Jake Arrieta made the Cubs feel invincible, bringing a sense of swagger to a young team that needed it and now gets a $272 million upgrade with Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey.
That’s a Gold Glove outfielder who’s still only 26 years old, the game’s premier super-utility guy and a big-game pitcher with two World Series rings all added to a 97-win nucleus.
Arrieta could come across as cocky when he was a Triple-A pitcher in a last-place organization still trying to prove he could make it in The Show. The National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner certainly isn’t going to run away from expectations now.
“It’s hard to look at those three guys right there and feel like we’re not the favorite,” Arrieta said during Thursday’s Cubs Caravan stop at Jahn Elementary School on the North Side. “I know that’s only on paper. You have to go out there and perform and show you’re the team to beat. But right now, it looks like we are.”
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Forget 1908. The Cubs should feel a sense of urgency because they only have a two-year window before Arrieta can hit the jackpot in free agency.
By the 2018 season, $155 million lefty Jon Lester will be 34, Zobrist will be nearing his 37th birthday and Lackey will be around retirement age. Plus, no-longer-rookies Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell will get expensive in a hurry through the arbitration system, the Cubs don’t plan to be picking near the top of the draft anytime soon and no one knows if Theo Epstein’s front office will be able to throw around new TV money at that point.
Don’t bet on a surprise Arrieta extension announcement during this weekend’s Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. That would mean Epstein buying at an absolute high point and super-agent Scott Boras completely changing his open-market philosophy before Friday’s deadline to formally exchange salary numbers.
“I don’t think either side wants it to draw out,” said Arrieta, who should come close to tripling last year’s $3.63 million salary. “Just get it done."
When a reporter mentioned that Epstein has talked about locking him up with a long-term contract, Arrieta said: “Um, he hasn’t called me ...”
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As Arrieta put together an unbelievable second half (12-1, 0.75 ERA), the head-to-head comparison became eventual Cy Young runner-up Zack Greinke, who opted out of his contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers and signed a six-year, $206 million megadeal with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“You know what type of money is out there,” Arrieta said. “You know what the market is. But that doesn’t mean that things won’t happen.
“I’m going to be a Cub for the next two seasons, which I’m very excited about. And if it goes longer than that, then that would be nice, too.”
Arrieta obviously doesn’t have the same resume as Greinke, but it’s another data point as the price of pitching skyrockets. Arrieta really only has one wire-to-wire season in the majors, and he will have to deal with the year-after effect from throwing almost 250 innings in 2015 (including the playoffs).
Stay tuned to see how much lightning this Texan has left in right arm, if the Cubs can get lucky/stay healthy again and whether or not this group can withstand the pressure of being the hunted.
The same question facing Arrieta goes for the 2016 Cubs: What do you do for an encore?
“The numbers are something that’s really hard to control,” Arrieta said. “Certain aspects of your season, you need a lot of good fortune, great things to happen for you on defense, and you got to be really good.
“I anticipate having a very good season. Whether I go under a 1.70 (ERA) or (have) 22 wins remains to be seen. I think it’s possible. And that’s kind of how I (plan to) attack the upcoming season.”