I think it was probably because of Alec Mills’ no-hitter that I got the future of the Chicago Cubs rotation on the brain earlier this week. Then you have all the Jon Lester talk yesterday and today, and even as we’re primarily focusing on 2020, it’s worming itself into my head a bit.
In default mode, I’ve been thinking that the Cubs have two spots locked down for 2021 (Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks), and three available openings for internal pitchers to win, and/or external additions to fill. I don’t think the Cubs are going to spend aggressively in free agency this year because of the revenue crush, but I *DO* think lots of teams will be operating that same way, so there will likely be a whole lot of genuinely interesting pitchers available in free agency that’ll cost a lot less on shorter-term deals than usual. Maybe that means the Cubs hang onto Jon Lester on a cheap short-term deal, maybe not. Either way, you can’t presume he’ll be back.
So, anyway, like I said, the Mills no-hitter had me thinking about where I place his future in the planning process. Not that I’m saying one great outing – or two, as that’s actually what he did last week – changes your conception of a guy as “in the rotation next year” or not, but I think Mills’ performance this year at least leaves him available as a strong internal option. He’s under control, so he’s not going anywhere, and he’s certainly good enough in a swing capacity that he’s making the team.
Am I saying the Cubs have three starters locked in for next year? No. But am I saying the Cubs may not target more than two external pitching additions, and that’s just fine? Yeah. I think between Mills, Adbert Alzolay, Tyson Miller, Colin Rea, Cory Abbott – and dare I say Brailyn Marquez? – you’re likely going to be able to ably fill your final starter spot in an environment where teams are likely going to be pinching pennies. That is to say, you might have to fill a rotation spot internally among a group like that, and if Mills is that guy, you could do a lot worse.
This is a bit of a weird stream of consciousness, but thinking on all this stuff got me started on the process of thinking about interesting low-cost options that’ll be on the free agent market. I’m not ready to really dive in and start blasting out tons of names – in large part because I think we’re gonna see a tidal wave of really solid pitchers get non-tendered – but instead, my mind just kinda drifted to a guy that (1) I know is gonna be available, (2) I know is gonna be low-cost, and (3) I know I’d love to see back in a Cubs uniform (at least in the abstract). The Alec Mills no-hitter connection, again, probably is part of the reason I had another Cubs no-hitter guy on the brain.
The guy I started thinking about when I was casually mulling this topic is Jake Arrieta.
The 34-year-old former Cubs Cy Young winner headed off to join the Phillies a few years ago on a complex deal that, for all intents and purposes, we can now consider a three-year contract that ends after this season. We knew and could see the warning signs in Arrieta’s decline by 2016-17 with the Cubs, and that’s why – despite the pangs of the heart – I was OK with the Cubs opting to sign Yu Darvish at that time instead of Arrieta. But I did kinda always have it in my head that maybe, in the intervening years, he’d find a way to reform himself a bit as a post-velocity, post-complex-delivery type, and then come back to the Cubs as a useful 4th/5th starter on a reasonable short-term deal.
With the schedule this year keeping your team entirely within your division and the corresponding AL division, my exposure to Arrieta’s season has been limited, so I started poking around to see if maybe he actually was showing signs of successfully pitching without premium velocity and without the ability to perfectly repeat the mechanics of his crossfire delivery as he gets older.
Unfortunately, that’s really not been the case:
As you can see, Arrieta’s regression has continued at a very steady and alarming pace since joining the Phillies. His strikeout rate keeps falling, his walk rate keeps climbing, his barrel rate is rocketing up, his exit velocity has climbed, and on and on.
To put his performance this year in a broader context, you can see where his percentiles rank at Statcast, and it’s so very ugly:
Arrieta, sadly, has pretty clearly been a bottom tier pitcher in baseball this year, and it’s not like it came out of nowhere. It’s been a process of decline.
Worse, in his start this week, this happened:
Jake Arrieta may have badly hurt his hamstring. He walked off the field after being in a lot of pain pic.twitter.com/EzCyLRsrMu
— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) September 16, 2020
It’s a hamstring strain for Arrieta, whose regular season is now over, and who might not return for the postseason. Essentially, all the information is now in for his free agent voyage, and it isn’t pretty.
So, in the end, then, what’s to make of this? Well, for one thing, I’m not so sure Arrieta gets a guaranteed contract in this environment. That, in turn, means that if he’s planning to continue his career, it might take him choosing a minor league deal with a team where he feels he has the best chance of winning a rotation job. Maybe that could be the Cubs if they feel like they know something particular about Arrieta that they could help with? It’s not like they haven’t had a lot of success with reclamation pitchers before (remember, most reclamation pitchers fail because they are already down! – so the fact that the Cubs have had SOME success is actually a lot, relatively speaking).
I guess I went into this hoping I’d see some signs that Arrieta could be a nice, feel-good, buy-low option for the Cubs after the season, given my expectation that they’re going to be looking at a lot of guys like that.
But after this quick look, I can’t say it’s apparent that Arrieta would be an initial target when the field of possible arms is going to be so large. A minor league deal with a shot in Spring Training? Yeah, I mean, of course you’d always be open to that. I suppose it remains to be seen what Arrieta’s plans will be.
If Arrieta is willing to consider a bullpen role, does he make sense for that kind of shot in the dark? Well, I’m not sure he does. Part of what made Arrieta effective was his ability to mix and match a lot of useable pitches, combined with a really challenging delivery for batters. But if he’s lost effectiveness on the pitches and the delivery, I don’t know that the kind of stuff you try to do with a relief transition would work for him (removing a couple pitches, trying to get a bump in velocity). This is all so speculative and would require much more digging in. At the moment, I strongly suspect Arrieta will be aiming to find a rotation job.
In the meantime, we’ll keep on remembering the years Arrieta spent with the Cubs extremely fondly. The dude was one of the best starting pitchers the Cubs have ever had.