Arrieta, Cubs at Amicable Impasse in Extension Talks

Both the Cubs and Jake Arrieta want the ace pitcher to stay in Chicago, that much is not in question. What remains an obstacle to an extension, however, is the gulf that exists between the two sides when it comes to the length of a new contract.

“Where we left it was they wanted to extend me for a shorter period of time than we would like,” Arrieta shared with the media Tuesday. “Plain and simple, I want to stay here for six or seven years, and that’s it. If I’m going to sign a deal, that’s kind of the neighborhood we need to be in.

“Obviously, there has to be a compromise on both sides. I’m getting to the point where I’m close to being a free agent. I know the deals that have been offered to other players in similar situations.”

Theo Epstein echoed some of those same thoughts, particularly the idea of meeting in the middle.

“Sometimes negotiations are about empathy,” the Cubs exec offered. “Seeing things from the other party’s perspective and understanding things better.”

This isn’t necessarily about spouting meaningless platitudes though. I read this as Arrieta and Epstein sending messages to one another rather than simply providing insight into their own individual desires. Each seems to be saying, “Hey, man, try to see things through our eyes.” At this point, an extension may come down to which side blinks first, which, with at least two more years of team control, could this turn into quite a staring contest.

No hard figures have been leaked, but it doesn’t really seem on the surface that the two sides are really all that far apart.

Then again, you look at the contracts top-level aces like Max Scherzer (seven years, $210 million) and David Price (seven years, $217 million) have gotten and you see how time alone might not be the big sticking point. Both pitchers signed their monster deals heading into their age-30 seasons after six very productive campaigns. While Arrieta just celebrated his own 30th birthday, his track record hasn’t been quite as long or consistent as that pair.

It’s understandable that the Cubs might want to see their ace post another solid season before ponying up, but Arrieta would prefer to cash in before he puts too much more distance between himself and that ballyhooed b-day. At first glance, it might seem that another year would help the two sides bridge the gap; Arrieta will be older and the desired contract length could shrink. Then again, Dave Stewart might have thrown a monkey wrench in that logic when he signed 32-year-old Zack Greinke $206.5 million over six years.

Those are some big numbers for a guy who doesn’t seem to be a big fan of them.

I’m not privy to any inside information and I want to make it abundantly clear that any figures I throw out here are going to be pure speculation. To that end, I can’t see the Cubs getting anywhere near the average annual value of the pacts listed above. In fact, I’d be surprised to see them going bigger than $25 million AAV, which would come out to $125 million if Nightengale’s report of five years is correct (and I believe it is, inasmuch as something absent any real nuance can be). That’s a far cry from other elite pitchers, but there’s a little added value in buying out that last year of arbitration.

Were the Cubs to push the offer out to Arrieta’s preference of seven years, we’d be looking at a deal of around $175 million. That’s still significantly less than where market value currently sits, but we’ve also seen several players choosing to come to Chicago at a bit of a discounted rate. I believe Arrieta would take the security of such a deal, but I don’t believe the Cubs are willing to push themselves into that long a commitment.

Unless…hmm, yes, maybe that could work. Arrieta said “six or seven years” and Nightengale said the ace wanted “at least 7,” so we’ll go with seven as the number. But if we figure that’s the term length for a deal that begins this season, we can dial things back a year if the sides are still at an impasse by the time Arrieta takes the bump in Anaheim on April 4. Logic would tell us that that six years then becomes a more reasonable target to embrace at that point.

Even then, though, the Cubs are reportedly unwilling to go beyond five years, which is where all that talk of empathy and compromise comes in. The Cubs might consider showing empathy for Arrieta’s desire for a longer deal by front-loading the offer and providing an opt-out after, say, four years. Jake gets the security of guaranteed time and the Cubs insulate themselves against the potential for decreased performance. We saw the value of such a strategy with Jason Heyward’s offseason deal.

Or perhaps Arrieta is willing to compromise by agreeing to secure the club’s interests against the diminution of his skills through performance-based vesting options. When Jon Lester signed what was then the club’s biggest-ever free agent deal prior to the 2015 season, he accepted such an offer. The $25 million option for the seventh year of his contract in 2021 will only kick in if he reaches either 200 innings pitched in 2020 or a combined total of 400 in 2019 and 2020. If he fails to meet those thresholds, he’ll receive a $10 million buyout.

It wouldn’t surprise me a bit to hear that various iterations of both scenarios are on the table, though I’d guess Arrieta’s camp is more amenable to something closer to the latter. Opt-outs are nice, but they’re generally more attractive to a guy who’s heading into his prime. Given Arrieta’s age, desire to stay in Chicago, and confidence in his abilities, it makes more sense that he’d want something similar to Lester’s deal. Perhaps the 5/$125M listed above with a sixth year at $30 million ($12M buyout). Again, that’s the high end, but I’m really just spitballing here.

If it seems contradictory or just plain wrong that I’m projecting contract figures for Arrieta that are barely above the AAV Lester got, let’s take a moment to re-examine the circumstances. First, Lester was a free agent and had no shortage of suitors. And it wasn’t the 97-win Cubs wooing him, but a team that had averaged 93 losses over the previous five seasons. Early adopters are usually the ones paying extra for new technology, but in this case it was the Cubs who had to pay a premium to get Lester to buy in to what they were building.

Now, however, the Cubs are the ones holding the cards. Or is it the Cards? Either way. Now that we’ve established all that, where does it leave things?

Both sides have been clear that there has been no deadline set for a deal and that no one’s going to rush to get something done. They also appear to be on the same page when it comes to the transparency of the situation. For his part, Arrieta has come across as incredibly pragmatic and patient, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to settle for just anything.

“Everyone knows I want to stay in Chicago,” he said. “But it’s got to be the right deal.”

It’s understandable if some fans get a little anxious when they hear things like that, familiar as they are with the idea of a Cy Young winner being represented by Scott Boras trying to negotiate a deal to stay in Chicago. When talks between the Cubs and Greg Maddux broke down, though, both sides pointed fingers and accused the other of failing to act in good faith. But this isn’t 1992 and Larry Himes isn’t in the front office any longer. Heck, it’s not even last year, when Boras accused the Cubs of committing the apogee of wrongs and of embodying ersatz baseball.

All that is to say no one is hiding the ball, as Epstein put it. It helps that there’s a very big, very real goal before them that everyone sees as more important than an extension for Jake Arrieta. Not that a new deal isn’t a concern, just that a World Series is kinda-sorta the real focal point heading into this season. The ability to set his mind on the task at hand is something that served Arrieta well in 2015, and I can’t imagine this issue giving him any more trouble than Pirates fans’ coordinated chants during the Wild Card game.

“Maybe the talks will provide a foundation for something to get done down the road,” Epstein opined. “Jake has an extremely professional approach to this issue, with our support, I should say. As soon as he got to Spring Training, his biggest priority is his 24 teammates and winning as many games as he can. That’s no surprise to us. He’s not thinking about himself, he’s thinking about the team.”

“The other 24 guys in the clubhouse are more important than my contract,” Arrieta echoed. “That will always stay the same. Financially, I’ll be fine moving forward regardless of a big contract extension. Financially, it’s not on the front of my mind. My family will be fine either way. We’ll talk about it when we talk about it. Once April is here, I’d like to put it on the back burner for a while.”

“I love my teammates, and I love Chicago. Those are more important than the contract extension for me.”

Arrieta will take the mound against the Cleveland Indians on Wednesday in his first action of of the spring. I always say that you can’t take Spring Training too seriously, but there’s just something about seeing your ace out there that carries a little more weight. It’ll also be nice to have something to write about him that doesn’t include potential contract figures.

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