PHILADELPHIA — The call finally came one night in February.
After months of waiting, of talks with no offers, of watching time stand still for an entire class of All-Star free agents, Jake Arrieta heard from Cubs president Theo Epstein.
“He made an offer, but in my heart, I believe that he knew I would say no or that I would want to negotiate, which would make it easier for him to go sign [Yu] Darvish,” said the most significant player in the Cubs’ rise to their historic World Series championship.
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“He called literally the night before Darvish signed and said, ‘Here’s the offer, take it or leave it. If you don’t want it, we’re going to try to sign Darvish as soon as possible.’ ”
Six years, $120 million. Take it or leave it.
The next day, the Cubs and Darvish closed on a six-year, $126 million contract.
It was the defining moment of the Cubs’ offseason and the final word in the defining chapter of Arrieta’s baseball life.
“Theo’s great at what he does, he really is,” Arrieta said recently from his corner spot in a quiet Phillies clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park.
“But they weren’t willing to negotiate at all, and that wasn’t acceptable for me. I bet on myself just like I have my entire career and ended up getting a good deal.”
That bet already is paying off with a guarantee of $75 million over the next three years. With club options and escalators, that could grow to five years and $135 million.
“I intend to be here for five years,” Arrieta said, “or longer.”
Whether he wins that bet, or the Cubs win their bet on Darvish, Arrieta was right.
The Cubs’ decision was made before the phone call was. Neither Epstein nor other front-office officials would comment on details of the talks. But the perception within the organization was that Arrieta wanted close to the $28.3 million per year given to Cubs pitcher Jon Lester.
And to be clear: No four-year, $110 million offer was ever made, contrary to some reports.
Arrieta described the extent of the conversations over the winter between him and the Cubs before Epstein’s call in February.
“None,” Arrieta said. “There wasn’t any.”
Arrieta said he has no hard feelings. He had the kind of run in Chicago that baseball fantasies are made of. He never wanted to leave, but he and his wife, Brittany, came to terms long ago with the “difficult” reality that 2017 would be their last year in Chicago.
“But then when Theo called, and then he signed Darvish the next day, it brought up all that stuff again,” Arrieta said, “like we were back to square one. It was tough.
“It was like, ‘Oh, [expletive], now it’s for sure that we’re not going back.’ ”
Despite interest from six or seven teams, he had no offers on the table once he hung up the phone. Spring training had begun, and the slowest, damnedest free-agent market in history still had barely budged.
“There were times in February where I’m like, ‘Why me?’ ” Arrieta said. “ ‘Why this year? It had to happen this year?’ But there were guys that were much worse off than I, that got screwed pretty badly.”
Mike Moustakas took a one-year deal to return to the Royals. Greg Holland, the National League saves leader last year, didn’t sign until the season started, getting a one-year deal from the Cardinals. Dozens of potentially useful veterans remain unsigned from a market Lester called “crazy” and “alarming.”
Arrieta didn’t sign with the Phillies until mid-March.
“One thing during free agency that I heard was that I didn’t project as well over the course of the contract,” Arrieta said. “Get the [expletive] out of here. I don’t even know what that means. Because my [velocity] was down? I was 92.5 [mph] last year, average. I’m throwing 93-95 now.
“And I can pitch.”
Arrieta said he wasn’t following Darvish’s season, much less the hand-wringing over the new guy’s puzzling fifth-inning problems. He’s too busy playing the video game Fortnite with his son, Cooper, and playing with the family’s two German Shepherd pups.
“[Darvish is] going to go on a run of five to 10 starts where he’s dominant. He’s got that kind of stuff,” Arrieta said.
But don’t bet against Arrieta as he tries to help the young Phillies take the kind of competitive step the young Cubs did a few years ago.
Despite an abbreviated spring and a rough outing Monday, he’s 3-1 with a 3.49 ERA in five starts.
Despite a strong start Friday, Darvish is 0-2 with a 5.26 ERA heading into his start Wednesday against the Rockies at Wrigley Field.
Wherever either ends up this season, don’t try telling Arrieta that anybody — including Darvish — has anything on him.
“There’s not many like me. That’s just how it is, man,” said Arrieta, whose 2015 Cy Young season ranks among the best for any pitcher in history. “I view myself as very different than most. I’m not saying I have the best stuff or I’m the best pitcher or I have the best command. But just what I do is pretty unique to me. The whole thing.
“I don’t care what the situation is, I bet on myself to get the job done.”
Like he did that night in October 2015 when he throttled the Pirates in Pittsburgh in a wild-card playoff victory that launched the Cubs. Like he did in 2016 in Cleveland — twice — to help win the most coveted championship in American team sports history.
“I don’t even think we’re competitive in ’15 without him,” Epstein said last year. “And we’re not a playoff team without him. Maybe the whole timetable for the rebuild is different without him.”
Arrieta, 32, sounds confident he can do it again. Any of it. All of it.
Including that Cy Young season for the ages.
“Why not?” he said.
If he even approaches that kind of performance and stays healthy through his deal, it could be the Phillies who win the biggest bet of this free-agency ice age.
“I’m not playing around,” Arrieta said. “I’m here to take full responsibility for what my role is, both to lead by example and to help these guys get the most out of their ability.”
Already, his new manager, Gabe Kapler, called Arrieta “one of the best leaders I have ever been around.”
That was a big part of the calculus in going after Arrieta, who has embraced the mentor role for young starters such as ace-in-the-making Aaron Nola and electric-but-inconsistent Vince Velasquez.
“He’s a special fit because we have young, developing starters,” Kapler said. “He was once a young, developing starter that needed to take a real step forward to be the guy that he is now, which is one of the best pitchers in baseball.”
Arrieta won’t say he thinks the Cubs screwed up by not doing more than making a final-hour, half-hearted attempt by phone to try to keep him. In fact, he plans to thank Epstein for the trade that brought him to Chicago in the first place.
And then let his pitching talk for him.
“I respect the hell out of the guys in Chicago for what they’ve built,” said Arrieta, who returns to Wrigley Field on June 5. “No hard feelings. I’ll hug Theo and Jed [Hoyer] and all the boys when we go to Chicago and they come here. What’s most important is what we did those 4½ years I was there.
“That’s more important to me than not re-signing with the Cubs.”