Jake Arrieta's deal foreshadows the future of MLB free agency

The hottest commodity of the offseason is finally off the market as of Monday. The Phillies stepped up to the plate (so to speak) and signed former Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta to a 3-year, $75M contract with an opt-out clause after two years.

Aside from the relief of finally finding a home for the season, it’s likely that Arrieta is less than satisfied with this deal. Several reports circulated in the offseason of him saying he expected to sign a $200M contract coming off of his stellar second half in 2017.

Arrieta himself wasn’t the only one surprised at this relatively low salary. He is, after all, a Cy Young winner and World Series champion who once posted a 0.75 ERA in the second half of his 2015 season. Compared to the rest of the pitchers up for grabs in free agency this winter, he’s remained healthy and avoided surgery. Of other leading pitchers his age (32), he’s pitched hundreds fewer innings. Going into this offseason, he sat comfortably at the top of the free agent list, yet he’s leaving the market with only its 5th-biggest deal.

Arrieta’s deal allows him to opt out after earning $55M with the Phillies over two years. However, the Phillies have given themselves override power with a two-year extension beginning in 2020 that would keep Arrieta on at $20M per year.

The contract maxes out at a potential $135M over five years. This, however, can only happen if Arrieta’s performance in 2018 and 2019 rivals his 2015 season, he earns at least one Cy Young finalist appearance, and gives the Phillies a real taste of postseason ball.

But the reason Arrieta seemingly got short end of the stick likely doesn’t have anything to do with his record or skill. This deal is a direct product of the stalemate that plagued MLB free agency this winter.

This deal — a slow burn that leverages salary for continued performance — may be the future of MLB free agency. It’s the team’s response to a slow offseason that was stagnated by stubborn players and agents looking for big blockbuster deals that would carry players far into the end of their careers.

For Arrieta, this sort of deal grounds a player who sees himself as a much hotter commodity than he may actually be. Awarding Arrieta a flashy, three-digit deal that would carry him well past his mid-thirties (like the six-year contract his former team shelled out for 31-year-old Darvish) would surely make him happy, but may also allow him to settle into a nice, warm bed of mediocrity that has befallen better pitchers before him.

According to an early January report, the Cubs were willing to re-sign Arrieta with one of those flashy deals — $110M over four years, which factors out to more per year than his deal with the Phillies. But realistically, neither Arrieta nor the Cubs really wanted him to remain in Chicago, and Arrieta’s stubbornness (or that of his famously bottom-line minded agent, Scott Boras) precluded him from taking an offer from his current team when he believed he would be getting almost double from another postseason contender.

Arrieta’s deal may be the first step towards a greater trend towards shorter, more modest deals that place the ball in the players’ court to earn their way with continued results. While this may be great for teams’ wallets and leverage in negotiations, it may prove detrimental to the best players in the league.

The Phillies are saving potentially tens of thousands of dollars with this deal while still winning a contract with one of the best pitchers in the league. For the Phillies’ management, this frees up salary they can use next year to pursue members of the exceptional 2018 free agent class, like Manny Machado.

But for the players, this offseason has set a dangerous precedent for hot stoves to come. Late deals like Darvish and Arrieta may encourage top agents to sign prematurely, as most of the big contracts in 2017 came before the new year. Especially for a free agent class as stacked as next year’s, it’s imperative that the lack of movement this winter doesn’t discourage them from holding out for a lucrative deal with a contending team.

In the power struggle coming to a head between players (and agents) and managers, teams have laid down the gauntlet. For players going forward, they have to find the balance between making sure their talent is valued and avoiding months of waiting for a contract.