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As Yu Darvish debuts for Cubs, unsigned Jake Arrieta faces likely delayed season

Yu Darvish, right, makes his Cubs debut Tuesday while the former Cy Young winner he replaced, Jake Arrieta, remains a free agent.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The clock is down to the final few ticks for Jake Arrieta and other unsigned free-agent starting pitchers hoping to find new teams in time to be ready for an opening rotation.

Once they sign, these free agents still need spring starts, underscoring Cubs president Theo Epstein’s remarks last month about the importance of getting Yu Darvish’s long-term contract done before the start of Cubs camp.

Darvish, who makes his Cubs debut Tuesday against his old Dodgers teammates at Sloan Park in Mesa, signed his six-year, $126 million deal with barely a day to spare before camp opened.

“The six weeks [of spring training] is really important, especially for the pitcher,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I think the length of spring training is designed for the pitcher. Hitters can get their number of at-bats in a shorter amount of time, but I don’t think pitchers can be rushed.

“Beyond that, culturally speaking, I like the idea that [Darvish is] going to be here from Day 1 to just know the guys. One of our strengths is we’re four years together now, with a lot of success. So he needed to be here right from Day 1. It’s good for him, and it’s good for us, moving into the first game of the season.”

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Darvish already has used the length of camp to his advantage, building up slowly in part because of a postseason workload with the Dodgers that stretched to Nov. 1. He was scratched from his first scheduled start because of a stomach bug, instead throwing two simulated innings in the bullpen.

Meanwhile, Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn and other free-agent starters are doing a slow burn of another kind as they wait out the slowest free-agent market in at least three decades.

Industry insiders have generally pegged the start of March as the drop-dead point for a starting pitcher to join a camp with enough time left to start the season as an active member of the rotation. And that includes buying extra preparation time by slotting him at the back of the rotation.

“It’s really a tenuous moment right now to be comfortable [planning for a newcomer to be ready in time],” Maddon said. “And another week from now, you might see the guy get signed and start off in extended spring or some kind of situation where you don’t activate him until he’s actually ready to go, because he’s not going to be ready to go.

“I think Theo’s absolutely right. I was very glad [Darvish] showed up the first day.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com