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Cubs glad to avoid Jake Arrieta in division, happier ex-Cub finally lands deal

MESA, Ariz. — News of Jake Arrieta’s three-year deal with the Phillies surfaced just about the time his replacement with the Cubs, Yu Darvish, was in the middle of striking out four consecutive Athletics early in his spring start Sunday.

The two pitchers were ranked 1-2 at the outset of the winter, each expected by many to command a deal worth $25 million or more annually for four to six years.

Neither had a job by the end of January as the slowest free-agent market since the collusion years in the 1980s left scores of free agents unemployed as camps opened.

“I obviously was aware of him being a free agent, of course,” said Darvish (through a translator), whose market seemed most directly tied to Arrieta’s all winter. “I’m just glad he’s going to end up somewhere.”

Yu Darvish pitched five strong innings in a win over the White Sox.

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The Cubs never were seriously involved in the Arrieta market, putting Darvish at the top of their wish list but expecting to settle for a next-level pitcher such as Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb. That was until it became clear that market values would remain suppressed by the large number of tanking teams opting out of the market, the big-market teams committed to keeping payrolls under the luxury-tax ceiling and/or collusion.

On the eve of Cubs camp opening last month, Darvish wound up with the largest total-value contract among the free-agent pitchers — a front-loaded $126 million deal that made the luxury-tax numbers work for the Cubs by a sixth year being added.

Arrieta? As other free agents began coming off the board after the Darvish deal — including Lynn, Carlos Gonzalez and Mike Moustakas taking discounted one-year deals in recent days — Arrieta held as firm as anybody on the market.

“After I signed, [Eric] Hosmer signed [with the Padres], J.D. Martinez signed [with the Red Sox] and all these other guys signed,” Darvish said. “Now that I look back, in retrospect, I feel like I should have signed earlier for those guys.”

That got a few laughs. But it was a bitter experience for most free agents.

Ultimately, Arrieta got the highest annual value for any free agent on the market but settled for the short-term guarantee and for a rebuilding team that hopes it’s close to turning a competitive corner.

The deal is front-loaded with a $30 million salary this year, has an opt-out clause after two years, and could extend to as much as five years, $135 million with club options and incentive clauses, according to Jon Heyman of Fangraphs.com. One upside for the Cubs is they avoid their 2015 Cy Young winner signing within the division and making the Brewers or Cardinals a potential co-favorite in the NL Central.

“I want what’s best for Jake and his family, period,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said Sunday. “Jake did so much wonderful work for the Cubs. And as a person and as a family member, he benefitted my family. That’s the way I look at it.”

Arrieta makes his Wrigley Field return with the Phillies for a series June 5-7.

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com