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MLB free agent focus: How Jake Arrieta could be Cubs’ insurance policy

Hot Stove season is here, and NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at free agents who could fit the Cubs’ needs — and budget. Next up is Phillies starter and former Cub Jake Arrieta.

The Cubs are looking for starting pitching depth this winter, and it just so happens a familiar face is available, one whose market could be at a reasonable level for the North Siders.

We’re talking about Jake Arrieta.

The Cubs’ 2021 rotation is projected to include Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay. Jon Lester could return in free agency — he and the Cubs have expressed interest in a reunion — while José Quintana and Tyler Chatwood are unlikely to return.

Even if Lester does return, the Cubs will be in the market for other arms. And following a season of pandemic-related revenue losses, they’ll be targeting pitchers on modest deals. That’s where Arrieta, the former Cub and 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner fits in.

Arrieta, 35 in March, was a free agent three winters ago, a slow-moving offseason in which the Cubs opted to sign Yu Darvish to a six-year deal near the start of 2018 spring training. He stayed on the market until that March, landing a three-year, $75 million deal with the Phillies — with escalators built in that could have made it a five-year deal.

Arrieta showed flashes in Philadelphia of the pitcher he was on the North Side from 2014-17 but dealt with injuries in three up-and-down seasons, including a bone spur in his right elbow he had surgically removed in 2019, missing the final two months. 

 

From 2018-20, Arrieta posted a 4.36 ERA and 1.387 WHIP in 64 starts, averaging less than six innings per outing. This past season, he made nine starts, missing the last two weeks with a right hamstring strain. He allowed 25 earned runs in 44 1/3 innings (5.08 ERA), though seven of those 25 came in one start where he pitched only an inning-and-a-third. Had this been a normal 162-game season, perhaps Arrieta’s ERA would have looked different.

Even if Arrieta isn’t the same pitcher that helped the Cubs rise to contention and snap their World Series drought, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a potential fit here.

RELATED: How an adamant Hoyer led to Theo, Cubs pulling off Arrieta/Strop trade

The Cubs know Arrieta well. He’s well-liked by the fan base and in the clubhouse, a bulldog on the mound who’s a fierce competitor. There’s no ignoring the numbers, but with that comes the recognition that he was successful for extended stretches in Philadelphia. 

Through 10 starts in 2018, Arrieta held a 2.16 ERA (58 1/3 innings). That July, he posted a 2.80 ERA in six starts (35 1/3 innings). And before his season-ending injury in 2020, he allowed just six earned runs in 18 September innings across three starts (3.00 ERA).

Arrieta may look for a guaranteed rotation spot somewhere and the Cubs are looking for arms at reasonable costs. But depending on what his market bears, if he’s available this winter and the Cubs can get him on a low-cost, prove-it deal, it’s at least worth seeing what he can do.

Cubs free agent focus series

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How Cubs could get creative to add Brad Hand

Tommy La Stella has skill set Cubs need — again

Why Cubs, veteran Mark Melancon could be a match

Why Cubs should take a flier on free agent Chris Archer

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