This offseason, the Chicago Cubs had a tough but simple choice: Bring back Jake Arrieta or let him go.
Arrieta was the National League Cy Young Award winner in 2015, an All-Star in 2016 and an indelible piece of the Cubbies' drought-busting championship corps. He broke into the big leagues with the Baltimore Orioles in 2010, but his legend and career were forged at Wrigley Field.
He was also marching into his age-32 season when he hit free agency after the 2017 campaign. His ERA had ballooned to 3.53 and his FIP to 4.16. His average fastball velocity was 92.6 mph, compared to 94.9 mph during his Cy Young run.
Red flags fluttered. And so the Cubs signed Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million pact, and Arrieta settled for three years and $75 million from the Philadelphia Phillies a month later.
Hindsight being 20/20, would the Cubs take a mulligan and ink Arrieta instead?
In two words: Yeah, probably.
Through eight starts with Chicago, Darvish sports a 4.95 ERA. On Saturday, he was placed on the 10-day disabled list with right triceps tendonitis.
Maybe the injury is serious; maybe it's minor. Here's what we know: Darvish hasn't been consistently effective on the hill and earlier this season went down with the flu.
That DL stint, as David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune noted, "reinforced the notion that Darvish requires perfect conditions to pitch, a baseball diva who equates illness with injury. It was a bad look, at the very least."
Arrieta, on the other hand, owns a 2.45 ERA in nine starts with the Phillies and has often looked like the rotation-fronting pitcher from his Cubs glory days.
According to Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and the Cubs offered Arrieta six years and $120 million before they inked Darvish but demanded the incumbent right-hander make a decision virtually on the spot.
Per Wittenmyer, Arrieta said:
"He made an offer, but in my heart, I believe that he knew I would say no or that I would want to negotiate, which would make it easier for him to go sign Darvish. He called literally the night before Darvish signed and said, 'Here's the offer, take it or leave it. If you don't want it, we're going to try to sign Darvish as soon as possible.'"
So it went. Darvish wound up on the North Side, and Arrieta landed in the City of Brotherly Love. Darvish has been an underperforming, DL-prone enigma, while Arrieta has helped Philadelphia contend for early supremacy in the topsy-turvy National League East.
There are flies in the ointment. Other than a 10-strikeout performance April 19 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Arrieta hasn't recorded a double-digit punchout total in any game this season. Overall, his 6.1 strikeouts per nine innings are lower than any mark he's posted since his rookie year.
That said, Arrieta has pitched through the sixth inning in three of his four May starts and allowed two earned runs or fewer in all four.
Along with fellow Phils righty Aaron Nola, he's been especially nasty at home, as NBC Sports Philadelphia's Corey Seidman noted:
All things being equal, would the Cubs swap Arrieta and his contract for Darvish and his deal without blinking? Would they slot him beside Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks in an effort to earn a second Commissioner's Trophy in three years? It's tough to imagine any answer other than "heck yeah."
Arrieta won hardware and a billy goat-burying ring with Chicago. He's less than six months older than Darvish, who will turn 32 on Aug. 16.
The Cubs could have stuck by the hurler they knew. Instead, they may be stuck with the one they didn't.
There's time for Darvish to get healthy and make good on his gaudy contract. Likewise, there's time for Arrieta's low strikeout rate to beget hiccups and subpar results.
For now, whip out your calendar and circle June 5—when the Cubs and Phillies open a three-game set in the Windy City.
"I respect the hell out of the guys in Chicago for what they've built," Arrieta said, per Wittenmyer. "No hard feelings."
That's a magnanimous sentiment. It might even be true.
But you'd better believe Arreita would like to remind the Cubs of the guy they let go.