CLEARWATER, Fla. — The skies are never sunnier for a baseball team, the future never more limitless, than when the Big Free Agent Acquisition, dozens of television cameras and microphones pointed at him, rises from a chair and is helped into his new, freshly pressed jersey by the Grateful General Manager. The fact this ceremony typically takes place up north in the dead of winter, the heater humming in the background, the room strewn with heavy coats, only heightens the sense of imagination.
But when the Philadelphia Phillies unveiled new ace Jake Arrieta on Tuesday, the big moment came along the sunny Gulf Coast of Florida, nearly a month into spring training, 16 days from Opening Day — a reality that added another layer of intrigue and altered the typical atmosphere of these ceremonies, turning parts of Arrieta’s introduction into something more resembling a pep rally.
For one thing, some 12-15 uniformed Phillies players, biding the time before their daily workout, crowded into the back of the room in a show of support for their newest teammate, and Arrieta was looking roughly in their direction when he delivered the most theatrical lines of the day:
“A message I want to send to not only the players, but Philadelphia in general and the entire Phillies nation,” Arrieta, 32, said, “is that what we’re going to do here is, we’re going to promise a fight. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to feel good [each day] or that you’re going to get a good night’s sleep the night before. But what we can promise is that we’re going to have conviction, we’re going to fight, and we’re going to win at the end of the day.”
Though the Phillies’ players somehow resisted the urge to jump up, run through a wall and go out and win another Grapefruit League game, it was clear the Arrieta signing — for a three-year contract worth a guaranteed $75 million, plus options and escalators that could take it to five years and up to $125 million — has energized a franchise that has averaged 93 losses the past five seasons and went 66-96 and finished 31 games out of first place in 2017.
“This is going to be a pretty perfect marriage,” said Gabe Kapler, the Phillies’ rookie manager, “[between] what our players need from Jake and what Jake can bring to our clubhouse.”
“We [liked] Jake’s competitiveness, the way he competes, his work ethic,” said General Manager Matt Klentak, who, like much of the Phillies’ brain trust, was with the Baltimore Orioles when that franchise drafted Arrieta in 2007. “He’s a winner.”
While the rest of the industry has largely turned away from free agency as the preferred method of acquiring players — a trend that has inflamed labor relations and left many players still scrambling for jobs — the Phillies have treated these past 4½ months as some sort of game-show shopping spree, where they have to fill up their cart with as many shiny products as possible and get to the checkout counter before the clock runs out.
Arrieta, the 2015 National League Cy Young Award winner, was the fourth free agent signed to a multiyear deal by the Phillies this offseason and the fourth eight-figure contract the team has handed out. In both categories, only the Chicago Cubs — who happen to have been Arrieta’s employer for the past 4½ years — have exceeded Philadelphia’s totals. The Phillies are also the only team to have inked more than one contract of $50 million or more, having given first baseman Carlos Santana a three-year, $60 million deal in December.
In spending a total of $169.2 million in guaranteed contracts this offseason, the Phillies have outspent the rest of the NL East ($116.245 million) by roughly 46 percent. (The first-place Washington Nationals, by comparison, have spent just $23.3 million.)
The question on many industry insiders’ minds is: why? And the answer appears to be some mixture of opportunity and opportunism.
By the end of 2017, the Phillies were at a point in their rebuild where they had cleared the books of almost any player making significant money. At the same time, the team, through the play of young building blocks such as starting pitcher Aaron Nola and slugger Rhys Hoskins, had gone 37-36 over their final 73 games, which the front office took as a signal the corner had been turned.
The Phillies could have given their rebuild another year, waited until next winter and — with their strong revenue and paltry salary commitments — gone nuts in a historic free agent market that will include Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and possibly Clayton Kershaw. (And they still might, it’s worth pointing out.) But in the strange, depressed free agent market of the winter of 2017-18, the Phillies also saw the chance to find bargains — and perhaps put themselves in position to contend for a playoff spot a year early.
“We showed [last year] we had some pretty good players,” Hoskins said. “We might just need a piece or two or three to push us over the top. And we’re fortunate enough our ownership has taken that into their hands.”
The Phillies began talking with Scott Boras, Arrieta’s agent, in November, back when Boras was said to be floating names like Justin Verlander (seven years, $180 million) and Max Scherzer (seven years, $210 million) as comparables. But they waited and waited, and by late February heard numbers more to their liking — then needed about two weeks to hammer out a complex deal that includes an opt-out for Arrieta after 2019 that the Phillies can override by granting a two-year extension.
“When you bring in players like Jake,” said Boras, whose stockpile of lofty metaphors to describe his clients is apparently endless, “you put the cream in the coffee where it’s ready to drink.”
But the harsher truth is that the thriving marketplace Boras and Arrieta may have imagined emerging for the pitcher’s services never materialized. The Cubs showed little interest in re-signing him and moved on with Yu Darvish (six years, $126 million) last month.
“I think there were a number of reasons things didn’t go in a different direction [with the Cubs],” said Arrieta, who spent much of the winter training near his Texas home, “but that wasn’t necessarily the direction that maybe I wanted to go in.”
The Nationals presented a win-now team with a need for one more front-line starter, as well as an owner, Ted Lerner, with whom Boras has hammered out deals in the past. But the Nationals were already over the luxury-tax threshold of $197 million and would have forfeited two draft picks plus international signing-pool money by signing Arrieta.
The draft-pick penalties are “restraints [on spending] that are dramatic,” Boras said, when asked about the Nationals, “and clubs have reacted [by] using this as a means to say, ‘I don’t want to give away the draft picks.’ ”
His unexpectedly harrowing ride through free agency behind him, Arrieta planned to huddle with his new manager and coaches as soon as possible and plot out a schedule that would get him ready to pitch by the first part of April.
The process of finding a new home may have taken longer than he expected, and he may not have gotten everything he wanted. But the sun was shining over Clearwater, Opening Day was drawing near, and the Phillies, with their ace in place, were pointed due north.
“Am I upset or frustrated? Absolutely not,” Arrieta said. “You’re trying to figure out for your family where you’re going to live, who your teammates are going to be, what uniform you’re going to wear. [But] you can’t write the script yourself. … If you’d have asked me where I’d expect to be at the start of the offseason, I’ll tell you: it wouldn’t be signing on March 12.
“But it’s exciting as hell to be here right now.”