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.