It has been widely assumed that Jake Arrieta's days with the Chicago Cubs were done. With agent Scott Boras at the helm asking for at least 200 million dollars to sign the TCU product, any chance of a needed hometown discount seemed a mere pipe dream. Meanwhile the attentions of Cubs management seemed to be directed at another free agent starting pitcher, Yu Darvish. In fact, Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein flew to Dallas last month to meet the Japanese hurler in person.
The lack of free agent activity this year appears to have driven down Arrieta's asking price. Bob Nightengale (whose rumors require a prodigious grain of salt) reports the Cubs have offered a 4 year deal to Jake in the range 110 million dollars. The more reliable Bruce Levine of CBS sports also reports the Cubs renewed interest in the 2015 Cy Young winner. Suddenly a reunion in the Windy City doesn't seem impossible.
Naturally these rumors have triggered a raging debate among Cubs fans over which of the free agent starters they should sign. I'm here to argue the right choice is in fact Yu Darvish. Full disclosure: I have been pushing for Darvish to the Cubs since 2011 when he came over from Japan. I can't take credit for being the driver of this bandwagon however, as our own Mike Banghart has been on board since 2010.
Both pitchers are 31 years old, with Arrieta a few months older. Both are quite large, over 6'4'' and 220 pounds, Darvish being an inch taller and Jake 5 pounds heavier. Yu has better stuff, averaging 94.2 miles an hour on his fastball in 2017 compared to 92.1 mph for his counterpart. But while Darvish has the measurable edge there are other areas he doesn't have an advantage.
Perhaps the biggest issue for Darvish is health. He had Tommy John surgery in 2015 and his return in 2016 was interrupted by a strained neck. Seemingly this would be an advantage in favor of the strong as an ox Jake Arrieta, but it's not as big a difference as you would think. Arrieta has only thrown 200 innings once in his career, over 170 only twice, Darvish has pitched over 170 three of the five seasons he appeared in the majors. Last season, Jake missed the final month of the regular season with a hamstring injury.
A common knock against the Japanese/Iranian ace this off-season was his lousy World Series performance against the Astros. 8 runs in 3.1 innings certainly is grizzly, but small sample size should always be taken into account, and that it has since been made known that he was tipping his pitches. In the NLDS and NLCS, Darvish allowed two runs in 11.2 innings of outstanding work. Jake Arrieta was awesome in the 2015 Wild Card and the 2016 World Series, but don't forget his struggles the rest of the 2015 playoffs and the 2016 NLCS. Every great pitcher is going to have bad playoff games and outstanding ones, that should not be the biggest factor in deciding whether to sign one.
The main reason I prefer Darvish over Arrieta can be best expressed in one word, consistency. Every one of his 5 seasons in the majors his FIP has sat between 2.80 and 3.80, while playing his home games at a very hitter friendly Globe Life Park. Arrieta, however, has swung wildly throughout his career. Early on in Baltimore his FIP never fell below 4.00. Then in his first two full years in Chicago it was sub 2.50 as he went on a dominant two and a half year run. The last two seasons? He has posted a FIP of 3.52 and 4.16 respectively, as he swung back towards his early career form.
Arrieta has also seen fluctuations in his strike out to walk ratio as he intermittently struggles with control. Darvish meanwhile has consistently had a ratio above 3 his whole career. With Jake the fear has always been he can fall apart as quickly as he came together, his complicated mechanics and delivery feel like a fine mechanism that can easily get out of whack. Despite the Tommy John surgery, Yu feels like the much more smooth and stable pitcher, other than perhaps the pitch tipping issue against Houston which should be fixable.
If the Cubs are going to invest several years and a sizeable chunk of money in a starting pitcher, I feel much better about Darvish than Arrieta. I know there is a sentimental attachment to Jake and everyone from the magical 2016 team, I have it too. Baseball is a cold logical business however, and without a doubt (at least in the mind of this humble correspondent) Yu Darvish is the right baseball move for Chicago.