CLEARWATER, Fla. — It seems the longer Jake Arrieta remains unsigned, the higher the chances the Phillies will get their way.
The free-agent pitcher and the Phillies, according to a Tuesday morning report by Jon Heyman, are “having dialogue.”
The Phillies met with Scott Boras, Arrieta’s agent, in December at the winter meetings, but had no interest in signing the righthander to the long-term deal he sought. The Phillies let the market play, and Arrieta, more than a week into spring training, remains unsigned. Thus, the thinking is that Arrieta will be forced to lower his demands.
It has been a busy week for Boras, who finalized contracts for clients Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez. He wants Arrieta to receive the type of money that Yu Darvish earned earlier this month from the Cubs. The Phillies will not match that six-year, $126 million contract, but perhaps that could give Arrieta a similar average annual value — $21 million — but half the years.
“As an organization, from ownership on down, we’re pretty disciplined,” general manager Matt Klentak said last week. “We’ve gone through this rebuild, We’ve acknowledged that it was going to be painful for a few years. It has been. We’re not going to do anything to compromise the future of that. We’re going to continue to do this right. We’re competitive as anybody else is, but we’re not going to radically change our valuation on a potential acquisition based on emotion. That’s not something we’re going to do, but if there’s something that makes sense, I know the owners will support it economically. It’s up to us to bring that to them if we see fit.”
The Phillies would like another starting pitcher, but also would like a deal to be on their terms. Phillies president Andy MacPhail, Klentak, and director of player development Joe Jordan drafted Arrieta in 2007 when they were with Baltimore, but left the Orioles before he was traded to the Cubs. It was long expected that they would be interested this winter when Arrieta hit the market.
Arrieta had a 3.53 ERA last season in 168 1/3 innings over 30 starts with the Cubs. He lowered his walk rate and increased his strikeout rate, despite losing nearly 2 mph on all his pitches. He’ll turn 32 next month, and a short-term deal would protect the Phillies once their payroll rises over the next few seasons. It also would give the Phillies the starting pitcher they need.
Arrieta has been a victim of a market for starting pitchers that has shifted dramatically over the last few seasons. In 2015, the top eight free-agent starters signed contracts worth a combined $983 million. This winter, 18 starters signed contracts totaling just $316 million. Three of the top arms — Arrieta, Lance Lynn, and Alex Cobb — are still unsigned, but their contracts will not bring the market anywhere close to the level of 2015.
Just two of those eight deals in 2015 — Boston’s David Price and Arizona’s Zack Greinke — have been relatively successful. Price is the only one of the eight to have two seasons with an ERA better than 4.00, but he was limited last season by an elbow injury.
Teams no longer throw money at average or slightly above-average pitchers, and they do not throw the type of money at the elite arms they once did. Starting pitching is a risky investment, as teams know the success of the deals will likely fall short. And that thinking could help the Phillies as they try to land a proven elite pitcher on a contract length more suited for an average arm.