One of the interesting things about the Phillies’ signing of Jake Arrieta to a three-year, $75 million contract late in spring training is that they almost didn’t have a choice. Or, rather, if the plan was to address their woefully thin starting pitching via free agency at some point in the next couple of years, Arrieta might have been as good as it was going to get.
As far as free agent cycles go, next offseason could be the nadir of one that has been bottoming out since last offseason, when 37-year-old Rich Hill was the top prize. This year’s group was marginally better, with Arrieta and Yu Darvish signing for a combined $201 million over nine years. Still, they were the only two starters to land more than $65 million guaranteed. In 2015, there were eight.
That’s unlikely to change next offseason, when Dallas Keuchel and Drew Pomeranz are the only two projected free agents who are obvious candidates for big multi-year deals. That could change if Clayton Kershaw or David Price opts out of his contract, and there could be some value at the lower end of the market. But if the Phillies were going to be allocating $25 million in payroll space in 2019 for a starter, Arrieta at 33 years old might be as good a bet as would be out there.
After winning the AL Cy Young with the Astros in 2015, Keuchel has averaged just 157 innings over the last couple of seasons, albeit with a 3.79 ERA and strong rate stats. He’ll be heading into his 31-year-old season in 2019, the same age Jeff Samardzija was when he signed a five-year, $90 million contract with the Giants after the 2015 season. But Keuchel does not have the overpowering stuff of a guy like Arrieta, with a fastball that averaged 89.6 miles per hour in his dominant 2015 season and 88.6 and 88.7 the last two seasons. After returning from a month-and-a-half absence because of a pinched nerve in his neck last season, Keuchel averaged less than six innings per start with a 4.24 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio under 2.
Pomeranz is trending in the other direction and could easily top next offseason’s pitching power rankings. After an injury-plagued start to his career, the 29-year-old has averaged 172 innings and 32 outings over the last two seasons for the Padres and Red Sox, posting a 3.32 ERA with 9.4 K/9, 3.5 BB/9 and 1.1 HR/9. He has a fastball that sits in the low-90s and a good curveball,, and he will be just 30 years old next offseason.
But he also has significant durability concerns, including a flexor tendon strain that he is dealing with and that could delay the start of his season. Pomeranz finished the 2016 season in the bullpen and had a stem cell treatment on his flexor tendon that offseason. In 2015, he spent time on the disabled list with a shoulder injury that eventually required surgery. In 2013, he missed nearly two months with biceps tendinitis.
One of the questions the Phillies undoubtedly considered this offseason was whether their odds of getting a significant contribution from a 33-year-old Arrieta in the second year of a contract were dramatically less than the odds of getting the same thing from someone like Pomeranz or Keuchel in the first year of a deal. Arrieta is older, and has averaged only 183 innings over the last couple of seasons, but that is more than either Keuchel or Pomeranz has averaged.
Beyond those two, the projected market does not offer much. Gio Gonzalez is coming off a season in which he logged 201 innings with a 2.96 ERA and good strikeout numbers, but, he averaged just 171 innings with a 3.99 ERA in the three seasons before that and he’ll be the same age as Arrieta in 2019. In 2014-15, Garrett Richards averaged 188 innings with a 3.18 ERA, 3.30 in Fielding Independent Pitching, and 116 ERA+, but he has made just 12 starts since then, missing most of 2016 with an elbow injury and most of 2017 with a biceps nerve injury.
Nate Eovaldi, a onetime up-and-comer who missed all of last season but is still only 28 years old, could pitch his way onto the radar in 2018. Drew Smyly won’t be back from elbow surgery until at least later this summer. Cole Hamels and J.A. Happ will be 35 and 36 in 2019. Martin Perez is a No. 5 starer at best. Matt Harvey used to be good.
One player who is worth monitoring this season is Diamondbacks lefty Patrick Corbin, who is coming off a year in which he posted a 4.03 ERA, 8.4 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, and 1.2 HR/9 in 189 2/3 innings. Corbin was an all-star back in 2013 as a 23-year-old, when he posted a 3.41 ERA in 208 1/3 innings. After missing all of 2014, he pitched just 240 2/3 innings in 2015 and 2016. But he has a low-90’s fastball and good slider, and if he can build on last year’s performance he could be an attractive middle-of-the-rotation candidate who will be just 29 years old in 2019.
Given that the Phillies’ top three pitching prospects have yet to make a start above Class A, they would have been taking a significant risk had they not added a veteran this offseason. The reality is that Arrieta might have been the Phillies’ best — maybe even only — option for upgrading their rotation via free agency until 2020, which could be a banner class that includes Corey Kluber, Madison Bumgarner, Chris Sale, Julio Teheran, Gerrit Cole, Jake Odorizzi, Sonny Gray, and Michael Wacha, among others.