By Tim Baffoe–
(670 The Score) Free agent right-hander Jake Arrieta should never pay for a meal north of Chicago’s Madison Ave. ever again. Decades from now, he should be a Cubs ambassador who’s singing the seventh-inning stretch and taking pictures on the Wrigley Field concourse between innings.
Arrieta will be forever etched into Chicago sports lore, and Cubs fans are forever in his debt for a Cy Young season and way more importantly contributing to the first World Series title for the franchise in 108 years. This is non-negotiable.
What is negotiable is a potential return of the beard in blue pinstripes. Arrieta remains the 1A or 1B starter on the free-agent market along with Yu Darvish, and it feels like one is waiting for the other to cave to a team’s price before deciding his own.
Arrieta re-signing with the Cubs would have a lot of feel-good to it, a getting the band back together a la Dexter Fowler prior to the 2016 season when everyone, including teammates, had assumed Fowler was destined to sign elsewhere. And fans — myself included — tend to get a bit blinded by loyalties and nostalgia and familiarity and itch to pay for a familiar name rather than the future production. Such longing is only exacerbated this year as the Hot Stove seems to have been unplugged and dragged out to an alley and in which raccoons have currently commandeered it for shelter.
We want a signing on the North Side. It needs to be a starting pitcher. Cubs fans and beat writers, nay, the entire baseball nation demands something to talk about. But should it be Arrieta?
My heart says yes. I reflexively want nice things for Arrieta because he was part of something that made me cry tears of joy and lifted a weight off of me that can never be replaced. Him staying with the Cubs would be nice, and I’m sure he’d agree.
And then Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune goes and points out the big pathos grab the Cubs could make this weekend.
We already know (team president Theo) Epstein and (general manager Jed) Hoyer enjoy a good, old-fashioned surprise to shock fans. In 2012, they sneaked Kerry Wood into the Cubs Convention and announced he had signed a one-year deal.
In a staged moment of suspense, Wood was the last player introduced at the opening ceremony, about a half-hour after Epstein downplayed the idea of re-signing the fan favorite.
“If you start making baseball decisions based on PR, you’re losing,” Epstein famously said.
Epstein no doubt appreciates the value of the sentimental as a significant draw to sports, regardless of what he said back then. The Fowler surprise was super cool during spring training. But Epstein also isn’t stupid, and signing a pitcher because of feel-goods if your team isn’t struggling to put butts in seats is foolish. Fowler made baseball sense above all, and he’s another player who’s forever welcome at any Cubs function forever, even if he has red birds on his shirt at the moment. Epstein and the rest of the number crunchers in the Cubs offices know that paying for past performance is short-sighted and that many advanced analytics suggest Arrieta won’t be his old self, especially on the latter half of a potential long-term deal.
That’s the stuff bad deals are made of, and Epstein and Hoyer are immune to any sentimentalities that would let a team whose championship window is wide open mix in an Ubaldo Jimenez type talent right now, no matter how beloved. Sustained success, as we know is a mantra on the North Side, is made of sterner stuff. They also know that numbers aren’t people, though. Human anomalies exist. It’s betting on them that gets sketchy.
Six teams, including the Cubs, are reportedly betting on Arrieta’s 2018, even if it means stinging them in years after. That includes fellow NL Central mates in the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers, per Gordon Wittenmyer, “for three- and four-year contracts at ‘overpay’ annual values.”
Reflexively sickening as Arrieta pitching for either of those teams might be, if you’re playing the nerd numbers, a downward trend on his career while on a division rival might ironically help the Cubs. Painful as it might be to see a former hero struggle elsewhere, perhaps even at the mercilessness of Cub bats.
And make no mistake: Recent history doesn’t bode well for pitchers receiving long-term contracts, as Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe pointed out:
Starting with the 2008–09 offseason, there have been nine contracts of four years signed by free agent pitchers, six of them now complete. Only three — namely those of Mark Buehrle, Ryan Dempster and (Ervin) Santana (whose deal ends after 2018) have produced at least 10 bWAR. (Arrieta was worth 8.7 bWAR in 2015 alone.)
Arrieta is a better pitcher than most of those guys (Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ricky Nolasco being the others), but those aren’t great odds of fulfillment.
The heart cares not for odds. But it was also an aching heart that wrote the story of every Cubs fan’s existence prior to 2016.
Should Arrieta be a surprise announcement this weekend, I — like most Cubs fans — will smile. The Hot Stove will have been plugged back in. The reunion will feel good. A nice moment and big payday will have happened for Jake. He’ll have more deserved free meals at any of our wonderful restaurants in Chicago.
And then he’ll have to pitch.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for 670TheScore.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not Entercom or our affiliated radio stations.