The thing about hoping to land a top free agent starting pitcher on a steal-of-a-deal later in the offseason is that the market always has a floor. Eventually, if that price tag sinks low enough, there are other sharks circling and ready to bite.
The Cubs have reportedly sought to sign Arrieta to a shorter-term (four years), high-dollar ($110 million) deal, but they aren’t the only team looking to make that kind of arrangement. Per Gordon Wittenmyer’s sources, at least five other teams – two of them being the Cubs’ Central rivals in St. Louis and Milwaukee – have made three or four-year offers to Arrieta at this point, each angling toward the same kind of short-term, high-AAV approach.
Those other three teams? It’s difficult to guess, given the nature of this offseason – are the Dodgers involved, if they can lower their payroll a little more? ditto Yankees? are the Phillies looking to land a big arm now as they start the process of turning the corner? – but it’s fair to anticipate that some of the same teams the Cubs are dueling for Darvish are in the mix (that would include the Astros, Twins, and Rangers).
We came into this offseason expecting that Arrieta would seek upwards of six to seven years on his first free agent contract, after such a successful run with the Cubs, and entering his age 32 season. At this point, Arrieta landing seven years would be a shock, however, and five years may very well be the longest deal available when all is said and done.
For the Cubs, you would be concerned not only about the length of an Arrieta deal (he was highly effective last year after adjusting to a significant loss of velocity, but will that continue into his mid-30s?), but also the average annual value. The Cubs are looking to stay under the luxury tax cap this season, and a huge AAV on Arrieta could pose problems if the Cubs also look to add a reliever, and/or make in-season additions.
As we’ve discussed, though, the Cubs may well be anticipating topping the luxury tax next year (given that massive free agent class coming), so the AAV concern may very well mostly be a 2018 thing.
In the end, it just feels like some other team is going to be willing to go to that five or six-year level, whereas the Cubs likely will not. I am still expecting that Arrieta will be departing the Cubs this offseason, but so long as every interested team is still looking to get a short-term, relative bargain, the Cubs will be right there.