Posted: Thursday November 9, 2006 12:33PM; Updated: Thursday November 9, 2006 2:49PM
The Braves are one of three teams paying off Mike Hampton's blockbuster, eight-year contract.
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They have started 10 or fewer games in a season 11 times and 20 games or fewer 25 times. So teams are getting 20-start seasons or less out of their free agents more than half of the time. On seven occasions, an entire season was lost to injury.
None have started at least 30 games in every season of his contract, though the Yankees' Mike Mussina has averaged that many starts and San Francisco's Jason Schmidt was very close over the four years of the contract he signed before 2002 (not counting an option year in '06). Six others with time remaining on their contracts -- from Hampton to Pedro Martinez to A.J. Burnett -- already have blown their chance to be 30-game starters in every year of their current deals. Jarrod Washburn, Kevin Millwood and Derek Lowe -- who all have time left on their contracts, too -- still have a chance to start 30 games every year of their contracts.
Only one pitched for a World Series winner during the term of his contract. And Kevin Appier did that only after the team that signed him, the Mets, traded him in the offseason to the 2002 champs, the Anaheim Angels.
Only two can be characterized as good deals: Mussina's and Schmidt's. Mussina has pitched well and hasn't made fewer than 27 starts in a season during the six years of his deal. He's currently talking with the Yankees about an extension. Schmidt didn't have fewer than 29 starts in any of the four years of his contract. His signing was a coup for the Giants for a few reasons. One, he pitched well. Two, it was the cheapest long-term deal of the past six years (four years, $30 million). And three, the Giants had an option year in his original contract, too, turning it into a 32-start season in '06.
The worst deals? It starts with Neagle and Dreifort. Neagle started 30 games for the Rockies his first year and 28 the next, but injuries limited him to seven games in '03 -- and he never pitched again. Dreifort signed the big deal with the Dodgers before the '01 season, never pitched more than 95 innings in a year, missed two years completely due to injury and was a full-time reliever in another.
The list of dubious deals runs long, starting with Hampton (who was traded, started only 12 games for the Braves in '05, missed all of '06 and still has two years remaining on his contract), running through Pavano (he started only 17 games in his first year, missed all of '06 and still has two years left) and culminating with the terribly ill-advised signing of Ortiz (33 total starts in the first two years of the deal, with a 7.33 ERA, and released by the D'backs with more than two years and $22 million left on his contract). Several other contracts -- including those of Bartolo Colon, Martinez and Burnett -- could end up being clunkers.
"Sometimes you have to stretch. Sometimes you reach," says an AL GM. "And you end up paying for it."
All this isn't to say that there aren't reliable starters to be had. In the past six years, 18 pitchers have averaged at least 30 starts a year, headed by Zito (who has started 208 games in that span). Most of the pitchers on that list signed a series of shorter-term deals, though, or they signed long ones before 2001, or they've signed extensions before they hit free agency, or teams locked them up before they were eligible for free agency in the first place.
But signing a true free-agent starter who will be reliable over the years of a long-term contract?
The smart money says don't even bother.
"Guys are going to be paid well anyway," our NL GM says. "But that doesn't mean you go from a four to a ... seven. It doesn't make any sense."