CHICAGO - For the first time in their baseball lives, they will have control.
They can choose where they’ll live.
Where they will work.
And sign a contract that will guarantee financial security for generations.
Freedom is just three months away.
It’s called free agency, and with the regular-season nearly complete, more than 100 players have the final chance to showcase their skills, polish their resume, and let future employers know they could be coming their way.
For some, this season has been spent simply validating their greatness.
For others, it’s been a nightmare, as untimely poor performance cultivates a fear that struggles are costing themselves millions.
For every Max Scherzer who earned a $210 million windfall from the Washington Nationals in 2015 after rejecting $144 million from the Detroit Tigers, there’s a Carlos Gonzalez. He was offered a lucrative four-year deal from the Colorado Rockies this spring, and now wonders if he’ll ever recoup it, batting just .228 with a .643 OPS - his worst season since his 2008 rookie year.
For every Jake Arrieta, whose early-season struggles with the Chicago Cubs gave way to five weeks of greatness, there’s Rockies catcher Jonathan Lucroy. The two-time All-Star is having the worst season of his career, hitting just .245 with four homers and a .643 OPS - 212 points lower than a year ago, when he led all catchers.
It’s a unique time of year, with teams watching, and players realizing how critical these final weeks could be to their future.
“I haven’t had the year I would like, but it’s not over yet,’’ Arrieta, the 2015 Cy Young winner, tells USA TODAY Sports. “How many people can do what I do, anyways? A handful of guys?
“But one season shouldn’t diminish what the whole package is, and what a guy can do. You can struggle for a little while. It’s going to happen. If a guy hits .200 for a while, it doesn’t mean he’s a .200 hitter.
“Everyone wants to have a career year, but if I stick to what I’m doing, I like my chances. I’ll be fine.’’
Arrieta and Yu Darvish of the Los Angeles Dodgers are the premier starting pitchers in this year’s free-agent market, and they realize that their performance the rest of the regular season, and particularly the postseason, will be heavily weighed by perspective teams.
If Arrieta, 10-8 with a 3.88 ERA, keeps performing like he has since the end of June - yielding a 2.08 ERA, while permitting six or fewer hits in 14 consecutive starts - he may indeed still get that six-year, or even seven-year deal that he covets. Certainly, Johnny Cueto’s six-year, $130 million deal and Jeff Samardzija’ s $90 million contract with the San Francisco Giants provide nice baselines that will help establish his value, even if the Cubs don’t seem inclined to jump into those waters, last making a formal multi-year offer two years ago.
“It’s completely business, so I get it,’’ says Arrieta, who starts Monday at AT&T Park against the Giants. “They haven’t offered me anything because they know if they do, it’s probably not something I would accept, so why make the offer? I get it.
“If you let that stuff bother you, you don’t completely understand the sport, because that’s part of it. They have to do what’s in the best interest of the organization in the long-term. Is that spending money on me or getting a guy like (Jose) Quintana? They’re going to try to establish a rotation without spending $30 million-plus a season, and maybe sign another bat. Who knows what they do?
“I understand. No hard feelings at all.’’
J.D. Martinez, 29, the best position player on the market, believes he could benefit after being traded from the Detroit Tigers to the Arizona Diamondbacks. He goes from a pitcher’s park in Detroit to a pitcher’s nightmare in Phoenix, with a glorious green batter's eye that’s considered the best in the game. Most of all, he’s going to a contender, where he can focus on the D'backs’ playoff pursuit than simply his own performance.
“There’s always that little bit of added pressure or stress that goes into it,’’ says Martinez, hitting .224 with six homers and 19 strikeouts in 49 at-bats since the trade, “because everybody’s always talking about it. Everybody reinforces it on you. I’m just trying not to think about it, and just play the game.
“But I think it definitely helps going to a contender.’’
Many of the best free agents in this year’s class are playing for contenders, from Arrieta, closer Wade Davis, starter John Lackey and outfielder Jon Jay in Chicago, to Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas in Kansas City, to Gonzalez and Lucroy in Colorado. There are those like outfielders Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson who are playing for the New York Mets, who are hopelessly out of the NL East race, but could wind up with contenders by the Aug. 31 trade deadline once they pass through waivers.
“If you’re not in a playoff hunt,’’ said Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward, who received an eight-year, $184 million contract after the 2015 season, “I imagine it would be really hard. I personally didn’t have to think about it too much. I was on a good team (St. Louis), we were in the playoff hunt, and that’s what drove me every day, not free agency.’’
Says Lackey, who will hit free agency for the third time this winter: “Honestly, it’s never been that big of a thing for me, but I can imagine it could be hard for a guy like J.D. Martinez, who’s trying to prove something to his new team, and is a free agent at the same time.
“For me, it was kind of fun, even though (Jon) Lester was calling me every single day trying to recruit me.’’
Really, the recruiting process is going on already. Players talk before and after games. They ask whether or not they have interest in coming their way, just as the potential free agents have their own set of questions.
“You get those conversations when you’re standing at first base, like, “Hey, you want to play here?’’’ says Nationals catcher Matt Wieters, who signed a two-year, $21 million free-agent deal in February, with an opt-out clause after this season. “But you got to block it out. You have to have focus. The hard part is whether you have a good or bad game, not allowing that to wonder how that will affect you in free agency
“When guys struggle in their walk year, you’ll usually see them turn it around quickly once they tell themselves, “Hey, let’s just go out there and have fun.’ When you start worrying about money, or where we’ll be, that’s when you have problems."
Indeed, even when the Tigers divulged that Scherzer rejected his offer from the Tigers before his walk year, Scherzer turned that pressure into motivation. His dominant season - 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA - helped yield a $210 million windfall with the Nationals.
“Every player understands the business side of this, and everybody knows free agency is coming,’’ Scherzer says, “but it’s just part of the game. It doesn’t change the game.
“You’ve had to deal with playing for contracts for so much of your professional career, whether it’s coming out of college for the draft or whether it’s Year 3 and eyeing arbitration.
“Really, free agency is better because it’s a better representation of how you are as a player versus the salary arbitration we currently have in play.’’
And for every GM or owner that gets skittish bidding on players who struggle in their walk year, fearing the beginning of a decline, there are others who look at it as opportunity.
“Anomalies happen, whether it’s a great year or a bad year,’’ says Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, who has signed three players to contracts exceeding $100 million. “Often times, there’s reasons and rationales that may not be clear. A player may be nicked up and grinding through a little discomfort or an injury because he was good enough to play, but not hurt enough to be on the DL. So many things go into it.
“That’s why you’ve really got to know the man more than the player. You’ve got to find out why they had that kind of season in their walk year.’’
When prospective teams sit down with Arrieta, they’ll ask about his early-season struggles and decrease in velocity. And they’ll be reminded that he’s more of a complete pitcher now than at any time in his career, commanding the strike zone with four pitches instead of simply trying to blow away hitters with a 96-mph fastball.
Sure, he’s not likely to get a David Price, Scherzer or Zack Greinke contract topping $200 million, not when he’ll be 32 years old at the start of next season, but he’ll still become one of the game’s highest-paid pitchers. A team like the Houston Astros will be lurking, knowing what he could mean to a young star-studded team, offering him a place to play near his Austin home.
That may be pressure to some, but not for a man who was dumped four years by the Baltimore Orioles after going 20-25 with a 5.46 ERA, only to emerge in Chicago as one of the game’s premier pitchers. He has a 64-29 record and 2.75 ERA since joining the Cubs, winning one Cy Young award and finishing in the top 10 two other years.
“With what I’ve gone through in my career, and having all of that failure in Baltimore’’ Arrieta says, “there’s no more pressure. I feel like I’ve already proven everything I needed to prove. I don’t have to prove anybody wrong. I’ve already done that. The Cubs know what I can do. Everyone does.
“It’s going to be interesting to see where I end up, man, but if we can walk out of here with two rings, everybody is going to be happy.’’
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