Is the $5.5 Million Gap Between Jake Arrieta and the Cubs Really a Big Deal?

Not long after I’d written about the (un)likelihood of an extension for Jake Arrieta being announced this offseason, word came down that he had filed for a $13 million 2016 salary via the arbitration process. The Cubs, on the other hand, came in at around $7.5 million, making for a difference of $5.5 million between the two sides. That chasm is wider than any other among those players who filed, thus raising an eyebrow here and there. But is it really that big a deal?

In short, no. Before I get into that, a little insight from Michael Cerami of Bleacher Nation (who I didn’t get the chance to officially meet at CubsCon, but who is doing some really good stuff for BN).

Now, if this case actually reaches arbitration, which I suspect it will not, the arbitrator will hear both sides argue for its proposed salary. Then, after encouraging an agreement one last time, he or she will ultimately choose one of the two proposed salaries. Never does an arbitrator pick a midpoint or negotiate an agreement for either party. So again, if it gets to that point, the arbitrator will have to choose. And given the season Arrieta just had, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the arbitrator select Arrieta’s proposal.

Which is one of many reasons why the Cubs won’t allow this to actually reach an arbitration hearing. A Theo Epstein-led front office has never gone to arbitration with a player [emphasis mine], and I wouldn’t expect that to change now.

The Cubs’ initial offer is a bit low given the season Arrieta just had, but it is only his second time through arbitration and they have to keep future negotiations in perspective. For what it’s worth, the midpoint between the two salaries, $10.25M, is almost exactly what MLBTR projected ($10.4M). At this point, something in $10.5M-$11M range is where I expect things to land for 2016. A two-year deal, which would cover both of Arrieta’s remaining arbitration years, is possible, but I wouldn’t count on an extension beyond that right now.

It’s important to note the process baseball uses for salary arbitration and also to understand the parties involved. As I highlighted in the excerpt above, Epstein isn’t a guy who lets the string play all the way out in these matters. And while Jake Arrieta is represented by the notoriously sharkalicious Scott Boras, we’re talking about a guy who is anything but a boat-rocker. That’s not to say he’s willing to be had on the cheap, just that I think he’ll be amenable to something lower than his filing.

And the thing is, even what appears to be a low-ball offer from the Cubs is a little more than double the $3.63 million he earned in 2015. While anything less than $20 million seems like a steal for a guy whose got a Cy Young in his trophy case, we also need to realize that this is all part of the process. Arrieta’s salary relative to other aces seems paltry, but it’s an imperfect comparison at best given the way MLB contracts work.

I’m not arguing in favor of the suppression of player contracts, though it’s still pretty crazy to me that a mid-rotation pitcher is worth $15+ million in today’s market. Given that cost, even Arrieta’s filing would make him an absolute steal. But it doesn’t make any sense for teams to just go out and hand market-value contracts to guys who are still in their arbitration years. Talk about screwing up the system and removing all leverage from other teams.

Yes, the gap between the Cubs and Arrieta seems pretty large, but I think they’re going to be able to sit down and hammer out something in the $10-11 million range that keeps everyone happy. Of course, things will get interesting once again next season when the pitcher must once again file for a raise. And that’s the point at which I think he and the Cubs can talk a little more seriously about an extension, given that they’ll be buying out an arb year and securing his future for several years thereafter.

So while it might seem like a big deal — again, the difference in filings is almost $2 million more than Arrieta’s total salary in 2015 — it’s really anything but. This is pretty much business as usual and should continue to be so for all parties. I can’t imagine this creating any acrimony and I don’t believe it will have any ill effects on potential long-term negotiations either. It just feels bigger due to Arrieta’s newfound ace status and the fact that he’s the only player who’s not yet settled his 2016 payday.

And even though he won’t end up with Zack Greinke money, Arrieta should pull down enough to buy a better back-hair trimmer.

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