Signing Starting Pitchers: Prices Are INSANE!

An article by posted on December 12, 2009

Like thousands of kids who grew up as Mets fans in the late ’60s, early ’70s, I wanted to be Tom Seaver, the closest thing to pitching perfection as I ever saw or will ever see. I got as far as being the number one pitcher for my small NY college baseball team in 1977 (the year Tom was traded) and ’78. Had that been 30 years into the future, I’d have done everything humanly possible (except for taking performance enhancing drugs) to get to the show because being a major league starting pitcher has to be the greatest job in the world. In what other profession (other than perhaps backup quarterback in the NFL) can so many mediocrities make so much money.

That’s what I thought when the news came down earlier this week from the Winter Meetings that the Brewers had signed Randy Wolf for three years at $30 million (with a fourth-year option), the Cardinals had signed Brad Penny for a year at $7.5 million and that fourth-starter types Joel Pineiro, Jason Marquis and Doug Davis were looking at multi-year deals that even had Omar Minaya running scared. And between you and me, I don’t think even John Lackey is worth the money and the years they are talking about right now. Roy Halladay perhaps. But Lackey? No. Bulldog isn’t enough for me.

It was bad enough we had to watch helplessly last winter as Omar showered the pitiful Oliver Perez with $36 million over three years, the biggest waste of money since Fred Wilpon met Bernie Madoff. (And, by the way, I agreed with his not going after Derek Lowe, who the Braves now want to unload.) Now I’m worried that the Mets may throw good money after bad and overpay guys who are really no better than back of the rotation arms. And if I hear one more “but he gives you innings,” I’ll lose my lunch.

Listen, for every pitcher that turns his career around in his mid to late 20s, there are probably a half dozen who have a one-season positive spike (thanks to a pitching coach, throwing in a pitcher’s park, being on a good offensive team, etc) and then fall back down to earth. I can’t cite specific stats or data to back that up, I’m just going on 45 years of following baseball. How about one example from the 1973 “Ya Gotta Believe” Mets: Pitching for the Braves in 1971 and ’72 at the ages of 25 and 26, George Stone went a combined 12-19 with a 5.51 ERA in ’72. He was basically a throw-in in the Felix Millan trade before the 1973 season, and as a fourth starter that year went 12-3 with a 2.80 ERA and should have pitched Game 6 of the World Series (I’m now two for two in mentioning that fateful situation in blog posts here).

Let’s say Stone had done that last year and was a free agent this winter. We’re talking an Ollie Perez deal, perhaps even more. What did George Stone do for the Mets the following two years? A combined 5-10 in 24 starts with an ERA of 5.03 and 5.05 and a hits to innings-pitched ratio that would make Bobby Ojeda collapse in the SNY studio. The question is this: Why do scouts suddenly not believe their reports or their instincts when a middle-aged (in baseball years) pitcher has one decent season?

It’s called desperation and for that I blame free agency, expansion, Tony LaRussa and every manager who has copied his over-reliance on the bullpen. When you layer those factors onto the already well-established precept that starting pitching is without question the most important part of building a championship baseball team, it’s no wonder that anybody who can get throw a ball close to 90 mph for strikes once in a while is going to become a multi-millionaire.

I won’t get into the tiresome debate about how free-agency and huge contracts have impacted the game, but the unintended consequence of the huge investments in pitchers has lead to them being treated like delicate pieces of china who might break if you just look at them. A huge irony or contradiction of that last statement, depending on how you look at it, is that said huge investments in high draft picks has also led to rushing young pitchers to the majors before they are ready. Mike Pelfrey: I rest my case. I don’t care what the signing bonus has been, you don’t bring a young pitcher to the big leagues unless he is a Dwight Gooden-esque prodigy or he has absolutely dominated at least Double A for a full year. All of the above has led to the evolution of middle relievers (who used to be the weakest pitchers on the staff) who really need to be good because–thanks to LaRussa and his ilk–your best relief pitcher can only pitch the ninth inning with nobody on base or else it will lead to the apocalypse. And coloring all of those factors has been the rapid expansion of baseball over the past four decades, which has added dozens of pitchers to big league rosters who really have no business being in the majors.

So when it comes to pitching, especially starting pitching, it will always be a seller’s market no matter how many guys are free agents and no matter how bad the economy is at the time. It’s going to take a front office with a great scouting department and a strong will to resist the temptation to sign these mediocrities. Which is why I don’t agree with that blowhard Mike Francesa when he wails that the Mets shouldn’t go after Roy Halladay. Normally, I’d rather sign a free agent than trade prospects, but if you’re going to spend big money, you might as well go for the gusto, even if it does cost Pelfrey (a cream puff who would be replaced with Halladay), Daniel Murphy (a guy without a real position) and Fernando Martinez (who would be out of the picture if the Mets sign Jason Bay or any other left fielder). Hey, the Phillies are thinking about trading Cole Hamels for the guy!

I understand that signing free-agent pitchers can be something of a crap shoot. But does it have to be insane?

About the Author ()

Stephen Hanks (Tom Terrific) is a magazine editor and writer based in Brooklyn, NY, who has been the publisher and editorial director of publications ranging in subjects from sports to health to archaeology. He began his career at the late, great SPORT Magazine in 1977 and in 1983, he co-founded NEW YORK SPORTS Magazine (which ceased publication in 1985). He has written and edited coffee table books on baseball history, penned unauthorized biographies of Bo Jackson and Wayne Gretzky, and in 1990 authored "The Game That Changed Pro Football," an oral history of the 1969 New York Jets Super Bowl Season. Even though he grew up near Yankee Stadium, he loathes the team from the Bronx and has been a die-hard Mets fan since attending his first game at the Polo Grounds in 1963.

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