SAN FRANCISCO — Jake Arrieta doesn’t have to think about it. The answer is out of his mouth almost before the question is completed.
There would be no scenario in which he can imagine accepting a qualifying offer — about $18.1 million this year — from the Cubs to stick around another season before hitting the free-agent market
“That’s hilarious to even think about,” said Arrieta, who pitched into the seventh to beat the Giants 5-3 on Monday at AT&T Park. “You’re asking me if I would play on a one-year contract? Absolutely not. Why would I do that? Why?”
Arrieta pitched against a backdrop that offered several reminders of why anything short of the open market makes no sense despite his first-half struggles.
Which makes these last 10 starts or so — and whatever may come in October — last-chance viewing of the pitching comet that has been Arrieta in his four years with the Cubs.
The last time Arrieta (11-8) pitched at AT&T Park, he hit a three-run homer off Madison Bumgarner and handed off a 3-2 lead to the Cubs’ bullpen after six innings in Game 3 of the National League Division Series last October. The Cubs lost in 13 innings but won the next night to win the series.
He went on to win two games on the road in the World Series, including an elimination Game 6.
What’s that worth on the open market? Arrieta also is a 2015 Cy Young Award winner who hasn’t missed a start since April 2014 and is on pace to average 206 innings the last three years. He handles the biggest stages well enough to have pitched a five-hit shutout in his first postseason appearance (2015 wild-card game).
Just ask former Cubs teammate Jeff Samardzija, who’s in the other dugout this series after signing a five-year, $90 million deal with the Giants a few months after leading the American League in hits, homers and earned runs allowed in 2015 for the White Sox.
That’s the market for starting pitching, and it has only grown since, with 2012 Cy Young winner David Price signing a seven-year, $217 million deal with the Red Sox as a free agent the same winter.
“There’s just not many guys you can count on to be healthy and give you innings,” Arrieta said of his confidence taking his track record to free agency this winter, “and pitch well and give you wins in the postseason.”
He looked before the season like he might be the class of the upcoming market, and after producing a 2.18 ERA in seven starts since the beginning of July, he’s trending back in that direction after a poor first half.
He and the Dodgers’ Yu Darvish should jockey for market-setting status down the stretch — and maybe into the postseason.
His agent, Scott Boras, suggested that level of market status this fall even before Arrieta surged out of the All-Star break.
“I understand everyone wants to look at numbers,” Boras said during the break, when Arrieta was barely .500 and lugging a 4.35 ERA. “You have to look at durability first. The most important thing about a starting pitcher is durability, his ability to go out there and throw the innings.”
In May, when Boras spoke to reporters in Los Angeles about Arrieta, he made a case based more on a multiyear window of elite performance and postseason performance.
Boras might be able to make either case if this keeps up, while the Cubs have long accepted the inevitability of his departure after this season.
“Then you have to add in the postseason component,” Boras said. “I don’t think it’s any secret this Chicago Cubs team is facing the dynamic of having a season where they had a long season last year. You look at Jon Lester, and he’s a great pitcher. Look at his ERA [at the break]. He and Arrieta share an ERA.”
Lester’s ERA was 4.25 in the first half.
“They’re both great pitchers, and they’re both championship pitchers,” Boras said. “But their ERA is probably a run higher than it was a year ago.
‘‘Does that mean that their values [are down]? The issue is they’re out there doing it [over a long window].
“But durability for me is what creates value. And you have postseason excellence, you have durability.”
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