How Jake Arrieta Fell from Cy Young Winner to Scaring Away MLB Teams

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistMarch 5, 2018

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 18:  Jake Arrieta #49 of the Chicago Cubs acknowledges the crowd after being relieved in the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers during game four of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field on October 18, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Jake Arrieta doesn't have a job in early March. That's an absurd statement.

Arrieta won the National League Cy Young Award in 2015 and was an All-Star in 2016. His results took a dive last season, as we'll discuss, but his right arm didn't fall off. He's a high-upside pitcher with the potential to front a starting rotation.

What happened? How did Arrieta plummet from award-winning grace to March unemployment?

The most obvious culprit is his agent, Scott Boras.

Boras has built a legend by landing his clients gaudy paydays. In November, he called Arrieta "a big squirrel with lots of nuts in his trees," per Bob Nightengale of USA Today.

Setting aside the strained metaphor, Boras' point was clear: Arrieta has proved his mettle. His trophy case is laden; he's won a title. He's a No. 1 and deserves to be compensated accordingly.

The trouble is MLB teams are less inclined to shell out for past production. The biggest spenders are doing their utmost to stay under the $197 million luxury tax threshold. They're also saving their dough for the fabled 2018-19 free-agent class, which could feature Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw and other luminaries.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
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"To me, there's always an asterisk, because you don't know who is slowing it down," San Francisco Giants right-hander Jeff Samardzija said, per Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune (Samardzija was formerly Arrieta's teammate with the Chicago Cubs). "Is it the agent? Is it the owners?"

On the other hand, Yu Darvish landed a six-year, $126 million contract with the Cubs in February. Darvish will turn 32 in August; Arrieta will turn 32 on Tuesday.

Darvish missed the 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery and finished 2017 on a sour note, including a dispiriting loss in Game 7 of the World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

If Darvish, warts and all, can reel in nine figures, why not Arrieta?

For one, Darvish's Fall Classic face-plant might have been due to pitch-tipping. For two, Darvish's stuff was just fine—his average fastball velocity actually climbed, per FanGraphs.

Arrieta, on the other hand, had his fastball velocity dip, while his hard-contact rate rose.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

"As great an agent as Scott Boras is, even he can't beat the unforgiving honesty of radar guns," the Tribune's Steve Rosenbloom wrote in May. "He can only hope someone is buying comparisons to great pitchers when it comes to his latest client looking for a lot more money than he seems to be worth right now."

In short, Darvish profiles as a gamble worth taking. Arrieta profiles as a once-sparkling arm on the downslope.

Hence word, via Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post (h/t the Tribune), that the Washington Nationals could go in on Arrieta if his asking price were to tumble southward. The Philadelphia Phillies have had interest, per MLB.com's Todd Zolecki, and the Milwaukee Brewers could be in the mix as well (h/t USA Today's Jesse Yomtov). Both may likewise be camping out for a discount.

How long will this staring contest last? It sounds ridiculous, but it could stretch to Opening Day and beyond. If Arrieta (with Boras whispering in his ear) was willing to wait this long, what's to stop him from waiting even longer?

Heck, what if he held out until after the June 4-6 MLB draft, at which point he could be inked without qualifying-offer draft-pick compensation? By that time, teams may also be more desperate because of injuries to or underperformance by their starting corps.

It reads like MLB fan fiction, but it's the route Roger Clemens took in 2006, when he signed with the Houston Astros, debuted on June 22 and finished with a 2.30 ERA in 19 starts. Clemens repeated the same trick, with admittedly less robust results (4.18 ERA in 17 starts with the New York Yankees), in 2007.

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 18:  Jake Arrieta #49 of the Chicago Cubs stands on the mound in the first inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers during game four of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field on October 18, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Clemens was 43 and 44 years old and an MLB legend (links to performance-enhancing drugs and all) at the time. His situation wasn't exactly simpatico with Arrieta's. But it proves biding your time can be the most prudent option.

If Arrieta believes in himself, he should hang back, possibly through April. He should be prepared to sign a lucrative short-term deal and rebuild his value for another foray into free agency.

He doesn't have a job in early March. That seems absurd—but it's also the cold, hard truth.

   

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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