Philadelphia Phillies: Jake Arrieta won’t be reliable in 2020

(Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images) /

Entering his third and probably final season with the Philadelphia Phillies, Jake Arrieta isn’t likely to offer anything close to a good return on investment.

Baseball careers, like life itself, can move rather quickly. Just ask Jake Arrieta.

After flaming out with the Baltimore Orioles, he moved onto the Chicago Cubs and became one of the most dominant pitchers in the game over a number of seasons. Then the Philadelphia Phillies, checkbook in hand, came calling.

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You certainly couldn’t blame Arrieta for signing on the dotted line. And it was a defensible move by the Phillies at the time. An overpay, for sure, but that was the cost of doing business as they looked to get back into contention two seasons ago.

The hope was that Arrieta could provide high-level moundwork just a tick or two below what he managed in Chicago from 2014-16. Even a repeat of his last campaign with the Cubs (14 wins, 3.53 ERA) would be acceptable if he could eat some innings and teach a young Phillies club what it means to win.

I think you know what happened next.

A middling 2018 led to a flat-out disappointing 2019, which also ended early as Arrieta valiantly but dumbly tried to pitch through a bone spur in his elbow.

But now Arrieta is back with a supposedly clean bill of health, setting up shop and firmly wedged in as the Phillies’ #3 starter after they signed Zack Wheeler this offseason to give Aaron Nola a more appropriate running mate.

This means that, at least theoretically, less is expected of Arrieta entering this season than was in each of his first two years in Philadelphia. But the question remains:  Can he deliver even modest value in exchange for yet another eight-figure payday this season? Don’t count on it. And this goes well beyond just his lackluster spring debut on Tuesday.

As Arrieta approaches his 34th birthday next week, there is little chance of him reverting to even a shadow of his former self, the one who captured a Cy Young Award and World Series title in Chicago. And even that final season with the Cubs no longer seems attainable, looking more and more like the first sign of decline rather than a lower but still acceptable standard that Arrieta could hover at for a few years as he aged gracefully.

No, I’m afraid we’re headed for issues if the Phillies are trying to get “#3 value” out of a guy with as many red flags as Arrieta, even if their checks to him carry big expectations. I might have been fine with Arrieta’s role on the Phillies in 2020 if he were slotted in as a #4. Or maybe if they had some can’t-miss prospect ready to jump right into the rotation. Sorry, Spencer Howard. Prove me wrong.

Instead, Arrieta’s performance this year will be an important factor in how the story of the 2020 Phillies plays out, thanks to the club’s decision not to bolster the rotation any further after the Wheeler signing.

The main reason for this is, of course, money. The Phils didn’t want to reach the luxury tax threshold before seeing how this season was going to play out, with Arrieta’s money a large reason why the payroll was so high to begin with.

So, not only is Arrieta cast in too prominent of a role for this club, but his mere presence affects the bottom line so much that the Phillies didn’t think they were able to add any other impact players. The organization could have signed another pitcher if they really wanted to, obviously, but the sting of Arrieta’s contract no doubt weighed heavily on their decision. Again, it’s not the player’s fault, but his lack of production for two years is sure to make anyone gun shy about making similar moves.

I’m not totally discounting a bounceback of sorts from Arrieta, one where he can stay moderately healthy this year while throwing something like 170 innings and hitting double figures in wins. As sad as it is, for all the money he’s making, that might be a best-case scenario.

Next. Phillies: Rejected changes to the Phanatic. dark

Arrieta has one more season to upgrade his legacy as a Philadelphia Phillie from “awful” to “somewhat bad.” It’s an extremely low bar to clear. Still, I don’t think he’s even capable of that. Let’s hope for success but try not to act too surprised when injuries and/or an ERA near 5.00 are the end result this year.