The Cubs have been biding their time this winter and kind of waiting for the top end of the starting pitching market to come down, but there was a sense that they could maybe make a big splash here soon. After all, we’re more than a week into January and a vast majority of free agents are still very much free — from employment, that is — with Cubs Convention is right around the corner. What better time than now to make a move?
Well, as far as the Cubs are concerned, the best time might actually be next week. Or early February. Or after spring training starts. Whether you call it collusion or frugality or an awakening of baseball’s collective galaxy brain (which separate from, but very much tied to, the collective bargaining agreement), teams simply aren’t throwing out either the money or years required to land the top players.
There are some legitimate concerns regarding the stricter penalties imposed by the new CBA, the specters of which have scared even the free-spending Dodgers and Yankees into taking unprecedented measures to get under the limit. Then you’ve got the other end of the spectrum, which sees teams of various market sizes looking to flat-out shed salary in an effort to position themselves for Cubs-like rebuilds.
But enough of that. You didn’t come here for a lesson in the various nuances of the market and I’m not here to deliver one. If it’s an impassioned dive into the forces impacting MLB’s labor structure you seek, I’d suggest Zack Moser’s recent piece over at BP Wrigleyville. For the purposes of this post, however, we’re going to strip away most of the larger causal stuff.
What we’re left with is the reality that the Cubs find themselves waiting on the respective markets for Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, and Alex Cobb to drop. That’s not new. Nor is the idea that those players’ agents [*cough* Scott Boras *cough*] are happy to play their own waiting game. Ken Rosenthal has a little more on that in the Around the Horn section of his latest column for The Athletic (subscription), which gives some insight into Arrieta in particular.
Basically, Rosenthal is reinforcing the notion that the Cubs aren’t going to extend themselves beyond their comfort level when it comes to filling out the rotation. He lumps all three aforementioned pitchers into that category, writing that the Cubs would pursue “lesser pitchers” should their main targets not work out. Though he doesn’t come right out and say it, Rosenthal also confirms what we’ve already heard in terms of the Cubs’ reluctance to offer more than four years to anyone.
And it’s not just the Cubs, as we’ve seen from all the (non-)offers this winter. Even if teams are willing to put forth otherwise adequate numbers from an average annual value standpoint, it’s the number of years on the deals that are causing the impasse. Rosenthal cites two different scenarios for potential Arrieta deals, neither of which goes beyond four years.
…but what if the Phillies tried to entice Arrieta with an offer of say, three years, $90 million? Arrieta’s agent, Scott Boras, is not going to settle for such a deal in early January. But an increasing number of executives believe that in a depressed market, unexpected opportunities might emerge.
Might Arrieta return on a four-year deal at a high average annual value — say, $28 million per year? See the above item on the Phillies. Boras would not accept such a deal without exhausting other options first.
Again, this is more or less exactly what we’ve been saying here for the last month or so. But the fact that we’ve been saying it since mid-December with literally no change in the market or our rhetoric means that we could still be sitting here having the same discussion as we scroll Twitter for pictures of pitchers and catchers reporting to camp. I know Cubs fans have come to expect shiny new toys at Cubs Convention, but the need to appease the restless crowd with a big name is long gone.
I still get a sense that it’s Cobb who will come down first from an asking price that is already much lower than those of his colleagues in this incongruous mix. His camp has denied the reports of an ask of $20 million AAV and the Cubs have said that his desire for more than the $42 million they offered him over three years was not the catalyst for their pursuits of Darvish and Arrieta.
If it’s a matter of having a solid pitcher locked up at a palatable cost or waiting until February 14 to see if Arrieta will be their Valentine, I believe the Cubs go with the former. Which means we’ll find out Friday evening that the Cubs have signed Arrieta. And Darvish. And that they’ve traded for Manny Machado using only low-level prospects no one’s ever heard of.
It’s even possible MLB will research past trades and rule that Josh Donaldson, Chris Archer, and DJ LeMahieu should all still be in the Cubs organization. Okay, you got me, there’s no way they get Machado for no-names.
Anyway, the point is that we may yet be waiting a while to hear anything of note when it comes to breaking up this massive free-agent fatberg.