Super-agent Scott Boras already has the metaphor ready for Jake Arrieta, trying to sell his client as an updated version of Jon Lester, someone with big-game experience, proven durability and the presence to energize an entire clubhouse.
“He’s a big squirrel,” Boras said. “He has a lot of nuts in his tree.”
That’s exactly what the Los Angeles Dodgers need now after their super-team broke down against the Houston Astros. Losing a World Series Game 7 could create a new sense of urgency and push even the most analytical organization outside its comfort zone.
You didn’t need to be sitting in the Boras Corporation’s front-row seats at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night to see what could be coming next. One year after the Cubs finally won the World Series, Arrieta is now a free agent with the perfect landing spot already cleared in Los Angeles.
Watching Yu Darvish get 10 outs combined in two World Series losses reinforced the perception that Arrieta is the best starting pitcher on the open market and the Dodgers whiffed by not signing Max Scherzer three years ago or trading for Justin Verlander last winter or this summer.
The Dodgers built a 104-win team with a lot of mix-and-match pieces, layering depth and versatility into the roster, elements that kept showing up across a 162-game season.
But there are lingering questions about Clayton Kershaw’s playoff performances – 7-7 with a 4.35 ERA in 122 career innings – and the three-time Cy Young Award winner can opt out of the final two years of his $215 million contract after the 2018 season.
The Dodgers didn’t let Rich Hill go longer than five innings in any of his four playoff starts this year, allowing him to only face 18 or 19 hitters each time. Kenta Maeda didn’t get nearly as much exposure to lineups, reinventing himself as a bullpen weapon this October.
The Dodgers paid roughly $37 million to Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Scott Kazmir this season and got almost 220 innings combined and zero playoff starts out of those investments. Julio Urias, the elite pitching prospect once compared to Fernando Valenzuela, underwent season-ending surgery on his left shoulder in June.
Arrieta is already playoff-tested after dominating the Pittsburgh Pirates with a complete-game shutout in the 2015 National League wild-card game, beating the Cleveland Indians twice on the road during last year’s World Series and putting up a 3.08 ERA in nine postseason starts.
Arrieta will be 32 next season, but Boras will point to his relatively low pitching odometer (1,161 career big-league innings) and how that compares to Scherzer when he signed his seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals (almost 1,240 innings).
A sprawling Los Angeles front office saturated with Big Data should appreciate Arrieta’s numbers across the last four seasons when compared to all major-league pitchers: third in ERA (2.67) and batting average against (.201); tied for fifth in WAR (18.5) and soft-contact percentage (22); and sixth in WHIP (1.03).
Five years in a row, the Dodgers have won the NL West, a division that featured two other playoff teams this year (the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies) and a franchise that has won three World Series titles since 2010 (the San Francisco Giants).
Arrieta would help the Dodgers stay ahead in that arms race and could be the missing piece for October. It’s not 108 years, but the Dodgers haven’t won a World Series since 1988, or the year Kershaw was born. That sense of history would appeal to Arrieta’s ego and sense of purpose.
So would iconic Dodger Stadium, an ideal pitching environment where Arrieta threw a no-hitter on national TV during his 2015 Cy Young Award campaign and walked into the postgame press conference wearing a onesie covered in moustaches.
Arrieta is someone who dropped into Second City improv classes, posed nude for ESPN the Magazine’s body issue, developed his own Pilates/nutrition program and lives in Austin, Texas, during the offseason. Think Hollywood opportunities and the Southern California lifestyle might be more attractive than, say, living in St. Louis for the next five seasons and playing under The Cardinal Way?
The Dodgers also have a core of 20-something hitters – Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Chris Taylor, Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson, Enrique Hernandez, Austin Barnes – to go with widely respected manager Dave Roberts and All-Star closer Kenley Jansen.
After splitting the last two NL Championship Series – while also looking like contenders for years to come – imagine Arrieta returning to Wrigley Field next October in Dodger blue.