Early Tuesday morning, Jon Heyman of MLB Network and FanRag Sports reported that the Phillies and former Cubs and Orioles starting pitcher, Jake Arrieta, are communicating about the possibility of a contract.
The Phillies have been open about wanting a veteran pitcher to bolster their young rotation, but GM Matt Klentak has made it clear that the team isn’t going to make a move that could jeopardize the rebuild they have so long committed to.
While a marriage between these two parties makes sense, Heyman noted that there is a gap because the Phillies prefer a short term contract for the reason previously noted. The Phillies have been rebuilding since the 2013 offseason, and to splurge on an aging free-agent goes against the philosophy of the rebuild to this point. And, on the surface, it seems that maybe, the team should just stay away.
Arrieta broke out in the second half of 2015, when he went 12-1 with a 0.75 ERA in 15 starts. Following a solid (but not quite as amazing) 2016 campaign, Arrieta was not really the same pitcher in 2017. Arrieta’s ERA inflated by nearly half a run from 2016, accompanied by his WHIP which jumped above 1.2 and a rising FIP that supports the idea that Arrieta is on the downswing. In addition, after leading the league in HR/9 in 2015 with 0.4, Arrieta has given up an increasing amount of long-balls, reaching 1.2 HR/9 in 2017. This coupled with a declining velocity could spell trouble for him as he enters 2018 age 32. So, all the old-school and new-age metrics seem to show the same thing: Arrieta is trending the wrong way, and the idea of paying him a top-5 contract in baseball seems, to put it best, nonsensical.
Despite this, however, there are many reasons that this signing makes perfect sense for Arrieta and the Phillies. The Phillies have more money committed to their bullpen than their rotation right now, so to throw $30 million+ a year at Arrieta wouldn’t cause payroll issues for the next couple seasons. As it stands right now, the Phillies rotation is full of 2nd and 3rd year players, and Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff are the only ones who have proven they can pitch an entire MLB season.
Signing Arrieta helps this in several ways. Coming off of a spectacular second half in 2017, right-hander Aaron Nola is facing pressure to become an ace of this young, inexperienced staff. Adding a veteran like Arrieta not only alleviates this pressure, but it also lessens the same on guys like Eickhoff and Velasquez, who are looking to rebound after frustrating 2017 seasons plagued by injuries and are currently slated to be the 2 and 3 guys in the rotation. Arrieta’s benefit to the staff is not limited to just these 3, as anyone else in back of the rotation can look to Arrieta for guidance when they face struggles.
People often forget that Arrieta was deemed a lost cause by the Orioles organization when they traded him to the Cubs after several seasons of struggling. The Cubs took a chance on Arrieta because of his great stuff, specifically a high spin rate on his slider, but his road to becoming one of the best pitchers in the MLB was not an easy one. The Phillies have two guys in Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez who have electric stuff but have yet to consistently translate it into good results. Arrieta certainly shared in their struggles early in his career, and he can lend them support and guidance when they face adversity.
Beyond Arrieta’s impact on the staff, the Phillies should sign him simply because he makes the team better. Nothing against Ben Lively and Zach Eflin, but replacing a back end starter with Arrieta is sure to give the team at least a 4-5 win boost. Despite his relative struggles in 2017, Arrieta still has the floor of a solid veteran piece and the ceiling of an ace, as he showed in 2015 and 2016. If the team does not contend in 2018, having a respectable record could be key in attracting free-agents in 2018 and beyond. Arrieta can help make this difference in the worst-case scenario and can help boost a playoff push in the best-case scenario.
So what kind of deal makes the most sense for Arrieta and the Phillies? The Phillies will prefer a short-term deal, probably not exceeding 3 years. Arrieta will want something similar to what the Cubs gave Yu Darvish last week, which was 6 years/$126 million with an opt-out clause following the second year. As Heyman noted, this is the biggest thing keeping the contract talks from escalating, but the Phillies and Arrieta could find a way to meet in the middle. Something like a 4 year/$115 million deal that is front-loaded, giving Arrieta $70 million over the first two seasons with an opt-out clause after that 2nd year, makes sense. Arrieta gets plenty of money and can leave if he excels, and the team is not committed to an extreme amount of money beyond 2020 ($22.5/year over the final two years).
Other than Arrieta, the Phillies best free-agent options are veterans Alex Cobb and Laynce Lynn, and they could still make a trade for a young, controllable pitcher, although this seems less likely as the season approaches.
Mandatory Credit: Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports