Chicago Cubs ace right-hander Jake Arrieta has been in the news lately: throwing a no-hitter will do that, as will potentially difficult contract negotiations. According to Bob Nightengale at USA Today, Arrieta is looking for a six or seven-year contract extension but the Cubs were not willing to go past three or four seasons during negotiations this past winter. Arrieta's present greatness is uncontested, but will he be durable enough to justify a seven-year contract?
Let's take a look at Arrieta's history, what he was like as a prospect, and where he stands in historical context.
Arrieta pitched college ball at Texas Christian and had an excellent 2006 season (14-4, 2.35, 111/37 K/BB in 111 innings). He was rated as a first-round talent by draft experts entering the spring of 2007, but experienced some control problems that spring (93/50 K/BB in 98 innings, 3.01 ERA) and had large bonus demands, which dropped him down to the fifth round. It took $1,100,000 for the Baltimore Orioles to sign him.
Assigned to High-A Frederick for 2008, he posted a 2.87 ERA with a 120/51 K/BB in 113 innings allowing just 80 hits. He was up to 97 MPH at times and showed promise with his curve, slider, and change-up, although his command still needed polish. I had him rated as a Grade B+ prospect entering '09.
He was very effective at Double-A Bowie in '09, with a 2.59 ERA and a 70/23 K/BB in 59 innings, but his command was occasionally troublesome after he moved up to Triple-A Norfolk, raising his ERA to 3.93 with a 78/33 K/BB in 92 innings. The slider drew good reviews but his curve and change-up needed more work, though he retained a Grade B+ rating entering '10.
As you know, Arrieta spent most of '10 and '11 in the major leagues with spotty results. Although his ERA shot up to 6.20 in 2012, his component ratios actually improved dramatically, his K/9 ratio going from 4.66 in 2010 to 7.01 in 2011 to 8.66 in 2012. His walk rate went down, too, going from 4.31 in '10 to 2.75 in '12. The improved components were reflected in his FIP, which was much lower than the ERA at 4.05.
Despite that improvement, the Orioles gave up and he was traded to the Cubs as part of a trade for Scott Feldman. And now here he a genuine ace pitcher. As a prospect, Arrieta did show very impressive potential but the Orioles were unable to tap it. The Cubs did.
With the Orioles Arrieta made 63 starts and nine relief outings, pitching 358 innings with a 5.46 ERA and a 277/159 K/BB, 2.5 fWAR.. With the Cubs Arrieta has made 71 starts, throwing 468 innings with a 466/119 K/BB and a minuscule 2.17 ERA, 13.2 fWAR.
It's two different careers.
This complicates the historical comparisons. Overall, counting his tenures with the Orioles and Cubs, he's a slightly above-average pitcher in aggregate, with a career ERA+ of 108 and averaging a little under 3.0 WAR per season. The Sim Scores make his aggregate career, through age 29, as similar to Shaun Marcum, Chris Young, Hideo Nomo, Charlie Lea, Kevin Tapani, Dave Wickersham, Ray Washburn, David Palmer, Clay Buchholz, and Rich Harden.
There are some good pitchers there, but as stated that's just looking at his career totals. None of those guys seems in Arrieta's class, as he presently is.
For what we can turn to PECOTA from Baseball Prospectus, which gives us age 29 comps for A.J. Burnett in 2007, Kevin Appier in 1998, Warren Spahn in 1951, Adam Wainwright in 2011, Whitey Ford in 1959, Eric Bedard in 2009, Justin Verlander in 2013, Andy Messersmith in 1976, Kelvim Escobar in 2006, and John Smoltz in 1997.
That's a little more promising; these are more talented pitchers than the first group, but the results are still mixed. Burnett was a regular starter for another eight seasons but was past his peak campaigns. Appier got hurt at age 30, then had three more seasons as a sightly above-average pitcher before fading.Hall of Famer Spahn remained extremely effective for another 12 seasons before fading.
Wainwright has been strong when healthy but has missed significant time to injuries since passing 30. Hall of Famer Ford remained very effective for another six seasons before fading. Bedard got hurt at 30 and was never the same. Justin Verlander hasn't been Justin Verlander since turning 30; we don't know how that story ends but his peak appears past. Messersmith got hurt at 31 and was done at 33. Escobar had strong seasons at 30 and 31 then vanished. Smoltz began having injury problems at age 31, spent several years as an excellent closer, then returned to starting at age 38.
The Cubs are no doubt deploying a vast array of slide rules, supercomputers, scouts, coaches, doctors, tarot cards, and Magic 8-balls trying to determine if Arrieta is worth such a long contract. Looking at the historical precedents, anything beyond four years does seem quite risky.