So the latest news from Mets Land is that a day after finding out catcher Bengie Molina spurned them to return to San Francisco, they were also left at the alter by pitchers Joel Pineiro (California Angels) and Doug Davis (Milwaukee Brewers), mainly because they didn’t make a big enough offer.
Sometimes it’s a good thing to have to watch your pennies.
The New York Mets are a big-market ballclub that this off-season has obviously been working with a smaller budget. Whether that’s because their owners—the Wilpon Family—were fleeced by Bernie Madoff or because they obscenely overpaid for pitcher Oliver Perez last year or because they don’t want to pay a luxury tax or due to a combination of all three, the fact is the Mets have decided not to spend money like drunken sailors. The upside of such penny-pinching? They haven’t thrown millions at pitchers who are no better than third, fourth and fifth starters as if they were banks needing a bailout.
During the December Winter Meetings, the Brewers signed Randy Wolf for three years at $30 million (with a fourth-year option), the St. Louis Cardinals signed Brad Penny for a year at $7.5 million, Jason Marquis went to the Washington Nationals for two years and $15 million, Pineiro got two years and $16 million from the Angels, and Davis received $4.5 million with a year option at $6.5.
Seriously, in what other profession (other than perhaps backup quarterback in the NFL) can so many mediocrities make so much money?
And between you and me, not even John Lackey, a legitimate number two starter, was worth the five years and $82.5 million he got out of the Boston Red Sox. A five-year deal for a 31-year-old pitcher with an injury history? Please. Roy Halladay might deserve that when he wins a Cy Young for the Philadelphia Phillies perhaps. But Lackey? No. The bulldog reputation isn’t enough for me.
Are the Mets desperate for a solid starter or two to support ace Johan Santana? Of course. But a year after Omar Minaya’s misguided signing of Perez for three years and $36 million of the Mets bucks that Madoff didn’t get, why throw good money after bad and overpay guys who are really no better than back of the rotation arms? Yeah, I know, guys like Marquis and Pineiro “give you innings.” If I hear that one more time, I’ll lose my lunch.
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.
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 negative 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 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.
Just consider young righthander Mike Pelfrey, who the Mets were already slotting in as a number two starter after just one decent season in the big leagues. I don’t care what the signing bonus has been, you don’t bring a young pitcher to the majors 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. 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 a cream puff pitcher like Pelfrey, Daniel Murphy (a guy without a real position) and outfield prospect Fernando Martinez (who might be out of the picture now that the Mets have signed Jason Bay).
Right now, the leading free-agent pitchers on the market are Jon Garland (another soft tosser who “gives you innings”) and Ben Sheets, an injury-prone right hander with big upside if healthy and a legit number two starter. That’s the kind of guy you overpay and that should be the Mets target right now.
Bottom line: Signing free-agent pitchers can be something of a crap shoot, but does it have to be insane?
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