By Bruce Levine–
TEMPE, Ariz. (CBS) — For Cubs birthday boy Jake Arrieta, the first outing of the spring represented more than just a baby step toward Opening Day.
Arrieta, who turned 31 on Monday, could become a free agent in November. The rumor mill has had the Cubs and agent Scott Boras tossing big numbers back and forth over the winter into the spring regarding Arrieta, who’s set to be a free agent at season’s end.
For his own peace of mind, Arrieta lets the negotiators do their jobs.
“This is a situation that many players have been through in the past,” Arrieta said. “They have dealt with it, just as I will. This might not be something fun to talk about. The time is coming to a point where we either get a deal done or I go to free agency. That’s OK. This is just the nature of business in the game. Really, the focus needs to be for the next eight months, on being a Chicago Cub. I must try to do the best job individually and help my guys be the best they can be.”
Arrieta has won 40 games over the past two seasons, the most of any pitcher in the major leagues. Now just seven months away from his baseball freedom, it’s fair to wonder if his contract status will be a distraction.
To Arrieta’s credit, he has said on more than one occasion that he has made enough money to secure his family’s future.
“It doesn’t help me one way or another,” Arrieta said about contract talk status. “You guys know just much as I do. If I do think about it, what good does that do me? This is just the reality of the situation.”
Manager Joe Maddon, like most baseball coaches, tries to stay away from contract issues with players.
“Sometimes people come to you with conversations,” Maddon said. “I don’t necessarily start those conversations. Jake is a man’s man. He is really good and coming off of two outstanding seasons. Everything is going to go well for him. The biggest thing is that he has a free and clear mind when he goes out to the mound. I think he will. We will see how all of that plays out. He knows he has our support. Again, we would never work counterintuitive to what the front office is working upon.”
On the diamond, a main focus of Arrieta in 2017 is to have better command. His walks went up significantly last season, as he issued 76 free passes compared to 48 in 2015.
Maddon insisted fastball command was the difference for Arrieta between 2015 and 2016.
“The biggest difference for me last year was his fastball command,” Maddon said. “More than anything, if he finds command of that again, everything else will follow.”
In his spring debut Monday, Arrieta was hit around a bit against the Angels. He allowed three runs (two earned) on five hits in two innings.
“I was nervous the first time out,” he said. “I have always been that way at the start of spring training. It goes away by the second or third hitter.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.