Chicago Cubs’ righty Jake Arrieta is undoubtedly the best starting pitcher on the free agent market this Winter. Despite his rough start to the 2017 season, the former Cy Young winner is bound to receive a big paycheck from some team this offseason. And being the prized stallion of the free agent pitching market, a number of teams will, for sure, put in a phone call to gauge interest. One team that hasn’t yet been linked to the righty, though, that should be monitored throughout the free agent process is the Washington Nationals — who could quickly become a frontrunner for his services.
Throughout their year in and out disappointments come October, the Nationals have always had one thing on their side — starting pitching. With Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the top of the rotation, as well as Tanner Roark and lefty Gio Gonzalez behind them, the Nats possess one of the best and most feared rotations in the majors. But there’s not an offseason that goes by where general manager Mike Rizzo doesn’t toy around with the idea of strengthening a strength — that being their starting pitching.
At last year’s Winter Meetings, Rizzo was in on a trade for White Sox’ southpaw Chris Sale until he was traded to the Boston Red Sox. The year prior, they contemplated trading Gonzalez in an attempt to sign Orioles lefty’ Wei-Yin Chen. In 2015, they inked Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million deal. In 2013, they considering making a run at Zach Greinke. While they don’t always execute, history has shown that the Nats are always intrigued with the prospect of adding to their pitching staff; this year is no different, despite them finishing with the 6th-best team ERA in baseball.
In order for the Nats to be able to afford Arrieta, they’d likely have to trade away Gonzalez, who’s due $12 million in 2018, though, that shouldn’t be a daunting task; the lefty pitched to a 2.96 ERA in 2017, and at one point of the regular season was making a case to be a Cy Young candidate in the National League. The Nationals would also have to let Jayson Werth walk in free agency — which appears likely — while also refraining from re-signing Brandon Kintzler, who they acquired from the Minnesota Twins at the MLB trade deadline. After all of that is done, the question becomes how far are the Nats, who aren’t in dire need of a starter, willing to go to snatch up one of the league’s best righties?
Three years ago, the Nationals had one of, if not the most dominant rotations in MLB. With Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Strasburg, Roark and Gonzalez all pitching at, or near high levels, the Nationals were the last team in MLB that needed a rotation upgrade. Then in mid-January, management opted to sign Scherzer to a mega-$210 million deal. They’ve shown a willingness to spend big on pitching with Scherzer and even Strasburg — who they granted $175 million in April of 2016. Does Strasburg’s deal mark the final time that the Nationals will dish out a contract of that magnitude to a starting pitcher? While it very well could be, it’s important to never forget about MLB’s most powerful and arguably successful manipulator — agent Scott Boras.
Boras, who just so happens to be Arrieta’s agent, is very familiar with the way the Nationals operate and their team in general. Currently the agent of Anthony Rendon, Matt Wieters, Bryce Harper — who is looking for a contract potentially in excess of $400 million, according to Joel Sherman of the NY Post — Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez, as well as free agents Stephen Drew and Werth, Boras has certainly had the ear of Rizzo and friends over the years. He convinced them to give Scherzer $210 million, Strasburg $175 million and got them to sign Wieters, after they seemed content with the acquisition of Derek Norris. Boras has convinced the Detroit Tigers to give Prince Fielder $214 million back in 2012; Fielder is now out of baseball. He even got the Yankees to give Jacoby Ellsbury $153 million. Based on Boras’ track record with top-tier free agents, chances are he and Arrieta will seek a massive deal, maybe even close to $200 million in total.
Three years ago, the Nationals had a 3.03 team ERA, which was the best in the majors, and they went out and signed Scherzer regardless. With Harper’s days as a National potentially coming to an end after the 2018 season — when he hits free agency — as well as Daniel Murphy‘s, the Nats are all-in on 2018. In the franchise’s four playoff appearances, they have failed to get out of the NLDS — which is astonishing. As a result, management will continue to think about right now, instead of next Winter as the 2018 season may very well be their last chance at winning a World Series with the core they have in place. And at the end of the day, Arrieta is the better pitcher than Gonzalez and could make Washington’s rotation formidable.
A three-headed monster consisting of Scherzer, Strasburg and Arrieta would give Washington arguably the best rotation trio in the majors.
Arrieta is a proven commodity. When he has his command, he poses an overwhelming threat on the rubber. In his four years with the Cubs, Arrieta has pitched to a combined 2.73 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and won the NL Cy Young in 2015. Despite getting hit hard in the first half of the 2017 regular season, Arrieta bounced back in the second half and in the postseason. Pitching to a 1.73 ERA in the months of July and August combined, while holding opposing teams to a below-.200 average, Arrieta rekindled his past heroics. He then surrendered just one earned run in the postseason, and pitched the Cubs to an elimination Game 4 victory in Wrigley Field versus the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS.
Arrieta’s arsenal and track record is well-known; he’s one of the best in the business. Many teams will, of course, pursue or entertain the possibility of bringing in the Cubs’ ace. For teams like the Twins and Milwaukee Brewers, he can be the top of the rotation arm that allows them to take the next step. For a team like the Dodgers, he can make them an even more formidable threat to win what they came one game away from achieving — a World Series title. For the Nationals, he can potentially allow them to get over that NLDS hump and help form a dynamite rotation. He’d also be reuniting with his former bench coach and now Nationals’ skipper Dave Martinez.
Martinez, who was hired to replace Dusty Baker after the regular season as the team’s manager, was the Cubs’ bench coach in the final three years of Arrieta’s time in the Windy City. Could his familiarity with the Nats’ new manager be a selling point?
If and when the Nationals decide to get themselves involved in the Arrieta sweepstakes, they’ll likely have a lot of competition. But when considering the Boras connection, his history with Martinez, the team’s win-now mentality and the lure of strengthening a strength — which management has shown a willingness to do in the past — the Nationals are the team to watch in Arrieta’s free agency.