WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Tuesday was Jake Arrieta’s 32nd birthday, an occasion the Washington Nationals marked by giving the ball to a different starting pitcher, getting on with the task of preparing for the 2018 season and otherwise ignoring the ethereal existence, somewhere out there in the free agent wasteland, of the 2015 National League Cy Young Award winner. Twenty-nine other teams, spread across Florida and Arizona, did more or less the same.
While Arrieta remains unsigned 23 days before Opening Day — a virtually unprecedented scenario for someone of his pedigree, age and presumed health — the Nationals, the team most frequently linked to him by industry insiders, trotted presumed fifth starter A.J. Cole to the mound in a Grapefruit League game against the defending World Series champion Houston Astros.
It is a spot the Nationals, some around the game might believe, are merely keeping warm for Arrieta — the thinking being that Washington has the need for a top starter to slot in behind Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, plus a long-term replacement for pending free agent Gio Gonzalez, and that agent Scott Boras maintains an open channel of communication with Nationals owner Ted Lerner.
None of those assumptions are incorrect, and when Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo claims, as he did Tuesday, that the team is not in active negotiations with Arrieta — “There’s nothing to talk about,” he said before declining to address Arrieta’s situation — it comes with the caveat that such talks, if they are happening, could be taking place above Rizzo’s pay grade. Boras is already known to have met with the Nationals’ ownership early in the winter.
But at this point, it is fair to wonder: What exactly is the market for Arrieta? In November, at the start of free agency, published reports had the former Chicago Cubs ace seeking a Scherzer-like contract, which means something in the neighborhood of $200 million. But once Yu Darvish, a pitcher of similar age and recent track record, set the market for top-shelf starters with a six-year, $126 million contract with the Cubs last month, Arrieta was left to contemplate a shifting landscape where it is difficult to see another team being willing to go that high for him.
It isn’t Arrieta’s fault he made his first foray into free agency at time when the industry was in the midst of a radical rethinking of the concept — with many rich teams avoiding free agents to stay under the luxury-tax threshold, poor teams avoiding them to stay in “rebuilding” mode, and most teams, rich and poor, in agreement that it is generally best to avoid expensive veterans on the wrong side of 30.
Clearly, Boras, as he has been known to do, gambled that by waiting until deep into the winter, then into the spring, it would result in a desperate team giving Arrieta what he wants. But not only has no team met that threshold, it is not even clear at this point who — with the possible exception of the Nationals — would be so motivated.
Normally, someone in Arrieta’s position — a free agent whose market has failed to materialize — might consider signing a one-year deal at a high salary as a means of waiting out the downturn and taking his chances again next winter. But even if Arrieta were to be on board with that strategy, and there is no indication either way, a team such as the Nationals may not be very motivated to forfeit a pair of 2018 draft picks (by virtue of Arrieta having rejected the Cubs’ qualifying offer) for just one year of his services.
As the overwhelming favorites in a weak division, the Nationals appear perfectly capable of winning the NL East and waltzing into the playoffs with or without Arrieta. But as a franchise haunted by its uncanny run of October failures — four straight playoff appearances that ended in the Division Series — the Nationals also know they could probably use one more front-line starter in their postseason rotation. Arrieta’s postseason track record includes a 5-3 record, a 3.08 ERA and wins in Games 2 and 6 of the 2016 World Series for the Cubs.
And it is exactly that link — Arrieta’s October exploits and the Nationals’ October failures — that Boras would surely play up in any conversation about the pitcher. In a recent interview, Boras described Arrieta as “one of the rare, franchise-type players who can win the big game.”
“There are a lot of men that can pitch during the regular season,” Boras said, “but there are few who can win elimination games, when it’s all on the line. … When owners wake up and fans wake up every day, they [ask], ‘Are we really the best team we can be?’ Every team has to look at that: Are we the best team we can be?”
But we are also reaching the point where waiting any longer for Arrieta calls into question his ability to get ready for the start of the season.
While the Nationals were playing Tuesday, Arrieta remained at his home in Austin, presumably throwing regularly and keeping himself in something resembling baseball shape. But while a hitter might need just a week’s worth of batting practice and a week’s worth of games to get his timing down, starting pitchers need to build up arm strength and stamina; one month is the accepted industry timeline for getting a starter ready.
Because of an off-day following Opening Day — March 29 at Cincinnati — the Nationals won’t need a fifth starter until April 5, in their seventh game of the season. Most other teams face similar scenarios. There may still be time to squeeze Arrieta’s spring training into a small enough window to get him ready for the start of the season. But it will be close, and every day that passes only makes it more difficult.
The candles on Arrieta’s birthday cake were just one more reminder: Time is marching on, and none of us are getting any younger.