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April 3, 2023: The Great Free Agent Pitcher Standoff enters its sixth season

This is fiction. It hasn’t happened... yet.

Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

This article was inspired by this tweet.

WRIGLEY FIELD, Monday, April 3, 2023 — The sixth season of the Great Free Agent Pitcher Standoff began with Kyle Hendricks on the mound for the home opener for the defending World Series champion Cubs.

While Hendricks, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Bryce Harper and the rest of the Cubs were set to begin the season against the crosstown White Sox, 37-year-old Jake Arrieta, 37-year-old Yu Darvish and 35-year-old Alex Cobb remained resolute. Having held out this long for contracts of five or six seasons, the three righthanders figured they had nothing to lose by sitting out one more year.

Darvish, in attendance at the Cubs’ opener after meeting with President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein for lunch, was looking a little paunchier than he did when he last pitched in 2017, perhaps due to all the meals he’d had with team executives over the previous five years. He had used much of the intervening time to perfect his English. He told reporters, “I can still pitch; I’m just waiting for the right dinner offer.” Darvish did have what appeared to be a rock-solid five-year offer from the Yankees in 2019, but after dinner with Brian Cashman in New York, he came down with some sort of food poisoning and the Bronx Bombers went with a rejuvenated CC Sabathia, who had won the 2018 A.L. Comeback Player of the Year award, instead.

Arrieta, not bearded because he figured he’d remain clean-shaven until he returned to the game, credited his Pilates routine with keeping him in shape. “I’m ready to go,” he said on a video feed from his home near Austin, Texas. “I’m hoping the Rangers will call so I can work near where I live and be with my family.” When reporters pointed out that he’d been at home with his wife Brittany and their children for the past five years, the video feed suddenly cut out. This recalled the time in early 2020 when it appeared Jake was ready to sign with the Cubs, but after he spent some time at SXSW he went incommunicado for several weeks and the Cubs moved on, and won, without him.

Cobb had soured on the Cubs after one of his best friends, pitching coach Jim Hickey, had retired after the 2021 season, following the team’s second World Series title under his tutelage of Hendricks and other Cubs pitchers. At 35, though, he thought someone might still give him a six-year contract. Speaking from an undisclosed location because of threats made by fans of the relocated Rays, now the Montreal Expos, who had hoped Cobb would come with them after they left Tampa, Cobb said, “I’m totally healed up from the Tommy John surgery now. I can’t imagine why no one’s called me since 2019. Thanks for this call, just tell everyone I’ve got my passport ready to go to Montreal now.”

And so baseball had moved on without these three strong right arms. Even without any of them in the rotation, the Cubs had used the solid bullpen anchored by Brandon Morrow to squeak out a seven-game World Series win over the Indians in 2018, in a rematch of the 2016 affair, leaving the Tribe with a 70-plus season World Series drought.

Harper, signed by the Cubs after 2018 in part because of the dollars they didn’t spend on one of the Standoff hurlers, was named National League MVP, hitting .330/.430/.580 with 42 home runs, helping lead the Cubs to a 100-win season, their second in three years, and the championship. Harper had pleased Cubs fans by signing an eight-year, $250 million deal, quite reasonable for the time frame, and also pleased baseball fans in general by signing his deal within one week of reaching free agency, cognizant of the havoc that had been wreaked on fans when the Great Standoff began the previous winter.

The Cubs won another title in 2020 over the White Sox, led by Cy Young winner Jose Quintana. Joe Maddon, who had received a contract extension through 2021 three years earlier, managed a “victory lap” season in ‘21 and then retired, nearly certain to be inducted into the Hall of Fame within a few years. Current Cubs manager David Ross, who had led the Cubs to yet another championship in ‘22 over the Yankees, was also asked about the Great Pitcher Standoff. He hesitated just briefly while glancing at his 39-year-old buddy Jon Lester, who was entering his final big-league year, and then replied, “Sure, we’d have loved to have any of those guys with us. But they just didn’t seem to want any of the offers on the table. One year turned into two, and then we had guys coming up through the system, and...”

No further words needed to be said. As Hendricks got ready to throw the first Wrigley pitch of 2023 against the Sox, featuring the reigning A.L. MVP Eloy Jimenez, baseball fans asked about Arrieta, Darvish and Cobb mostly just shrugged.

“Jake who?” said a Cubs fan who asked not to be identified, and who likely was just trying to be snarky, as he was wearing a tattered jersey that read “ARRIETA 49” on the back. “Oh, you mean that guy who threw the no-hitters? Nice, but what has he done for us lately?”

The Cubs had moved on. The fans had moved on. The game had moved on. And yet, the three pitchers at the heart of the Standoff were certain, just certain, that the right offer would come along any day now.

Meanwhile, Hendricks wound up and threw a changeup over the plate for strike one, and the 2023 Wrigley Field season was underway...