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The edge of reason

Long-term contracts for pitcher seldom pan out

Posted: Thursday November 9, 2006 12:33PM; Updated: Thursday November 9, 2006 2:49PM
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For the most part, Carl Pavano has been missing in action since signing a four-year, $40 million deal with the Yankees after 2004.
For the most part, Carl Pavano has been missing in action since signing a four-year, $40 million deal with the Yankees after 2004.
Al Bello/Getty Images
Free-agent starters signed to contracts of at least four years during the past six years.
Yr Player Team Deal Rec., ERA
'01 Kevin Appier NYM 4 years, $42M 33-32,
'01 Denny Neagle COL 5 years, $51M 19-23,
'01 Darren Dreifort LAD 5 years, $55M 9-15,
'01 Mike Mussina NYY 6 years, $88.5M 92-53,
'01 Mike Hampton COL 8 years, $121M 53-48,
'02 Jason Schmidt SF 4 years, $30M 60-27,
'02 Chan Ho Park TEX 5 years, $65M 33-32,
'04 Bartolo Colon ANA 4 years, $51M 40-25,
'05 Carl Pavano NYY 4 years, $40M 4-6,
'05 Russ Ortiz ARZ 4 years, $33M 5-19,
'05 Derek Lowe LAD 4 years, $36M 28-23,
'05 Pedro Martinez NYM 4 years, $53M 24-16,
'06 Jarrod Washburn SEA 4 years, $37M 8-14,
'06 Kevin Millwood TEX 5 years, $60M 16-12,
'06 A.J. Burnett TOR 5 years, $55M 10-8,
NOTE: free agents only. Not included: option years, extensions of existing contracts and contracts signed before a player becomes eligible for free agency.

For three consecutive winters, beginning in 2002, signing a free-agent starting pitcher to more than a four-year contract was simply crazy talk. Nobody did it.  Going beyond that conjured up images of Darren Dreifort (five years, $55 million) and Denny Neagle (five years, $51 million), two of the biggest free-agent busts of all-time.

But then came last offseason, when a couple of five-year contracts for free-agent starters crept their way past the game's guards, and then came Roy Oswalt's five-year, $73 million extension with the Astros in August. Which brings us to the present.

Here we sit, in this winter of fiscal content, with a bunch of itchy-fingered general managers, checkbooks at the ready, staring down a mostly middling class of free-agent starters, eyes on the jackpot. Oh, the GMs say they'll resist the temptation. They know the odds are against them. They read the computer printouts.

But with all the money floating around, with a real shortage of top-drawer starters, with all the pressures from fans and owners to win, some GM is bound to crack.

Five years for a free-agent starter? Six? Longer? To that very real possibility, we can only offer these few words of advice to the gung-ho and short-memoried:

Don't. It's not worth it. It doesn't work.

In the past six offseasons, starting with the paradigm-shattering 2001 winter, major-league GMs have signed 15 free-agent starting pitchers to contracts of at least four years. Most of those deals [see chart] have either gone bust or will do so in the near future.

"Who out there is worth even four years?" asks one National League GM. "History will tell you, it's a hard thing to do."

History suggests that offering a long-term contract to a starter is a bad idea. If the deals for Neagle and Dreifort didn't prove that, the Chan Ho Park boondoggle should have done the trick. Or Carl Pavano's. Or Russ Ortiz's.

But will those disasters stop GMs from going long-term for pitchers on this year's market?

Probably not. If teams were willing to post an estimated bounty of $20-$30 million simply for the right to negotiate with Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, you can bet they will be willing to go beyond a mere two- or three-year commitment for his services.

And agent Scott Boras is talking about six years, at somewhere around $90 million, for the top free-agent starter this winter, Oakland lefty Barry Zito. Although the six-year figure smacks of Boras grandstanding, Zito is as reliable as any pitcher in the game. He actually might get his six years.

If he does, it would be the longest contract for a free-agent pitcher since Mike Hampton talked the Rockies into eight years and $121 million in that memorable winter before the '01 season.

"That would surprise me, if I saw a six," says an American League GM. "The statistics are kind of staring you right in the face."

Says yet another AL GM: "That's a big number, a big commitment, a big risk. But it probably wouldn't surprise me."

Whatever happens with Zito, Matsuzaka or any other pitcher on the market, the numbers on those 15 starters who signed free-agent contracts over the past six offseasons should serve as a warning for any right-thinking GM:

• Those 15 pitchers signed on for 71 seasons worth of work for about $817 million; 49 of those seasons are in the books. During those 49 seasons, a pitcher has started 30 games only 19 times -- about 39 percent.


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