Two years ago, coming off a 2017 season in which Major League Baseball surpassed $10 billion in annual revenue for the first time, Jake Arrieta didn’t come off the free-agent market until the Phillies finally signed him (to a shorter-than-expected three-year, $75 million contract) midway through spring training.
Imagine, then, what will await Arrieta this winter in a baseball economy that is expected to be depressed because of a pandemic-shortened, fan-free season.
“There’s always a concern about free agency, right?” Arrieta said Saturday, after recording 10 outs in three innings of an intrasquad game at Citizens Bank Park. “It’s just a matter of what those concerns are and for what reason.”
If MLB reaches the end of this season, it will have played only 37% of a normal schedule. On top of that, commissioner Rob Manfred claims that teams will lose an average of 40% of their projected revenues this year without ticket sales, merchandise and food concessions, parking, and other attendance-related streams.
It follows, then, that teams will have less money to spend on players. Phillies All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto, who is eligible for free agency after the season, speculated Thursday that top-of-the-market players (think Realmuto, Mookie Betts, Marcus Semien, Marcus Stroman, and Trevor Bauer) will still find lucrative paydays, but middle-market players could suffer.
Arrieta would seem to fit into the latter category. He’s 34, five years removed from his Cy Young Award-winning peak. After back-to-back injury-disrupted seasons with the Phillies, he would have needed to pitch well this season to boost his stock even in normal market conditions.
But Arrieta also believes the sport is still awash in cash for owners who want to spend it.
“The game is going to generate a tremendous amount of revenue regardless of what’s going on right now,” Arrieta said. “We’ve seen that with certain TV deals that have been signed. Yeah, there are going to be challenges for everybody. Every free-agent class, there’s going to be new obstacles to deal with. This year is no different.
"We can't predict the future to that extent. We'll just have to play it out and see. I'm comfortable with whatever happens after the season. It is what it is. There's going to be a lot of guys in the same boat as I am."
Arrieta looked sharp in the scrimmage, using his sinker to get ground-ball outs early in counts in a nearly 50-pitch outing. He said he faced hitters “once or twice a week” during the quarantine and likely will be ready to throw 80 to 85 pitches in his first start of the season.
In his first intrasquad bid for the No. 5 starter job, Nick Pivetta gave up five runs (and recorded only one out) in the second inning, sandwiched around scoreless first and third innings.
“He didn’t really have his curveball today as much as we would’ve liked,” manager Joe Girardi said. “We will look for improvement on that the next time out.”