Long Term Contracts
Since the Mariners have giant holes in their rotation going into this offseason, there has been a significant amount of talk about the M’s getting two pitchers in free agency to rebuild the rotation around. Ignoring Daisuke Matsuzaka’s situation for a minute, the prominent names mentioned are Jason Schmidt, Barry Zito, and Adam Eaton. Most fans seem to be in favor of breaking the bank and acquiring as many big name pitchers as the team can get, regardless of the years or dollars it takes to sign them.
The purpose of this post is to point out the fact that strategy is a recipe for disaster. For whatever reasons, people have not yet been convinced of the ridiculous risk that is taken when signing a free agent pitcher to a four or five year contract for large amounts of money. The dreams of having an ace dance in the heads of fans and general managers alike, but in most cases, you end up with a crippling contract. The success rate of 4+ year deals for free agent starting pitchers is, to put it bluntly, horrible.
Here’s a look at every current pitcher in MLB who signed a contract of four years or longer that bought out his free agency. Players re-signed one year before they hit the open market count for this purpose.
Bartolo Colon: 4 years, $51 million from 2004-2007.
He was lousy in 2004, good in 2005, lousy and injured in 2006, and it doesn’t look good for 2007. His velocity, and subsequently his strikeout rate, have dropped through the floor, and he’s not the same pitcher he used to be. For $51 million, the Angels got one above average season, one and a half bad years, and are on the hook for $14 million next year to a guy who is unlikely to be very effective.
A.J. Burnett: 5 years, $55 million from 2006-2010.
There’s still time for this story to be written, but after one year, it doesn’t look so hot. They got 100 solid innings out of Burnett this year, but concerns about his arm were well founded, and after several trips to the disabled list, he still doesn’t look like a guy you want to be committing long term to.
Mike Hampton: 8 years, $121 million from 2001-2008.
The contract that keeps on giving. Did you know the Braves paid Hampton $13.5 million this year, owe him $14.5 million next year, and $15 million in 2008? This is one of the worst contracts in professional sports history.
Tim Hudson: 4 years, $47 million from 2006-2009.
Hudson’s pitched better than his ERA suggests, but his peripherals have never been strong beyond his home run rate, and he’s battled injuries the past two years. He’s no longer the 240 inning horse he was in Oakland, and he looks more like a midrotation guy than a frontline starter now. Needless to say, the Braves aren’t looking forward to paying him $32 million for the next three seasons.
Derek Lowe: 4 years, $36 million from 2005-2008.
Finally, a deal that looks good right now. I hated this deal when the Dodgers signed it, but Lowe has pitched far better than I expected. He’s cut his walk rates, maintained his ridiculous groundball dominance, and generally been one of the better starting pitchers in the National League the past two seasons. Despite my initial misgivings, this looks like a bargain in retrospect.
Jason Schmidt: 4 years, $30 million from 2002-2005.
This became a 5 year, $40 million deal when the Giants picked up their option on Schmidt last winter. Despite dealing with injury problems last year, Schmidt’s contract was a steal for the Giants. He gave them three all-star caliber seasons before getting hurt, then has pitched solidly if not spectacularly the past two years. This was a great deal for San Francisco.
Jarrod Washburn: 4 years, $37.5 million from 2006-2009.
We hated this deal when the M’s signed it, and we don’t like it any more now. Washburn’s a back end starter whose only real quality is his durability. They’re paying far too much for a mediocre performer.
Pedro Martinez: 4 years, $53 million from 2005-2008.
This one is tough to evaluate. Pedro was great for the Mets last year, and he’s been solid for them this year when healthy, but long term durability was always the question. He’s only thrown 122 innings this year, and he hasn’t pitched like a frontline starter even when healthy. They got one great year from Pedro, but they’re going to be paying for that one great year for several more. Not a great deal, not a terrible deal.
Chan Ho Park: 5 years, $65 million from 2002-2006.
I don’t think I need to write much here. This contract was a debacle from day one.
Kevin Millwood: 5 years, $60 million from 2006-2010.
Millwood’s pitching almost exactly as he did last year for Cleveland, except his extraordinarily high strand rate has predictably disappeared, and his ERA has risen back into the 4.5 range. Considering the Rangers defense and their home park, that shouldn’t be a big surprise. Millwood’s a better pitcher than most people think, but he’s not a great fit for Texas. They overpaid, and there’s a good chance that they won’t be able to give his contract away by the time its over.
Javier Vazquez: 4 years, $45 million from 2004-2007.
A total failure in New York, then shipped to Arizona, where he spent a mediocre year before demanding another trade and ending up in Chicago. He’s settled in as a career underachiever who is massively overpaid. He’s a decent innings eater, but he’s not worth anything close to his contract.
Jose Contreras: 4 years, $32 million from 2003-2006.
Had half a good year with New York, then was lousy for a year with both NY and Chicago, then was good for Chicago last year, and has been decent for them this year. Not a model of consistency, but there’s been more good than bad with Contreras, and overall, the White Sox have gotten their money’s worth out of him.
Mike Mussina: 6 years, $88.5 million from 2001-2006.
Mussina hasn’t been the same guy he was in Baltimore, but he’s been one of the better, more durable pitchers in the American League, giving the Yankees three legitimately good years and three league average years for their money. He solidified a rotation spot for half a decade, and for that, he’s been worth the money. He’s been worth it.
Carl Pavano: 4 years, $40 millioon from 2005-2008.
He’s thrown 100 innings the past two seasons, angered his teammates and the front office, and is basically out of New York’s plans. Diasaster of a contract.
That’s the list, in its entirity. If we want to break it down by retrospective performance:
Bargain: Schmidt, Lowe
Worth The Money: Mussina, Contreras
Short Term Rewards, Long Term Albatross: Martinez, Colon
Useful but Overpaid: Millwood, Washburn, Vazquez, Hudson, Burnett
Disaster: Park, Hampton, Pavano
That’s 14 pitchers, and the signing team regrets 8 of those. 2 worked out really well for the club, 2 worked out as they had hoped, and 2 gave the team a short term boost, but not one that was worth the total financial payout.
If you gave the signing teams a crystal ball to know what we know now when they did the deal, I’d suggest the only players that still would have been signed would be Jason Schmidt, Derek Lowe, Mike Mussina, Jose Contreras, and Pedro Martinez. The teams would back away from the other nine.
And, keep in mind, these contracts were signed during the period of relative fiscal sanity by the ownership in reaction to the awful Hampton/Neagle deals. Major League clubs went 5 for 14 handing out these kinds of contracts when they were being extraordinarily careful about which pitchers got 4+ year deals.
It’s easy to look at what a pitcher like Barry Zito or Jason Schmidt is right now and say “do whatever it takes to sign him”, thinking you’re getting a pitcher who will anchor your rotation for years to come. We have to remember, though, that guys like Mike Hampton, Tim Hudson, Javier Vazquez, Carl Pavano, Chan Ho Park, and Bartolo Colon were looked at the same way. These guys were Cy Young winners, established playoff heroes, perenniel all-stars, and the best pitchers of their time.
By the years you hit free agency, however, your time is usually running short, and your best days are often behind you. Making a 4+ year commitment to a starting pitcher who has already been worked hard is rarely a good idea.
The Mariners already have one long term albatross contract on their pitching staff. We don’t need another one. There are other ways to build a pitching staff.