CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Here's the thing about Jake Arrieta: Since the beginning of the 2018 season, he's one of 47 pitchers to throw at least 300 innings while maintaining a league-average or better adjusted-ERA.
But here’s another thing: With a $25 million average annual salary (calculated for luxury tax purposes), Arrieta is the 11th-highest-paid pitcher in baseball this year.
So, no, Arrieta does not receive the generosity of having his first two seasons with the Phillies graded on a curve. The cold, hard facts are that he had a 4.26 ERA and a 1.369 WHIP and averaged 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings, numbers that add up to a total of only three wins above replacement level, according to Fangraphs.
That makes Arrieta, at best, overpaid. At worst, he has been a disappointment two-thirds of the way through a $75 million contract that was, at the time, the second-largest free-agent signing of a pitcher in Phillies history.
It isn’t that simple, of course. There are mitigating circumstances. And for a second consecutive spring training, Arrieta -- who turns 34 next month -- has arrived here with a positive outlook after having his previous season torpedoed by injury.
“I’m 100 percent healthy, so that’s nice,” Arrieta said Wednesday after new manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Bryan Price put Phillies pitchers through their first workout on the back fields at the Carpenter Complex. “Injuries are frustrating, but there’s really not a lot you can do with some of them. Had a normal offseason. Throwing progression was great and has continued to be really good and won’t miss a beat. Yeah, feel great.”
Arrieta was sailing through the 2018 season (3.11 ERA in 22 starts through Aug. 5) when he felt weakness in his left knee. He stumbled to the finish (6.35 ERA in his last nine starts), aggravated his knee in an offseason workout, and had minor surgery to repair cartilage a few weeks before spring training.
Last season, Arrieta’s optimism stemmed not only from a healthy knee but also an arm slot that better resembled his salad days with the Chicago Cubs. He completed at least six innings in each of his first 11 starts and posted a 3.60 ERA.
But a bone spur soon loosened in his right elbow, making it painful to throw his cutter and curveball. By July, Arrieta could barely get through five innings. By mid-August, after getting roughed up on national television in a three-inning start at San Francisco, he succumbed to surgery.
“I couldn’t use two of my weapons,” Arrieta recalled. “Any time I oriented my hand in that position with the cutter, the curveball, it shortened my outing even more because of the swelling and the pain in the elbow.
"When you go out there with just a fastball and a changeup -- and the changeup’s really not even that good at the time -- it’s hard to get outs. But not having that issue anymore and being able to feel free and easy and not be restricted with my elbow is going to be really good for me.”
Indeed, Arrieta’s contention is that he’s still effective when he’s healthy. The Phillies are hoping that this season will, at a minimum, test that theory. Desperate to improve the starting rotation, the Phillies signed free-agent right-hander Zack Wheeler to a five-year, $118 million contract in December. A common opinion among rival talent evaluators was that Wheeler’s best seasons are ahead, unlike Arrieta, who cashed in on the strength of his past performance with the Cubs.
But the Phillies stopped at Wheeler. Choosing to not yet exceed the $208 million luxury-tax threshold, they passed on one-year deals for veterans such as Rick Porcello ($10 million with the New York Mets), Julio Teheran ($9 million with the Los Angeles Angels), and Aaron Nola’s former LSU teammate Kevin Gausman ($9 million with the San Francisco Giants).
And although they signed several relievers to minor-league contracts with non-roster invitations to spring training, they didn’t take similar fliers on starters.
For now, then, the rotation behind Nola and Wheeler will include Arrieta, Zach Eflin, and either Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, or perhaps lefty Ranger Suarez.
Arrieta didn’t hold back Wednesday in an aggressive long-tossing session with Velasquez. Girardi recently assessed Arrieta’s progress by saying, “As of right now, we feel good about where his health is.”
Even the rosiest outlook wouldn’t presume Arrieta can recapture his dominance in Chicago, where he won the Cy Young Award in 2015. But the Phillies are wagering that he will provide at least 175 innings and shave his ERA to around 4.00, twin markers reached by 30 pitchers last season.
“Look, I’m trying to do the best I can each and every day regardless of injury or no injury,” Arrieta said. “Performing well or not, I’m doing everything I can to control the way I prepare and take care of myself to the best of my ability. If I’m able to do that and stay healthy, the performances will be good.”