Come on, baseball.
Your offseason should be sponsored by Ambien, your hot stove faulty enough to check the warranty, your continued absence a shrewd way to make every seamhead's heart grow fonder.
Winter misses you. Sports fans want you. Chicago needs you – especially on the North Side.
Only six weeks remain till spring training and the Cubs still lack a closer and a front-line starter to fill out their pitching rotation. Until they address those two spots more adequately, the team that has played in three straight National League Championship Series realistically cannot be considered a serious contender to return for a fourth.
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That made Wednesday's USA Today nugget about the Cubs' latest offer to starting pitcher Jake Arrieta all the more intriguing. Bob Nightengale reported the Cubs would be willing to bring back Arrieta on a four-year, $110 million contract, the first specific leak about negotiations that publicly have included little more than agent Scott Boras' carnival barking.
First reaction: Hmmmmmmm. Interesting.
Second reaction: A deal under those terms would allow both sides to salvage something out of this coldest of winters for Cubs fans.
Those proposed details change the entire context of the Arrieta discussion. Since Boras floated the ridiculous notion of a $200 million contract over at least six years for Arrieta at the winter meetings, it has been easy to disqualify the Cubs from the bidding. A sizable six-year investment for a pitcher who turns 32 in March sounded outrageous then, and still does now. The Cubs love living in "Playoffville" – the place Boras boasted Arrieta would take teams – but not at those prices.
If the Cubs were going to invest between $125 million and $150 million in a top-of-the-rotation starter, Yu Darvish made more sense. Darvish still does, all things being equal. While Arrieta experienced dips in velocity and strikeouts that coincided with increases in earned-run average and WHIP, the 31-year-old Darvish struck out 209 hitters in 186 2/3 innings in his first full season after Tommy John surgery in 2015. If Darvish were willing to agree to the same four-year contract terms as Arrieta, the Cubs would be better off signing the Japanese star whose ceiling projects higher at this stage of their respective careers.
But, for whatever reason, the Cubs and Darvish have yet to strike an agreement after team President Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer visited the pitcher in Dallas in December. Signing Darvish would give the Cubs one of the best rotations in the National League, good enough to maintain legitimate World Series hopes. But re-signing Arrieta also would keep those same goals intact, which is why the Cubs stayed engaged with the bearded one since free agency began.
The market has slowed just as Epstein and Hoyer predicted, so much so that Arrieta appears within the Cubs' reach – if reports are accurate. The hang-up with Arrieta always revolved around the length of the contract more than the money. Any team that signs a pitcher older than 30 to a deal longer than four years asks for trouble. When the Cubs signed 30-year-old Jon Lester to a six-year, $155 million contract before the 2015 season, they bucked convention to establish credibility for a team on the way up – an exception to the rule. The perennial winners now have the luxury of avoiding such long-term risks with veteran starting pitchers, particularly with so many young core position players who eventually will need to be locked up contractually.
As for the money, the Cubs under Chairman Tom Ricketts have made clear they will spend whatever is necessary in the name of winning, especially for a major contributor such as Arrieta who has played a starring role in the historic rise. Paying Arrieta an average of $27.5 million over the life of the four-year contract would tie him with Lester as baseball's fifth-highest paid pitcher and provide generational wealth. Settling for a four-year commitment makes overpaying Arrieta – a reality of free agency – worth the exorbitant salary.
The Cubs can't afford to miss out on Darvish and Arrieta. They must sign one or the other before spring training for anyone to feel good about their ability to compete with the Dodgers and the Nationals. They certainly can't stand to lose Arrieta to the Cardinals, their rival and one of the teams linked to the right-hander.
Objectively, this has been a lackluster offseason for a Cubs team that sets such high standards. They swung and missed on Japanese star Shohei Ohtani and reportedly flirted with trade proposals for Orioles third baseman Manny Machado and Rays pitcher Chris Archer. They can go to the Cubs Convention next week and celebrate the signings of starter Tyler Chatwood and relievers Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek, but, once the applause stops, a team hoping to repeat in the NL Central still could have holes at closer and the top of the rotation. They have yet to replace Arrieta and Wade Davis, their 2017 MVP whose three-year, $52 million sounds too expensive until the Cubs' first blown save.
Davis and first baseman Carlos Santana with the Phillies are the only two players to sign a free-agent contract worth more than $50 million. Just nine position players have signed free-agent contracts, leaving 136 free agents still on the loose.
That includes Arrieta, a big squirrel the Cubs suddenly still have reason to chase.
ABOUT THE WRITER
David Haugh is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.