeles has 20-year-old left-handed prospect Julio Urias—who pitched well for them as a teenager in 2016—ready to come up when needed, and that day may be coming soon. But we just don’t know how ready Urias is to be Robin to Kershaw’s Batman, and this Dodgers ball club is built to win right now.
The team’s payroll is a horror show, coming in over $240 million in 2017 and without any of their most high-priced players heading to free agency in the offseason. But the dead money on Carl Crawford’s contract is done after this season, meaning $21 million of wiggle room. That won’t be nearly enough to cover arbitration raises and Arrieta’s 2018 salary, but who are we kidding? This is all Monopoly money to the Dodgers, anyway.
- 2. New York Yankees
In the New York Yankees we find quite possibly the most interesting contender for Arrieta this offseason. There’s always the “Yankee Mystique” factor, plus the fact that New York has spent the last 12 months rebuilding their farm system while remaining competitive on the major-league level. They’re off to an excellent start to the 2017 season, getting great early performances from building blocks such as Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, and Starlin Castro.
The Yankees are over $200 million in payroll this season, which should come as no surprise, but they’re heading for some major freedom in the offseason. Not only is CC Sabathia’s contract ($25 million in 2017) coming up, but Masahiro Tanaka ($22 million) can opt out of his deal, Michael Pineda ($7.8 million) will be a free agent, and the dead A-Rod money ($21 million) will be all wrapped up, as well.
If there’s any team that has the need, the ability to pay, and the right pieces in place to attract Arrieta, it might just be the Yankees. Re-signing Tanaka to put alongside Severino and Arrieta over the next several years, with Castro, Judge, Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, and others coming up to fill in the lineup, and all of the sudden you’ve got a new dynasty in the Bronx.
- 1. Chicago Cubs
The Cubs are going to remain the absolute favorite to retain Arrieta—at least until they’re not. For now, they’ve remained coy on the idea of giving him a long-term extension while doing little to upgrade their starting rotation in preparation for his departure. The Cubs have an embarrassment of riches on offense, including the usual names such as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and on and on. But they also have highly-rated hitting prospects such as outfielder/second baseman Ian Happ and outfielder Eloy Jimenez.
If Chicago wants to trade for a starting pitcher to replace Arrieta, they have the pieces available to do just that. But why let him walk and trade assets to replace him when they could just re-sign Arrieta himself?
It’s a messy situation, and Theo Epstein has had no problem letting World Series heroes simply walk away—remember Pedro Martinez, everyone? But John Lackey will be a free agent and is already 38 years old, while Jon Lester is 33 and Brett Anderson is completely unreliable. The Cubs have some interesting arms in guys like Eddie Butler and Alec Mills, but there’s no indication that either of those guys are ready to step in and be a quality starting pitcher in the big leagues.
For the Cubs to remain competitive beyond the 2017 season, they’re going to need to decide whether to keep Arrieta or trade for an upgrade. That’s a question that has yet to be answered, but the day is coming soon when a decision will need to be made; when Arrieta arrives on the free-agent market next winter, there will be plenty of other bidders interested in his services.