WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — We have reached March. Teams across the majors are at least a week into their spring training exhibition slate. This is supposed to be a time to focus on what’s on the field, not on free agent speculation. The stove was supposed to have been turned off. But these aren’t normal times in baseball. A few notable free agents remain available for hire, and where they wind up could shift the balance of power in 2018. So here we are, dipping back into the rumor mill.
While a few teams have declared they are done signing free agents, the Nationals haven’t shut the door on adding more. At the top of the list stands former Chicago Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta.
The Nationals could use another quality, proven starting pitcher, maybe one they could slide in for Game 3 of a playoff series after Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. The 31-year-old Arrieta has plenty of that big-game experience and is the most recent pitcher to win the NL Cy Young Award not named Scherzer. A marriage between the two sides makes sense. Rumors about it have swirled all winter and picked up steam this week. So what’s the holdup?
Early in the offseason, Arrieta’s agent, Scott Boras, met with Nationals ownership and vouched for his prized right-hander, presenting a 75-page binder with his pitch. The sides emerged with very different opinions on proper compensation for Arrieta. The Nationals haven’t engaged with Arrieta’s camp recently, according to people with knowledge of the situation, but that could change if Arrieta’s demands fall — a likelier possibility as each day passes for him.
At least three other organizations have recently inquired about Arrieta, whose innings pitched, ERA, ERA+, walks plus hits per inning pitched, fielding independent pitching and velocity have declined over each season since he won the Cy Young in 2015. Last season, Arrieta compiled a 3.53 ERA, 4.16 FIP and 163 strikeouts to 55 walks in 168 1/3 innings across 30 starts. In the playoffs, pitching opposite Strasburg in Game 4 of the NL Division Series, he held Washington to one unearned run while striking out four and walking five in four innings. He then limited the Dodgers to a run on three hits with nine strikeouts and five walks in 6 2/3 innings in Game 4 of the NLCS.
Yu Darvish, 31, is the only free agent starter who signed a contract beyond three years and worth more than $38 million. He agreed to a six-year, $126 million deal with the Cubs to essentially replace Arrieta.
The Nationals must weigh other factors beyond the money committed to Arrieta. If they sign Arrieta, who played under Nationals Manager Dave Martinez the past three seasons, the Nationals would relinquish their second- and fifth-highest pick in June’s draft while also surrendering $1 million in international bonus money.
To top it off, Washington is projected to eclipse the competitive balance tax threshold for the second straight year by $4.9 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. As offenders of the CBT threshold in consecutive seasons, the Nationals must pay a 30 percent tax on every dollar over the tax. Having already exceeded the CBT boundary perhaps suggests that ownership won’t impede the club from adding payroll.
Regardless, the Nationals are lurking. They don’t have to sign a starting pitcher. They could decide to wait to acquire one via trade during the season before the July 31 nonwaiver deadline, and turn to A.J. Cole in the meantime. But Arrieta is still out there, and the possibility remains.
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