CLEARWATER, Fla. — Jake Arrieta arrived at Philadelphia Phillies‘ camp on Tuesday morning with a new contract and a message for the National League: The team is ready to bump up its timetable to contend.
Arrieta, one of the top free agents on the market this offseason, waited until two weeks before Opening Day to finalize a guaranteed three-year, $75 million deal that could max out at five years and $135 million. In a news conference at Spectrum Field, he made it clear he thinks the Phillies’ are further along in their rebuild than public perception suggests.
“The fan base is hungry,” Arrieta said. “You see the Philadelphia Eagles win a Super Bowl, and it makes the other teams in the city that much hungrier to get to that level. I feel like we’re not far away. I think ‘rebuild’ is a loose term. A rebuild doesn’t mean you can’t win now. I intend to come in here and win right away, even though we are technically in a rebuild. And I think the other players agree with me. We intend to win — rebuild or not.”
The Phillies, who finished last in the NL East at 66-96 a year ago and haven’t posted a winning season since 2011, have been among MLB’s most active spenders in a slow market. They signed first baseman Carlos Santana to a $60 million deal in December and spent a combined $34.25 million on veteran relievers Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek. The Phillies’ ability to make a late, somewhat surprising strike on Arrieta reflected the state of the market and some concerns over Arrieta’s 2017 numbers and long-term durability.
The Phillies targeted Arrieta as a veteran starter to bring stability to a young, evolving rotation. Aaron Nola, the Phillies’ top returning starter, is 24 years old. Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez, the two starters behind him, have yet to break through because of injuries and inconsistent performance. Last year, Philadelphia’s starters ranked 10th in the NL with a 4.80 ERA and ninth with a 2.48 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
“Jake, in our opinion, was the best pitcher available this offseason. Period. Not just the best pitcher — the best player,” said Phillies owner John Middleton. “Handing him the ball every fifth day is going to be great. But it’s what he does in the clubhouse and the dugout and for the other players on the days he’s not pitching that’s going to make a huge difference. We recognize that, and that’s why we really, really wanted him.”
After Arrieta passed his physical exam in Philadelphia on Monday, Middleton’s private plane flew him to St. Petersburg, Fla., for Tuesday’s press conference. A greeting committee welcomed him upon arrival.
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Arrieta’s creatively structured contract pays him base salaries of $30 million, $25 million and $20 million through 2020. He can opt out of the deal after 2019, and the Phillies have the ability to void the opt-out and exercise a two-year option that could keep him with the organization through 2022.
Arrieta has a relatively low 1,161 major-league innings on his arm at age 32, but a drop-off in performance and a decline in velocity last season generated some concerns about his staying power. In 2015, Arrieta posted a 22-6 record with a 1.77 ERA and won the NL Cy Young Award while averaging 94.6 mph on the radar gun. Last year, Arrieta’s velocity dipped to 92.1 mph and he went 14-10 with a 3.53 ERA. Opponents logged a .283/.364/.528 slash line vs. his cutter, compared to .186/.239/.271 in 2015.
Arrieta pointed to his 2.28 ERA after the All-Star break — compared to 4.35 in the first half — as a sign that he was able to figure things out and adapt.
“You get to a point in your career where you understand that pitching isn’t all about velocity,” he said. “High velocity or not, I know exactly what I’m doing on the mound and I know how to utilize my stuff to the best of my ability. If that velocity does go back to 95-96, the league is in a lot of trouble.”
Agent Scott Boras said Arrieta never received an offer to re-sign with the Cubs, who upgraded their rotation by signing Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million deal last month. Boras said Arrieta included the Phillies on his initial wish list of teams at the start of the free agent season in November.
“I don’t think there’s a wait here,” Boras said. “There’s talent in here that needs experiential refinement, attitude and confidence. When you bring in players like Jake, you probably put the cream in the coffee when it’s ready to drink.”
Familiarity helped play a role in bringing Arrieta to Philadelphia. Phillies president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, general manager Matt Klentak and assistant GM Ned Rice knew Arrieta from their previous tenure in Baltimore. Joe Jordan, now Philadelphia’s player development director, selected Arrieta out of Texas Christian University in the fifth round of the 2007 draft while with the Orioles.
Santana, catcher Cameron Rupp, third baseman Maikel Franco, outfielder Rhys Hoskins and a half dozen other Phillies players and coaches ringed the back wall of Arrieta’s introductory news conference and listened to him preach commitment and accountability.
“There’s a message I really want to send to not only the players, but the entire Phillies Nation: We’re going to promise a fight,” Arrieta said. “There’s no guarantee you’re going to feel good or have your best stuff, or you’re going to get a great night’s sleep the night before a game. But what we can promise is, we’re going to have conviction, we’re going to fight, and at the end of the day, we’re going to win.”
Arrieta’s enthusiasm resonated throughout the Phillies’ spring complex before Tuesday’s Grapefruit League game against the Tampa Bay Rays.
“I was talking to Rhys Hoskins on the way out and I said, ‘Are you excited?”’ Middleton said. “He looks at me and he goes, ‘Bleep, yeah.”’