The Philadelphia Phillies have long been expected to add to their starting rotation this summer. Long on potential but short on proven commodities, everyone expected general manager Matt Klentak to sign or trade for a pitcher to give the youngsters an anchor and add another layer of augmentation to a rebuild that may soon end.
This winter's unusually slow free agent market worked to Klentak's advantage and on Sunday, he finally got his man. Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia reported shortly before 2 PM EDT that the Phillies had agreed in principle with former Chicago Cub Jake Arrieta, one of the top free agents left on the board, to a multi-year deal, pending a physical. USA Today's Bob Nightengale expanded on that, reporting that the deal is worth $75m over three years.
It's a fantastic move for the Phillies. The team can easily handle the dollar amounts given the ridiculous amount of payroll flexibility they've put together over the rebuild, and the relatively short contract insulates them from major financial drain if Arrieta were to break down.
What does this mean for Gabe Kapler & Co.? Let's look.
Still an ace?
The common assumption when talking about Arrieta is that he is a pitcher who had one insane stretch and has been in a significant decline ever since. Most fans who bought into that argument were most likely saying novenas to keep their front office from signing the 32-year-old. But as CBS Sports' Matt Snyder correctly points out, that groupthink doesn't exactly line up with the truth.
True, Arrieta is unlikely to get to the heights he did in 2015, when he went 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA, 0.865 WHIP, 236 strikeouts, and three shutouts. Over his final 20 starts that season he put up numbers you usually only see from a player from the create-a-player suite on a video game. He went 16-1 with a 0.96 ERA during that stretch. He easily won the NL Cy Young Award.
He's regressed back to the mean in the years since but has still been an impressive pitcher. He was 18-8 with a 3.10 ERA the next year. The first three months of the season saw his ERA hover around 4.50, and more than ever the assumption was he was done. But in July and August Arrieta righted things, going 7-2 with a 1.69 ERA and a .095 WHIP. He held opponents to a .183 batting average and striking out 60 batters in 69.2 innings. He injured his hamstring in his first start of September, but once he recuperated he made two starts in the postseason, giving up only one earned run in 10.2 innings and striking out 13.
That performance in October was the latest in a long line of great postseason starts. In nine postseason starts Arrieta is 5-3 with a 3.08 ERA and an 11.3 K/9 rate. He threw a five-hit shutout in the 2015 NL Wild Card game and in two starts in the 2016 World Series he gave up three runs and five hits over 11.1 innings, striking out 15. That kind of experience is a big plus to a team full of young talent like Philadelphia.
Add to that the excellent year he had for a sub-.500 team the year before his incredible breakout, and it's clear that Arrieta was already a good pitcher before 2015 and continued to be long after.
That doesn't mean there aren't some concerns. His ground ball rate dropped last year as did his velocity. He also gave up more hard contact than the year before. His success is heavily reliant on his mechanics. He throws across his body, which hides the ball longer and puts his pitches on an unusual plane as they head for the plate. But if his timing is off even slightly, it creates control problems and he'll get hit. But if he is on, the numbers say he's still one of the game's elite starters.
If he continues to pitch at a high level, Arrieta's signing could change the landscape of the National League wild card race.
There has been a lot of shifting in the NL this year. The Miami Marlins went from being a pitcher away from genuine contention to the laughingstock of the league. The St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants have retooled, but one bad break could send either of them tumbling. The Arizona Diamondbacks will have to figure out how to replace the production of JD Martinez. The Milwaukee Brewers have big questions in their starting rotation.
In short, the wild card race will be wide open. The Phillies were likely to take a step forward this year, but now Arrieta gives them an outside shot at contending. If he keeps pitching the way he did in Chicago, Aaron Nola continues to develop, and one of the other young pitchers takes the next step (looking at you, Vince Velasquez), the starting rotation starts looking scary. If the young core of position players is productive at the plate, the Phillies suddenly become a viable dark-horse candidate for a wild card spot.
Arrieta brings the experience of deep postseason runs with a well-run organization. He'll be a mentor to the Phils' young stable of starters and his work ethic will rub off on the entire team. Arrieta makes this team better in a myriad of ways, and while they are by no means playoff favorites at this point, the Phillies just got a lot more exciting—and are one big step closer to declaring their rebuild complete.