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Cubs: Examining the Looming Jake Arrieta Contract Dilemma

CHICAGO – The Chicago Cubs avoided arbitration with starting pitcher Jake Arrieta on Friday afternoon, coming to terms with the former Cy Young Award winner on a one year deal worth $15.64 Million dollars.

The 30-year-old is eligible to become a free-agent after the 2017 season, and will likely be looking for a hefty extension to remain on the north side of Chicago beyond this season. Arrieta is a former Cy Young Award winner, an All-Star, and a World Series Champion during his tenure with the Cubs, and is represented by Scott Boras.

With the one year extension the Cubs delay the looming contract issue until next winter, as Arrieta’s agent Scott Boras is famous for insisting that his clients test free-agency rather than negoitiating a long-term extension with their current club.

Should the Cubs Break the Bank for Arrieta?

Arrieta came to Chicago from Baltimore during the 2013 season, immediately showing an improvement from his Orioles numbers, posting a 4-2 record with a 3.66 ERA in nine starts with the Cubs.

With the Orioles, Arrieta posted a record of 20-25 with an 5.46 ERA over the course of four seasons in Baltimore. Since joining the Cubs in 2013, Arrieta has pitched to a 54-21 record with an ERA of 2.52 in four seasons.

Arrieta’s production in his four seasons with the Cubs would lead you to believe that the Cubs should do whatever they have to do to extend the pajama-wearing right-hander after the 2017 season, that is, if you were looking at the body of work as a whole.

Arrieta will turn 31-years-old this season before Opening Day, and of course be 32 on Opening Day in 2018, the beginning of his new big-money long-term deal that he will be searching for next winter. Do the Cubs want to shell out the significant amount of money it will take to sign Arrieta, with him entering his age-32 season in the beginning of his new deal?

There is already evidence of decline in Arrieta’s performance from the 2015 season to the 2016 season. In 2015 Arrieta posted a 22-6 record with a 1.77 ERA, 236 strike outs, to just 46 walks en route to winning the 2015 Cy Young Award. In 2016 Arrieta pitched to an 18-8 record with an ERA of 3.10, with 190 strike outs and 76 walks. Last season Arrieta saw his win total reduce by four despite the Cubs winning more games last season than they did in 2015. The alarming numbers though, are the drop in strikeouts (-46 ), and the increase in walks (+30), wild pitches (+10), ERA (+1.33),  and FIP (+1.22).

Arrieta also saw increases in his hits per nine, home runs per nine, and WHIP from the 2015 season to the 2016 season. Making those number increasingly alarming, Arrieta actually pitched 32.1 innings less in 2016 than he did in 2015.

While Arrieta still had a great season statistically compared to other pitchers across Major League Baseball, the drop off from his age-29 season, to his age-30 season was most certainly significant enough to believe that he will continue to trend downward with his age increasing, making it a potentially poor decision to break the bank for Arrieta after the 2017 season.

What are the Cubs’ Options Moving Forward?

The Cubs could attempt to work out a shorter-term deal with Arrieta next winter, one that will pay him what he and his agent Scott Boras feel he is worth in terms of annual value, but has an option for the Cubs to bail out after the 2018 or 2019 season if the deal becomes a burden due to declining performance.

That would be the perfect scenario from the Cubs standpoint, as well as the fan’s standpoint, but a scenario such as that seems unlikely. Arrieta and Boras are both aware of his age, and his drop-off over the last two seasons. This will be Arrieta’s last opportunity to get a long-term deal in free-agency, so don’t expect him to risk his financial future on a deal that allows the Cubs to opt-out when the ship begins showing signs of sinking.

That leaves the Cubs with two options, either keep him for the 2017 season, ride his arm as far into the postseason as they can, and then say their goodbye’s next winter and allow him to sign elsewhere in free-agency and move on to the next option.

Or, they could hope that he has a dominant first-half of the season in 2017, and trade him for a package of prospects that could potentially include his future replacement, at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Arrieta is a fan-favorite in Chicago, and trading him in July would likely not be a popular decision across the board, but Theo Epstein is as good of a GM as we have ever seen in Chicago, and he will ultimately make the move that will reflect the best interest of the franchise’s sustained success. If that means flipping a 31-year-old starting pitcher heading into free-agency after the season, for his potential replacement in a prospect package, then that’s exactly what Epstein will do.


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