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Maybe It's Time to Stop Grumbling Over the Price of Pitching

Mike SteffanosSunday, December 10, 2006
By Mike Steffanos


The hot topic of discussion this offseason is the out of control market for players, particularly pitching. Two years ago the Mets got a lot of heat for signing Kris Benson for just over $7 million per year for 3 years. Today, Vincente Padilla has officially signed his 3 year, $33 million contract. This comes on the heels of the immortal Gil Meche landing a contract that will pay him that same $11 million per year for five years. What's more astounding is that Meche wasn't signed by a deep-pocketed large market club, he is now the property of the Kansas City Royals.

Perhaps it is time to stop bemoaning the inflated contracts that mediocre pitchers like Meche and Padilla have scored and accept the fact that the value of pitching has changed quite remarkably in a relatively short period of time. The reason for this is quite simple -- revenue sharing has brought a degree of parity to major league baseball that has increased the number of teams with legitimate playoff aspirations. What all of those teams have in common is the need for quality (or at least adequate) starting pitching. More teams dipping into a diminished pool of talent has created a classic supply and demand situation that benefits free agent starting pitchers or teams that have starting pitching to trade.

This situation looks likely to continue for the foreseeable future, making what we believe to be the true value of starting pitching rather a moot point. The bottom line is that the value of pitching is what the market says it is. Pitchers similar to Padilla, Meche and Ted Lilly will likely continue to command multi-year 5-figure contracts whether we agree with it or not. Any team lucky enough to have surplus starting pitching to trade will most probably be able to continue to demand your top prospect, your first-born, and your cojones, at least in the near term.

We've already seen a dramatic change in the value that teams place on their own prospects. With the exorbitant cost for established pitchers, the possibility of producing even a respectable starting pitcher who is years away from testing the market has a value that even free-spenders like the Yankees unwilling to deal away the cream of their system. It makes the Mets' insistence on holding onto Mike Pelfrey, Phil Humber, and even Aaron Heilman understandable.

Not all pitching prospects will pan out, of course, which is why you won't see me writing here about a "surplus" of young starters. It's a numbers game with developing pitchers. They get hurt quite frequently, especially when they are initially stretched out to the work load of a major league starter. Others just fail to develop, never putting together the scattered pieces of their talent into a cohesive whole that allows them to succeed at the big league level. It's the difficulty of turning pitching prospects into accomplished pitchers that makes their value so high, but if the Mets are able to turn their old pitching staff over where say 2 or 3 of their starting rotation are young guys from the group of Maine, Perez, Pelfrey, Humber and Vargas then they're really doing something that will give them salary flexibility going forward to sign those big names fans covet. On the other hand, failure to home grow some of your pitching strikes me as a recipe for disaster in the years ahead. Even without a salary cap in baseball, the escalating value of pitching will make it financially suicidal to try to import your entire pitching staff as teams have commonly done in the past.

Despite my extreme misgivings, I'm becoming more and more agreeable to giving Barry Zito that crazy contract that Scott Boras is seeking. I'm less and less convinced every day that this is one of those infamous single year blips like 2001. I think this may be the new reality. Just as Kris Benson's contract looks reasonable today, I'm not sure that Zito won't look like a relative bargain 2 or 3 years down the road. It's a huge gamble to give a starting pitcher, no matter how durable he's been, a 5 or 6 year contract, but if it would allow the Mets a chance to hold onto their best kids and ensure that they're not forced into a move like this down the road it probably makes sense.

While we are reassessing our scale of value for major league pitching, we're going to be forced to change our thinking of the value of prospects, and stop shaking our heads when our club refuses to deal their best prospects in the trade we wish to see happen. If we want our team to succeed going forward, we may all have to learn to be a little more patient when the young pitcher they're trying to develop is struggling in that early season game in Atlanta. We New York fans are not famous for our patience, but most kids aren't Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden or David Wright. Most have growing pains, and it would be helpful if we all recognized that simple truth.

I'm not advocating that the Mets should operate as a small market club going forward, but I think we are going to see a stark redefinition of what a successful large market club is, and it will be more in line with what the Red Sox and Dodgers are doing -- leveraging a productive farm system and supplementing it with strategic trades and signings. Even the Yankees have youngsters they're not willing to part with. The days of big city teams placing a low value on the farm system are over.

About Mike: I was the original writer on this web site, actually its only writer for the first 15 months of existence. Although I am grateful for the excellent contributions of my fellow writers here, I have no plans of stepping back into strictly an editorial role. I started this thing in the first place because I love to write and I love the Mets, and blogging here keeps me somewhat sane. If you haven't had enough already, more bio info can be found here.

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Comments (6)

Mike,

"That crazy contract" is one that:

1) the Mets can afford

B) could vault a pitching corps with so many question marks to one of the best around

III) as you say, won't look quite so crazy in year 5 or 6

Even if the Zito signing doesn't happen, I think you're right - this is the new normal for pitching value. It may be crazy money, but everyone's dealing in the same loony currency these days.

The Mets are dealing from a real position of strength, and will continue to be able to do so for years to come. This is precisely because of their reluctance to pull the trigger on moving their best young arms for "proven" pitchers, most of whom have a career record on or about the .500 mark.

The stack of blue chips in front of the Mets must look more impressive every day to 29 other GM's. Who's in this hand?

I couldn't agree with you more Mike...

Some fans drive me crazy when they bring up the money, like if it's coming out of their pockets or something.

Market conditions are whatever they are. If Meche could average 11 million and Schmidt 15.5 million than why not 16 million for Zito.

It's supply and demand, right now the players have the edge next year maybe the teams will have an edge.

Later, great blog!

Joe

The good thing I can say about the Mets' springing for Zito is that buying the best in the market is usually a good strategy. A team is much more certain of getting SOME returns from a really superior player, even if something goes wrong like a Frank Tanana-type injury.

But, I've gotta say it: the executives tossing all this money at players who are only slightly better than replacement level, all make me think the same thing -- they've never seen a down market, or else are willing to suspend whatever memory they have of that phenomena.

Only, I know they HAVE all seen a down market. What was it, three-four years ago that baseball was facing contraction? A year earlier we in New York had another episode (downtown, west side, you'll recall) that took by some estimations one trillion dollars out of the economy; it's a miracle, an unreported miracle, that the economy didn't got into a deep recession over that alone.

The fact is that ANY number of things could cause a 5%-10% drop in baseball interest for a couple of years; and if that should happen, an owner is NOT going to want his first thought to be, "where are we going to come up with Gil Mesch's $11 million this year?"

Actually, what I think this spending spree is doing is guaranteeing that there will be more of those ownership musical chairs plays such as we saw with Johnson and Jeffrey Loria a few years ago. I though it was shameless, a conflict on interests at the time; and it may well become institutionalized thanks to the spending spree of Winter 2006-2007.

All right, I'll shut up now.

NostraDennis - I still wish the Mets weren't in the position where they felt they where probably have to go 6 years to sign Zito. From an injury standpoint that is a big risk.
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Joe - Thanks. Unfortunately I guess I'm one of those who act like it's coming out of my pocket, because almost 4 decades of watching this team have taught me how quick it can go bad if they spend money stupidly. I just don't see this one as stupid anymore.
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dd - After looking at all the factors involved, I don't see this as a one-year blip anymore. I'm not defending it, and I'm not happy with contracts longer than 3 years for a pitcher, but I understand it.

From a Mets fan's point of view, I hope they sign Zito, hold on to their best pitching prospects, and then work like hell to make sure they never have to give this much to a pitcher they don't really love.

I hear you on the owners.

Footnote to the earlier conversation: Scott Long at The Juice blog, refers to "the tulip mania period that we are going through for starting pitching." Referring, you know, to a time in the 17th Century when Holland was awash in cash, and the monied citizens took to spending incredible sums on tulip bulbs, competing to have the most spectacular. For a time having the best-in-show tulip was the edge weapon of successful social climbing.

The bottom famously fell out of that market. Too.

dd - I'm sure the market will fluctuate, but I don't see anything that will cause the bottom to drop out any time soon. I don't see it as a "tulip mania" deal at all. More teams are competing for fewer available pitchers. As I've said in my latest, I think the best solution to the current market is to try to stay out of it as much as possible.

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