CLEARWATER, Fla. — Jake Arrieta last offseason went through what Dallas Keuchel has gone through this offseason. It's March 9 and Arrieta hasn't even been a Phillie for a full year. He signed last year on March 11, which allowed him enough time to make only two starts in spring training. He got hit around — not that Grapefruit League results matter — and wasn't ready for the first week of the season.
Keuchel is a Scott Boras client, like Arrieta, Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins. Keuchel, like Arrieta last winter, is experiencing how the economics of baseball have changed. If Keuchel or Arrieta experienced the same career success they've had but reached free agency in 2015 or 2016, they may have gotten nine-figure contracts.
That was back when more than just the tippy-top free agents found huge contracts.
Instead, Arrieta ended up with a three-year, $75 million deal last offseason — still a ton of money but $50 million less than Yu Darvish.
Keuchel will likely have to accept less than Arrieta. He may not get three guaranteed years.
Teams have more data now, more of a sample size of bad contracts to look back to. Few clubs are willing to pay for past performance, and many question how long a pitcher can stay effective into his 30s.
Obviously, Keuchel and Boras haven't received the offer they're seeking. And as a result, one of the top lefties in the game the last five years is still unsigned with opening day less than three weeks away.
Which means Keuchel, 31, could be exposed to some early-season hardships because of how much his typical spring routine has been delayed.
"I just think it's so different as a starting pitcher, having to build arm strength, get up to 100 pitches," Arrieta said Saturday after making his second spring start.
"It's gonna be hard for him, it just is. That's why spring training is so valuable. You can throw as much long toss, throw as many bullpens as you want, but until you're in uniform, in front of a crowd, umpire behind the plate, facing hitters on a routine basis, it's just not the same.
"Obviously, the career he's had, he's a veteran guy, he'll catch on quick. But there's gonna be a period of time where he feels like he's not able to catch up. I had that for a couple weeks. It's just how it goes. Not to say it's impossible to hit the ground running, but there will be challenges there for him.
"I would be glad to have him here. He'd make us better, that's for sure. No question about it."
Arrieta's 2018 was up and down. He was excellent in April, May and July. He struggled in August and posted ERAs over 6.00 in June and September.
With a full spring training, his knee issue a thing of the past and a return to the arm slot that led him to plenty of previous success, Arrieta and the Phillies are hoping he's a more reliable top-of-the-rotation starter in 2019. It would significantly raise the ceiling of this team if he can maintain an ERA in the low-3.00s.
In front of a better defense, there's reason to believe Arrieta's contact-heavy approach will bear more fruit this year. The first inning of Saturday's game was an example — Jean Segura made a running, barehanded pickup of a spinning ball and threw to first to retire the first batter of the game. A few batters later, J.T. Realmuto fired a strike to second base to nab a would-be base stealer. Two baserunners erased by strong defense.
"That barehanded play in the first, that was a changeup off the end of the bat. That's an incredibly athletic play from the shortstop," Arrieta said.
"We've got a very strong defense. We're gonna do our best as a staff to utilize that and that will reiterate to our guys to pitch to contact, to be aggressive in the strike zone. Let those guys work behind us."
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