Even More Than Previous Monster Deals, Stephen Strasburg Signing May Mean Adios, Arrieta

Throughout talk of his future in Chicago and a possible contract extension, Jake Arrieta has remained steadfast.

“I made it clear I like Chicago,” the ace reiterated Tuesday. “I think everyone knows that. If I had it my way I’d stay here. That’s just one side of the story. We’ll see.”

The other side of the story, of course, is that Arrieta is unwilling to take a hometown discount to remain with the Cubs beyond the 2017 season. And can you blame him? When David Price (7 years, $217M), Max Scherzer (7 years, $210M), and Zack Greinke (6 years, $206.5M) are pulling down huge deals at comparable ages, it’s hard to imagine a guy being happy taking a shorter, smaller contract to play for a booming team in a big market.

But as detrimental as all of those signings were to the Cubs’ efforts to retain the services of their best pitcher, the real monkeywrench may be the 7-year, $175 million pact Stephen Strasburg just inked with the Nationals. While Washington’s fireballer is a couple years younger than any of the other players in this group, he’s undergone Tommy John surgery and has never achieved quite the same level of success experienced by others in the ace category.

Seeing that kind of money given to Strasburg was eye-opening to say the least, but this is just a sign of the times and a significant benchmark when it comes to the going rate for top-flight starting pitching. While those aforementioned contracts represent the ceiling for aces, this one has basically laid the floor. Looks like the Nats found a creative way to get back at the Cubs for intentionally walking Bryce Harper 50 times over the weekend.

“Financially I’m fine, regardless,” Arrieta admitted while discussing his own value. “You want to be paid in respect to how your peers are paid. I don’t think that changes with any guy you ask. It happens around baseball every year.”

Though he’s been reticent when it comes to specifics regarding dollar figures or length of a potential deal, Arrieta did toss out the belief that “aces get 7 years.” I’ve written more than once about what an extension might look like, but I haven’t really envisioned a scenario in which the Cubs would be willing to go more than 6 years. Even then, I was generally looking at a figure of $125 million or so, which seems inordinately low due to the fact that it would be buying out at least one arbitration year (my initial figures were pre-arb settlement this season).

The Cubs are obviously aware of the Strasburg deal and its impact on their negotiations with Arrieta, though the claim they’re not going to let it dictate their decisions.

“You pay attention to everything that goes on in the game, but it doesn’t impact us too much,” Theo Epstein told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “Obviously, it will impact markets and we have to operate in markets, but it is what it is.”

One need not know how to read between the lines to decipher the gamesmanship on both sides here. Both are kinda shrugging their proverbial shoulders and looking over at the other party as if to say, “Hey, you know what you need to do to make this happen.” At the risk of making a comparison that’s sure to wrinkle some noses and knit some brows, this whole thing is starting to look a lot like the scene at the end of Albert Pujols’ tenure in St. Louis. No, I don’t mean that we’ll hear rumors that Arrieta is actually a couple years older and that he used his younger brother’s birth certificate to conceal his age and identity.

Rather, I’m talking about how Pujols knew he’d be able to get far more on the open market than what the Cards were willing to offer, and his old team was upfront about that situation as well. So when the franchise player ended up walking, fans pretty much understood the deal. It’s certainly not a foregone conclusion that Arrieta will leave in the same manner, but the Cubs don’t look too bad if another team is willing to offer something along the lines of the contracts given to Greinke, Price, or Scherzer.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether and how the results of this season and next will impact negotiations. Say the Cubs win a World Series with Jake Arrieta taking home another Cy Young. Could the good vibes and influx of revenue shorten the span of a gap that seems too far to bridge at this point? Or would achieving the ultimate prize satisfy one or the other party to the extent that they’d be even more willing to walk away from the table?

I think the former is more likely than the latter, though that’s assuming this team makes good on all the promise it’s shown thus far. All things considered, I’m going to revise my earlier estimates to something a little more suitable to the market and the situation at hand. That said, I could see the Cubs going up to maybe 6 years, $150 million ($25M AAV) with a potential vesting option for a 7th year that could take the total value up to $175-180M. We’ve seen opt-out clauses used as currency as well, so perhaps those could come into play.

Whatever course this whole thing eventually takes, it’s unlikely we’ll hear anything prior to the end of the Cubs’ season. Arrieta has expressed a desire to maintain focus on the task at hand and he’s still under contract through 2017. One thing I do believe is that if a deal is going to get done, it has to be this offseason before Arrieta has the opportunity to test the waters.

The important thing to remember in all this is that it really doesn’t matter right now. It won’t actually matter for another year and a half, to be honest. Now that I say that, we’ll probably hear about an extension tomorrow. Seriously though, this is something we’re going to hear and talk about for quite a while yet. The good news for both the Cubs and their fans is that if there’s any pitcher who can handle what might otherwise be a distraction, it’s Arrieta. And if there’s any front office that can navigate these waters, it’s this one.

Now please, rest of MLB, don’t go throwing stupid money at any other pitchers in the near future, okay?

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