Much to the chagrin of some, Philadelphia Phillies general manager Matt Klentak sat in a staredown with Scott Boras into Spring Training regarding one of Boras’ top clients, Jake Arrieta.
The Phillies and Arrieta had the feel of an arranged marriage. Despite having won a National League Cy Young Award and World Series while with the Chicago Cubs, it was evident that the Cubs didn’t plan to mount a serious attempt to retain Arrieta. Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports did report that shortly before signing Yu Darvish to a lucrative six-year deal, Cubs president Theo Epstein called Arrieta to gauge his interest in signing a deal similar to Darvish’s. The call appeared to be a sign of respect more than anything, because the Cubs weren’t planning to actually offer Arrieta the deal unless Darvish’s contract fell through.
Even after a breakout season from Aaron Nola in 2016, the Phillies still needed another front-line starter to pair with their former first-round pick as they looked to return to contention. With a roster full of pre-arbitration eligible players, the Phillies possessed essentially an unlimited pool of short-term financial flexibility. Phillies executives Andy MacPhail, Matt Klentak, Joe Jordan and Ned Rice had all been in Baltimore’s front office when Arrieta broke into the league with the Orioles. Perhaps there wasn’t a perfect landing spot for Arrieta, but the Phillies appeared to be as good of a fit as anyone.
In relative terms, Klentak and the Phillies won the stare-down with Boras and Arrieta. Arrieta’s contract with the Phillies still pays him an average annual value of $25 million per season. But rather than the six-year deal that Arrieta was initially seeking, the Phillies guaranteed him just three years, with two additional club options.
The thought process in giving the deal was with so much available money in the short-term, the Phillies would take a rather expensive flier on the former All-Star. At worst, he would give them a middle of the rotation arm with a wealth of playoff experience that was a pretty good bet to pitch at least 175 innings. At best, Arrieta would pitch like he did in the second-half of the 2017 season – when he posted a 2.38 ERA – as Nola came of age and top prospect Sixto Sanchez ascended towards the majors.
There have been moments during the 2018 season where Arrieta has looked like best-case scenario Arrieta – “revenge SZN Arrieta,” as SportsRadio 94 WIP’s Jack Fritz calls it. But more often than not, Arrieta has pitched more like a middle of the rotation arm. Make no mistake, the stability that he’s provided to the rotation has been important in a rotation where he’s the only arm older than 26. It’s also worth noting that the $45 million Arrieta is due over the next two seasons won’t preclude them from making any major acquisitions this offseason and beyond. But Arrieta has a 3.66 ERA, a 4.16 FIP and a 1.9 fWAR, which is tied with Zach Eflin. Given how Sanchez’s timeline may have been pushed back by an injury-shortened season, it leaves the Phillies to search for a No. 2 starter this offseason.
As mentioned, there have been individual starts where Arrieta has been dominant. The 32-year-old followed up a dominant start by Aaron Nola at Fenway Park on July 31 by going seven strong innings and allowing just one run. Six days later, he himself was dominant in the desert, as he allowed just three hits across eight shutout innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Even if it felt a bit unsustainable due to a low strikeout rate, Arrieta also posted 0.90 ERA in the month of May.
But that month of May was followed up with a 6.66 ERA in five starts in June. He was 0-3 with a 4.50 ERA in August. After losing the first game of a crucial doubleheader with the Washington Nationals Tuesday, the Phillies needed Arrieta to be a stopper in the night-cap of the game. Instead, he gave up three runs in five innings, before being lifted for a pinch-hitter. To call his season a mixed-bag would be a fair assessment.
Truth be told, the way Arrieta has pitched in 2018 – like a reliable No. 3 or No. 4 starter mostly, with some front-line flashes mixed in – is probably about what could have been reasonably expected from him coming into the campaign. Arrieta turned in one of the finest seasons in modern history for the Cubs in 2015, when he finished the season with a 1.77 ERA and a 7.3 fWAR. But that wasn’t the pitcher the Phillies paid for, because if he was still that, the Cubs never would have allowed him to leave. And while the Phillies may have hoped for a bit more from Arrieta, his contract certainly doesn’t look like a bust. If the Phillies were cash-strapped, perhaps his deal would be evaluated differently. But they aren’t, which is why they took a risk on Arrieta in the first place.
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