CLEARWATER, Fla. — Tommy Hunter kept pestering Jake Arrieta.
After joining the Philadelphia Phillies bullpen in December as a free agent, Hunter knew just the guy to lead the team’s youthful rotation, a fellow with a Cy Young Award to his name who just happened to be his former teammate and was available on the market.
So Hunter kept making his pitch for Arrieta to join him in Philly, fully aware that such a major decision would transcend their friendship and require an enormous commitment from the Phillies’ ownership.
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Asked if he put a full-court press on Arrieta, Hunter said, “I was coming hard in the paint, man.’’
On Sunday, his insistence was rewarded when Arrieta called Hunter via FaceTime to let him know he was signing with the Phillies, after agreeing to a three-year contract worth $75 million, with the possibility the deal could grow to five years and be worth up to $135 million.
The news, which the team confirmed Monday afternoon, was greeted with universal enthusiasm in the Phillies’ clubhouse, and was especially well received among the starters. Despite Aaron Nola developing into a front-line pitcher last season, Philadelphia’s starters ranked 10th in the National League with a 4.80 ERA.
Even more troubling, young starters like Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez took a step back. If ever a rotation needed a veteran leader, this was it.
“What a competitor, what a person, what a player, what a pitcher to learn from,’’ Eickhoff said. “He’s done a lot in the game. It will be a pretty special time to be able to interact with him and bounce things off him.’’
Philadelphia, which dropped to fifth place with a 66-96 record last year, has endured five consecutive losing seasons but has also rebuilt its talent base along the way. Hunter said Arrieta’s wife noticed only six of the players on the 40-man roster were born before 1990.
The everyday lineup features some intriguing players like left fielder Rhys Hoskins, who banged out 18 homers in 50 games as a rookie last year, and right fielder Nick Williams, who also made his debut in 2017 and put up an .811 on-base plus slugging percentage. Catcher Jorge Alfaro, seeing his first extended action in the final two months, batted .318 with an .874 OPS.
In addition, holdovers Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera have a track record of success in the majors, and the club added first baseman Carlos Santana (three years, $60 million) and bolstered the bullpen in the offseason.
“I don’t really think we’re rebuilding anymore,’’ said Nola, who went 12-11 with a 3.54 ERA and a team-high 168 innings pitched. “I think we have a pretty good team right now. We’re excited to get to the season. We have veterans on the team, great additions who have been in winning environments.’’
The question is whether those moves, capped by the Arrieta acquisition, are enough to boost the Phillies into contention, at least for a wild-card spot. With rookie manager Gabe Kapler at the helm, they would have to improve by 15 wins just to reach .500.
The Phillies are virtually certain to overtake the dismantled Miami Marlins but still face an uphill climb in an NL East dominated by the Washington Nationals, winners of three of the last four division crowns. The New York Mets also project as a superior club than Philadelphia.
And Arrieta, 32, is far from the pitcher who overwhelmed batters in a remarkable second half of the 2015 season on the way to claiming the Cy Young with a 22-6 record and 1.77 ERA. Since then, he has gone 32-18 with a 3.30 ERA, still impressive but no longer superhuman.
Arrieta has seen his average fastball velocity diminish from 94.9 in 2015 to 92.6 last season, and some of his peripheral stats also headed in the wrong direction, indicators that his days of being utterly dominant are numbered.
However, Arrieta’s mere presence should take some pressure off his younger cohorts.
“He’s a competitor. He brings it every day,’’ said Hunter, his teammate with the Baltimore Orioles from 2011-13. “The way he goes about playing baseball and the way he goes about being Jake, it’s going to teach a lot of guys there’s a lot of different ways to be successful in this game.’’
Arrieta struggled through 3½ seasons with the Orioles before being traded to the Chicago Cubs in July 2013. With better fastball command and a slider-cutter hybrid that’s effective against righties and lefties, he transformed himself into one of the game’s premier pitchers.
The Phillies are thrilled not only to bring in such a weapon, but also about the impact his knowledge could have on the rest of his staff mates.
“Personally, the biggest thing is seeing what he overcame when he went from Baltimore to the Cubs, and how he changed his style, he trusted what he was doing,’’ Eickhoff said. “He’s evolved, and we can all learn from each other’s tough times. That’s what I’m most excited about.’’