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A Seller's Market for Pitching

Mike SteffanosTuesday, November 14, 2006
By Mike Steffanos

In his column at FoxSports.com, Ken Rosenthal takes the Red Sox to task for spending so much money on the unproven Daisuke Matsuzaka. Rosenthal points out that given a reported $42 million signing bonus, if the Sox wind up signing Matsuzaka to a 3-year deal for $36 million he'll wind up costing them $25 million per year. That truly is a sobering amount of greenbacks. Citing the risk of injury to a starting pitcher, Rosenthal feels the usually smart-shopping Sox have gone off the deep end with this signing.

Then again, even if Matsuzaka stays healthy, Rosenthal isn't letting the Sox off the hook:

The smart guys in baseball -- the numbers crunchers in the front offices -- constantly preach the importance of payroll efficiency. The Sox are one of the foremost numbers-crunching, forward-thinking outfits. But if the Matsuzaka deal proved to be efficient, it wouldn't be because the Sox were particularly visionary. It would be because they were lucky.

A wealthy franchise can afford to take such a gamble, but the Red Sox are demonstrating such risk tolerance coming off a disappointing season, making them appear just slightly desperate. The Red Sox, remember, were in a comparable financial position last winter when they allowed the Yankees to outbid them for free-agent center fielder Johnny Damon. In August, when the Yankees humiliated them in a five-game sweep at Fenway, general manager Theo Epstein said that the Sox couldn't be an "uber-team" like the Yankees. And now this contradiction.

In my mind, the way things are going with starting pitchers, comparing what the Red Sox are willing to spend for Matsuzaka compared to what they weren't willing to part with for Damon is comparing apples to oranges. Pitching is worth much more than offense right now. I don't feel the same love for the Red Sox that many Mets fans seem to have, but I think the way they are running their organization is a better blueprint for large-market teams going forward than what the Yankees have done over the past few years. The Sox have obviously rated Matsuzaka as the potential ace many foresee him becoming, and in that case it is their very payroll efficiency that Rosenthal lauded that enables them to make such a large investment in this player. Also, if he indeed signs a 3-year contract, that's going to look like a bargain in total years compared to the 5-7 year deal Barry Zito will likely command.

At SI.com, Tom Verducci looks at the same numbers as Rosenthal and comes away with a more favorable impression. Verducci looks at the dearth of top pitchers available both now and in the near future, and sees some sense in the Red Sox' actions:

See, premier pitchers, the ones entering their prime, just don't get on the market any more, not since the full-blown revenue sharing kicked in. (Yes, Barry Zito is out there this year, but is he a true ace?) Teams that once routinely waited to pick off aces such as Curt Schilling, Greg Maddux, Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton in another era can't count on those kinds of pitchers going up for sale anymore.

In the past two years alone a virtual entire generation of aces have been locked up with contract extensions, many of whom pitch for small-revenue clubs and would have been up for bid in the past. ...

Now along comes Matsuzaka, only 26 and the best pitcher on the market in, going back to last year, perhaps a four-year window. You miss this train and there's nothing like it coming along for a long time. It didn't take any genius on Boston's part to figure that out, but it did take unprecedented boldness to step out as far as the Sox did. (And don't think the reported $45 million bid was just a ploy to keep him away from the Yankees; the Red Sox will negotiate with Matsuzaka in good faith or risk insulting the player, the country of Japan and causing irreparable harm to MLB's relationship with the Japanese major leagues.)

The point is that revenue-sharing and parity have allowed more teams to both lock up their own talent and spend on the little that is available in the marketplace. The upshot of this is that a solid, unspectacular #2 guy like Zito will wind up both in length of contract and total dollars being compensated as an ace. For a shorter investment in years the Red Sox have gambled that Matsuzaka is the true front-line pitcher that many believe him to be.

Of course, the downside of all of this is that Matsuzaka might fall on his face in Boston, and the chowdah-heads might not be very happy about it. The Daily News' Anthony McCarron quotes XM radio host Orestes Destrade on the potential pitfalls of the signing:

Destrade suggested the price tag for Matsuzaka could soar over $100 million, once his contract is factored in, and that would place considerable pressure on a pitcher in his first year in the major leagues. "It could be a recipe for disaster," Destrade said on the show. "He is a stellar pitcher and in regular circumstances, I think he would have a fantastic major league career. But that is a lot of pressure to go to Boston with a $100 million label tagged to you."

Even if the total price tag is closer to the $75 million that both Rosenthal and Verducci foresee, I could promise you that the Beantown natives will get restless quite quickly if Matsuzaka lays an egg. But this didn't keep the Mets from bidding a reported $38 million for the Japanese right-hander, and we all know that the denizens of Shea are not very patient, either. It's just a different world right now. It's the marketplace itself that makes it vital for the Mets to develop their own young pitching. It's hard to do, and we all know what happened to Generation K, but if you can pull it off, as Boston has with their young pitching, you have some flexibility to spend for the player or two you see as a big piece of the puzzle.

The Mets will probably overpay for a pitcher this winter, whether it's Zito or somebody else. They'll be forced to make a commitment both in money and in years that will defy the conventional logic of the game. That's just the way it is right now in an MLB world of parity and revenue sharing. (By the way, for those of you upset by the $20 million per year windfall that the Mets are receiving from Citigroup, I think that money will come in somewhat handy.)

We've heard that Mike Pelfrey is "untouchable", and I can only hope that's true. While pitching prospects are always a crapshoot, this is the one kid that has the best chance if everything goes right to become a legitimate number one starter. I like Humber, too, and he seems a little farther along than Pelfrey right now, but I don't think he projects to quite the same potential. Actually, given the current market, I'd like to see the Mets hold on to both kids, if possible. You play a numbers game with pitching prospects, and the more you can develop the better likelihood you have of producing effective major league arms. The money that you save when you can home-grow one or more of these kids compensates for the risk of them never developing. A few years ago the top pitching prospects were routinely traded for proven major-leaguers, but teams are placing a much higher value on their own prospects now. Given both the cost and scarcity of quality pitching, this becomes quite understandable.

Valentin and El Duque
The Mets have re-signed both Jose Valentin and Orlando Hernandez. Reports indicate that Valentin has a 1-year, $4 million deal with an option and El Duque has a 2-year deal worth $6 million. At first glance these numbers seem somewhat high for a 37-year-old infielder and a 40-something pitcher. However, given how well both produced last season in New York and the cost of players in today's market, I don't think these were bad deals.

The Mets are clearly looking at signing another second baseman to platoon with Valentin, and that makes sense. For his part, Valentin seems to have turned down a chance to play shortstop again because he wanted to come back. The Mets aren't guaranteeing Jose anything, but he feels confident that he can win a starting job again. If the Mets are going to be forced to overpay for someone like Barry Zito, they need to save money elsewhere. For the production that the Mets got out of Valentin and the solid defense he provided $4 million is not a large investment.

As for Hernandez, given the absolutely out-of-control pitching market, $3 million per season for a guy who showed that he still has something left in the tank is not a ton of money -- not when you'll have mediocre starters signing multi-year deals for almost three times yearly money. I could see El Duque starting the year in the rotation, buying time for youngsters like Pelfrey and Humber to develop, and finishing the year in the bullpen. Even if the youngsters came along faster and El Duque starts the year in the 'pen, he still provides terrific insurance if a starting pitcher goes down. Sad to say, but $3 million per year isn't big money in this current MLB economy. Given that, this was a very smart signing.

Update: Apparently the Orlando Hernandez deal is for $6 million per year rather than $3 million. Boy, this is a crazy market. I still support this re-signing, but it's not quite the no-brainer I originally thought.

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Comments (7)

The salaries are insane and there appears to be no end in sight. A simple way to slow down these runaway salaries would be to move the Yankees and Red Sox into separate divisions in the AL. This would also give the other teams in that division a fighting chance to earn a wildcard slot. Purists may not want to split these 2 teams but purity in baseball died with inter-league play.

Nicepost..as usual. Nice topic.

1. Sellers market? I think its warm. There are alot of quality commodities with very few phenoms. Interestingly this is a year we have harkened for eons....(two yrs) when Zito was to be freed. Now he IS free....but he is no longer the saviour of baseball or even the premium FA this off season. Note also Mark Mulder is freed, the NLCS MVP (suppan)is freed, Jason Schmidt is freed, many others are available.

2. In net terms I think the Mets will add one FA pitcher and one by trade. My guess is Vazquez or Freddy Garcia in a Heilman trade. The CWS then jettison salary and pull McCarthy into the rotation. The rotation is then Ollie, Maine, Vazquez/Garcia, El-Duque-Pelfrey, and maybe Zito. As one post points out Humber or Pelfrey could switch with El Duque who goes to the pen in Darren Oliver's role. U r right $3M is nothing. Note also Omar keeps the team (team chemistry) intact by doing this and El Duque was a big mentor to younger pitchers like Ollie and Soler...and may attract fellow cuban Danys Baez, tho Baez does not want to be in set up.

3. One report also says Stache may not start. I think he could see more bench time next year. I support your vision. I still think Gotay is part of the 2nd base equation, but I can also see Graffanino, DeRosa or Wes Helms in the super-sub roles. Julio Franco could be the third base/a bench coach.

4. Historical Reference: Remember post 2000. The premium FA was Moose who SP went after, then he lost Hampton and settled for Appier. overpaying in that process. This yr IS different because we have options...too often we let pitchers play out that walk yr, hence the Benson contract. We dont HAVE to get Zito. Or HAVE to resign Glavine. I'd be happy with Mulder. and letting El Duque open the season, with Maine, Ollie until Mulder is ready. I think Mulder has yet to hit his ceiling.

JJE - I think the biggest impetus for the crazy money is that there are so many teams ready to spend. That's the natural outcome of parity and revenue sharing. That's why I think the teams that spend some money and have productive farm systems will be the most successful going forward.
Ed - The point isn't the quality of the talent, it's the scarcity. Guys like Gil Meche and Suppan are going to cash in bigtime. I don't think Baez will set up here no matter what. Someone will offer him a closer role. I don't think that Valentin will be paid $4 million to be a bench player, but I would think he would only get around 400 ABs.

I don't believe we have to get Zito or re-sign Glavine, either, but especially if Glavine goes back to ATL I think the Mets push hard for Zito.

A few thoughts, hopefully leading to a point:

-The National League Cy Young award played out to a contest between Oswalt, Carpenter, Webb and Hoffman. All of them are wonderful pitchers, but where was the guy who actually had a Cy Young season?

-On the other hand, Oakland, Minnesota and Detroit all rode young, largely unproven pitchers to divisional titles.

-The cream of the free agent crop consists of Zito and Schmidt, both of whom arrive with question marks; if there is a Mike Mussina or a Roger Clemens in this market I don't know of him. And now the Red Sox have committed an enormous amount of cash to gain access to a pitcher who has already pitched a bunch of long games at an early point in his career, who could be poised to wear the Alex Rodriguez bullseye if he really does sign with Boston and then falters.

-And, what the hell, add in the fact that the Mets just ran up a league-best record with a pathwork rotation; factor in the fact that a number of youngster pitchers made real contributions to that record.

.....all of which leads me to believe that the market for starting pitchers is not a place I want my Mets to participate -- at least not strongly, with an intent of walking away with one of the top names. As I see it, it just is not cost effecient, and no more likely to lead to success than it would be to start off with youngsters, pitchers who still have everything to prove.

Generally speaking I think it is time for the NL teams to reload, from the prospects and the Rule Five guys; the old batch of available names represent sharply diminishing returns. If the Mets want to add a rotation placeholder, someone on the order of a younger Trachsel, fine; but I don't see an ace emerging from the available players unless maybe Florida wants to deal. Better to develop pitchers than to throw money away. Better to invest that money where it can bring a better return.

Bravo dd - couldn't agree more

Hot Foot Reports: " First base prospect Michel Abreu is definitely in the clubs plans for 2007" What, and Who, does that mean ?

dd - You're preaching to the choir with this one with both Andrew and me. If the Mets can groom their own ace, whether it's Pelfrey, Humber or someone else, by the time they need to give them a big contract we'll know that they can pitch in NYC.
Rev - Abreu is a Cuban defector who is listed at 27 but most believe him to be 31. I'm not sure where he fits in the club's plans, since they already have a 1B. I guess he could back up Delgado, but what would that mean for Franco? Interesting...

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