If you missed it in the afternoon yesterday – and didn’t watch the game against the Reds – Carlos Villanueva is back in the bullpen for the Cubs. He was brought in as a swing man, and that’s precisely what he’s done well for the Cubs. Having a guy like that is very valuable, and I’m glad the Cubs have him for 2014, as well.
On the flip side of that move back into the bullpen for Villanueva is the man coming up to take his spot in the rotation: Jake Arrieta. The 27-year-old righty, whom the Cubs acquired from Baltimore in the Scott Feldman trade, has been throwing relatively well at Iowa (3.56 ERA, 11.6 K/9, but 1.582 WHIP) and had a nice spot-start in the July 30 doubleheader against the Brewers. He was acquired with an eye toward being a possible rotation piece in 2014, and now the Cubs will give him a six-week audition.
The stuff has always been impressive, and Arrieta was long a top prospect with the Orioles. He had trouble harnessing that stuff consistently in the bigs, and saw his ERA degrade over the years to the point where it was over 5 in 2011, over 6 in 2012, and over 7 in the early part of 2013. The peripherals and advanced stats were better than that, but we can’t ignore that the results, so far, haven’t been where you’d want them to be. He’ll get to work with pitching coach Chris Bosio, who has seemed to do incredible things for a number of Cubs pitchers, and I’m excited about the possibilities. (In his podcast appearance with Keith Law, Cubs VP of Scouting and Player Development noted, specifically, that he was very “bullish” on Arrieta.)
For his part, Dale Sveum couched the timing of the call-up in terms of Matt Guerrier going down and the Cubs needing to replace his spot in the pen, and the desire to see Chris Rusin continue to get starts.
While I think that’s legitimate, we should also note that there are service time implications in Arrieta coming up to stay now, as opposed to immediately after he was traded. Coming into the season, Arrieta had two years and 66 days of service time. If he’d spent the full year in the big leagues this year, he would have gone well over the three years required to qualify for arbitration (a “year” of service time is 172 days), and then free agency after the 2016 season. Arrieta did not spend the full year in the bigs, however, as the Orioles sent him down in late April, before calling him back up in mid-May. He was sent down a few days after that, and then called back up for a few more days in June. He was sent back down, and then traded to the Cubs.
If my counting skillz are what they were back in elementary school, I’ve got Arrieta accumulating 29 days of big league service time with the Orioles this year. That puts his total at two years and 95 days before being traded to the Cubs. Had Arrieta immediately been inserted into the rotation with the Cubs following the July 2 trade, he would have added another 89 days of service time, which would have taken him over the 172-game threshold, and he would have completed his third full year before the offseason (triggering arbitration and only three more years before free agency).
If Arrieta stays up the rest of the way starting Friday, however, he will reach only two years and 141 days of big league service time by the end of this year (an additional 45 days with the Cubs, plus adding one more day for the game on July 30th he pitched with the Cubs). That means, even if Arrieta sticks with the big club the rest of the way and then for years to come, he will not reach free agency until after 2017 (because he won’t have reached six full years of service time until then).
Arbitration is going to be a different story, however, because, with two years and 141 days of service time, Arrieta is very likely to qualify for Super Two status. That status, granted to the top 22% (in terms of service time) of players with more than two years of service time but less than three years, will send Arrieta to arbitration for the first time after this season (and then for three more go-arounds in the three years thereafter). Before the latest CBA, which bumped the cutoff to 22% from 17%, Arrieta might not have qualified for Super Two – the cutoff, historically, has been around two years and 130 to 140 days. But, if this past year’s post-CBA cutoff is any guide, Arrieta is almost certain to qualify (the cutoff was just two years and 119 days).
Had the Cubs kept Arrieta down until early September, they could have tried to avoid Super Two status. But they might believe seeing him for a longer stretch at the big league level (and having him work with the coaching staff there) is more valuable than the mere possibility of paying more money down the road. Given his up and down track record, Arrieta isn’t a lock to stay with the Cubs as a dominant starter for the next four years, so you’re a lot less worried about arbitration raises at this point. It’s nice to have ensured the extra year of control, though – just in case.
In the end, I tend to think that the timing of Arrieta’s call-up really is just about giving him enough time at the big league level for the Cubs to get a legitimate look. I think, given Arrieta’s particular situation, the Cubs probably weren’t terribly worried about the prospect of Super Two status (though it could have saved them a million or two heading into 2014, depending on how much Arrieta now makes in his first arbitration year, which will come in 2014 instead of 2015). I suspect they did like the idea of him adjusting a little bit down at Iowa after the trade, conveniently ensuring the Cubs that extra year of control (which could be enormously valuable if Arrieta finally breaks out). Generally, though, I don’t think there were a whole lot of service time games being played. Service time issues may have been a peripheral consideration in Arrieta’s path, but if they were the primary factor, we probably wouldn’t have seen him until September. As it is, he’s coming up tomorrow, and I believe the Cubs really do just want to give Arrieta a long look – which might be the most valuable decision of all.
UPDATE: A thoughtful tipster who would be in a position to know points me in the direction of an underdiscussed (indeed, I’ve never seen anyone discuss it) clause in the Super Two provision of the CBA: “In addition, a Player with at least two but less than three years of Major League service shall be eligible for salary arbitration if: (a) he has accumulated at least 86 days of service during the immediately preceding season; and (b)he ranks in the top 22% (rounded to the nearest whole number) in total service in the class of Players who have at least two but less than three years of Major League service, however accumulated, but with at least 86 days of service accumulated during the immediately preceding season.” (emphasis mine) By that language, Arrieta would not qualify for Super Two status, even if he would fall into that top 22% group, because he will have accumulated just 75/76 days of Major League service time this year. The timing of Arrieta’s call-up makes even more sense now, and will ensure the Cubs both an additional year of control, as well as avoiding Super Two status. It’s a bit of tough luck for Arrieta, but a savvy – and completely justifiable for non-financial reasons – move by the Cubs.
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