Jake Arrieta will be a free agent in the fall, and it might be perfect timing. With another star-caliber season, the Chicago Cubs ace could be the best free agent and the best positioned in an era when Major League Baseball has never been more profitable and teams have never had so much cash.
But there are also gathering conditions in the free agent forecast that might work against Arrieta and Texas Rangers righty Yu Darvish, who are expected to be the best free-agent pitchers — with Masahiro Tanaka perhaps joining the market, as he can opt out of his contract with the New York Yankees in the fall.
An industry increasingly shaped by analytic discipline got a high-profile reminder about the inherent risk in big-money signings of pitchers last week when David Price's elbow problem forced him off the field, indefinitely. As one general manager acknowledged, teams that invest a six- or seven-year deal in a pitcher when he’s about 30 years old go into the contract expecting regression. The reasonable hope is that the pitcher excels in the first three years of the contract, is at least decent in Years 4 and 5, with a possible performance collapse in Year 6 and Year 7.
The Boston Red Sox gave Price the most money ever for a pitcher, $217 million over seven years, when he was 30 years old. He had a good but not great first year in 2016, leading the American League in innings. But now with the uncertainty over Price's elbow, the Red Sox don't know what they'll get out of him in Years 2 and 3, when he would have theoretically been at his best for Boston, before the inevitable decline would be expected to begin. Price's situation serves as a fresh affirmation of the general belief in the risk-averse analytics community that the outsized deals for older free agent pitchers are mostly disasters.
Think about the huge contracts doled out to pitchers over the winter of 2015-16, plus Stephen Strasburg. If you applied truth serum to the owners and front offices involved, you might tap into some deep wells of regret.
If the Red Sox had the opportunity today, would they love to get out of their deal with Price? Sure.
Would Arizona like to get out of its six-year, $206.5 million contract with Zack Greinke? That would absolutely be a yes, given the incredible space he takes up in their budget.
Jordan Zimmermann got a five-year, $110 million from Detroit. Would the Tigers do the same deal again today? No.
Johnny Cueto got six years and $130 million from the Giants. For San Francisco: So far, so good. Cueto had a 2.79 ERA in 2016, throwing 219⅔ innings.
The Nationals worked out a $175 million contract with Strasburg last spring, and he missed a couple of months with arm trouble. Would the Nationals have signed that deal this offseason? Maybe not, because of the injury risk.
Darvish will be 31 next spring. Tanaka will be 29, and is pitching with a partially torn elbow ligament. Arrieta will be 32 years old at the start of the 2018 season, a pitcher in phenomenal condition.
Arrieta recently mentioned to reporters that history shows that there is always one or two teams willing to take the plunge, and he is 100 percent right about this. The Diamondbacks' surprising entrance into the Greinke sweepstakes is a classic example.
But the industry is changing. Through the winter of 2016-17, teams showed remarkable discipline through what was perceived to be a weaker free agent class. This is how the Yankees snagged National League home run champion Chris Carter for $3.5 million; and how Mike Napoli, who might've expected a two-year deal after bashing 34 homers for the Indians last season, settled for a one-year, $6 million contract with the Rangers. Only one free agent got a deal over $100 million, as Yoenis Cespedes signed a four-year, $110 million contract with the Mets.
Analytics continue to move teams toward specialization, and less and less is expected of starting pitchers. More and more, front offices would rather have the ball turned over to a reliever than to expose a starting pitcher to an opposing lineup for a third or fourth time. In 2016, 15 pitchers reached 200 innings. In the 2000 season, 36 pitchers hit that mark.
Teams are veering away from the financial jeopardy associated with age and injury history. And as front offices weigh whether to pursue the most expensive free agents, the analysts can cite that long list of big-money deals gone bad.
Nobody knows Price better than Los Angeles Dodgers president Andrew Friedman. He drafted Price for the Tampa Bay Rays, he can testify first-hand how much of a leader Price is and he saw Price win a Cy Young Award. So it was telling to Friedman’s peers when he kept the Dodgers out of the highest bidding for the left-hander. The respected front office of the Cubs coveted Price, as well, but when the bidding spiraled upward, the Cubs folded.
But the money is available. With the new collective bargaining agreement in place, one longtime agent points out, "You've got teams with a lot of money. There's always somebody willing to spend."
The owners have always been the great X factor in the pursuit of free agents, with the Yankees' George Steinbrenner and Tigers' Mike Ilitch and others sometimes forging ahead in the past against the advice of their front office employees. The Yankees’ front office recommended that the team pass on Alex Rodriguez after he opted out of his contract in the fall of 2007, but the Steinbrenners exercised their prerogative and agreed to a $275 million deal anyway. Angels owner Arte Moreno negotiated lightning-strikes deals with Albert Pujols for $240 million and Josh Hamilton for $125 million.
But this sort of thing seems to be happening less and less, with owners following their executives, and the executives adhering to the data and the risk charts, and being more conservative in their investments in free agents.
Great starting pitchers like Arrieta aren't as readily available as corner infield and corner outfield sluggers, and Arrieta and Darvish will be well-compensated. But it remains to be seen if either can work upstream against the river of information that suggests long-terms deals for pitchers are treacherous business and if either can approach the record-setting deals of Price and Greinke.