Why would the Cubs spend a bunch of money on a free-agent pitcher this winter instead of just paying to retain Jake Arrieta?
It's the question many Cubs fans are asking, and it's a fair inquiry.
Arrieta has endeared himself to the North Side of Chicago for the rest of time after helping end the 108-year championship drought.
With the Cubs' interest in Yu Darvish making headlines this week — who is expected to be either 1A or 1B to Arrieta in terms of free-agent aces this winter — some fans might not understand why the Cubs would shell out an absurd amount of money for a pitcher not named Arrieta this winter.
Let's break it down:
The decline of Arrieta is real, if exaggerated
Arrieta's velocity is down, as anybody with a Twitter account who follows more than one baseball fan could tell you. But that doesn't mean he still can't be effective if he's living in the low 90s instead of throwing 95-plus every time he rears back.
He hasn't spent time on the disabled list since the beginning of 2014, and he's one of the most well-conditioned athletes on the planet.
But yes, Arrieta has experienced something of a decline the last few years.
On the one hand, there was no possible way for Arrieta to duplicate his historic 2015 when he won 22 games, posted a 1.77 ERA, an 0.865 WHIP and won the National League Cy Young Award. He topped that season with the best second half known to mankind, allowing only nine earned runs in 107.1 innings (15 starts).
That being said, Arrieta has seen his ERA, WHIP, H/9 and HR/9 rise each of the last two years, while his strikeouts have dipped from the 2014 and 2015 levels.
The Cubs were cautious with Arrieta — and all their pitchers — in 2017, allowing him to only throw 168.1 innings across 30 starts as they managed everybody's pitch counts carefully following back-to-back deep playoff runs.
Arrieta will turn 32 in March, and while he doesn't have an extensive injury history and boasts just 1,669 innings of professional baseball on his arm, the declining numbers cause at least a little concern for any team willing to shell out life-changing money.
The case for Darvish
Darvish is five months younger than Arrieta, though he has 458.2 more professional innings (including Japan) on his arm than the former Cub, despite missing all of 2015 to Tommy John surgery.
He got lit up in the World Series, but those around baseball believe he was tipping his pitches and see it as an easily correctable issue.
Darvish's numbers also have been on a bit of a decline, but with homers up around baseball in 2017, the same can be said for almost every pitcher.
The Japanese native posted his lowest K/9 total of his MLB career (10.1), but saw a noticeable jump in that department after moving to the NL at the trade deadline (11.1 K/9 in 9 starts with the Dodgers).
He still managed 209 strikeouts and a solid 1.16 WHIP in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.
Darvish also doesn't require any draft pick compensation given he was dealt midseason, so the Cubs would only have to pledge money to sign him. If Arrieta inks a deal with another team, the Cubs will get a second-round pick as compensation.
By comparison, the Cubs would have to forfeit an early round pick if they signed Alex Cobb in free agency.
It's all about the Benjamins
Arrieta has only earned about $31 million in his career to date, with more than half that coming in the last calendar year (he was paid $15.6 million in 2017). This will likely be his only chance to test the free-agent market as a top-line pitcher and set his family up for life.
Darvish, on the other hand, has already made almost double that total (just shy of $60 million) in the majors alone, not counting the money he made in Japan before making the trip to America.
Darvish doesn't have the same urgency to sign a megadeal. It's more likely he would agree to sign a shorter-term deal than Arrieta, who has been saying for a long time he wants six or seven years.
If Darvish is content with a three-to-four-year deal, he could still wind up hitting the market in his mid 30s and get paid once again. That's a much more appealing option for the Cubs than paying Arrieta through his age 37 or 38 season.
On that same note, if Cobb is asking for a three- or four-year deal and more money than the Cubs are willing to shell out for a pitcher of his caliber, why not just sign a pitcher who is undoubtedly better than Cobb, is only a year older and doesn't come with any draft-pick compensation?
At the very least, the Cubs epically called Cobb's bluff on the market by heading to Texas on Monday and spending three and a half hours with Darvish and making that meeting very, very public.
David Kaplan is right: Yu Darvish might very well be the best option for the Cubs to acquire a frontline starter this winter.