Buyer beware: Long-term deals for pitchers usually don't pay off
Free agent CC Sabathia is likely to receive multiple $100 million-plus offers
Denny Neagle, Mike Hampton and Kevin Brown were all nine-figure contract busts
Mike Mussina, Jason Schmidt and Derek Lowe were successful long-term signings
CC Sabathia is going to get his money. Gobs and gobs of it. Whether it's from the Brewers, who have already offered him about $100 million (according to SI.com's Jon Heyman) or the Yankees (they're gearing up for a bid) or someone else, some team with more bucks than brains is going to convince the big lefty to come pitch for them for the next four or five or six years. Maybe more.
It's enough to make you want to go out, put your face in front of a pitching machine and crank up the dial to high.
Banks are crumbling, car dealers are disappearing, you can't find a Circuit City in the state of Georgia anymore, home values are falling faster than Hank Steinbrenner's credibility and yet teams are lining up to pay Sabathia millions in a long-term contract when history tells us that doing that with a starting pitcher is one of the worst things that a team can do with its money.
Sabathia may be a great guy. In fact, he is a great guy. Everybody likes CC. Easy going, a good teammate, doesn't complain, takes the mound, wins plenty. And we know he's the best pitcher to hit free agency since ... who? Daisuke Matsuzaka, maybe? Pedro Martinez before the 2005 season? Mike Mussina back in '01? (Johan Santana, remember, never made it to free agency.)
But $100 million-plus in a long-term deal is, to put it too kindly, not smart. You wonder what it will take to get baseball executives to understand that. The facts are there for anyone to see. Long-term deals almost never work out for the player (other than padding the bank account) or for the team. I can find only a few exceptions in this decade -- when executives first started getting really dumb -- and that's about it.
(Paying pitchers big money on long-term contracts started before this century, of course. The Indians famously paid Wayne Garland $2.3 million in a 10-year deal before the 1977 season. Injuries ended his career after 1981. And the Dodgers made Kevin Brown the game's first $100 million player with a seven-year, $105 million deal before the 1999 season. By the time he wrapped that up he had been traded and had started fewer than 25 games in four of the seven years.)
When you put the long history of these bad decisions next to the challenging economics of the present, though, it's nearly unconscionable that teams -- especially teams without the resources of the Yankees -- are thinking of weighing down their payroll for someone who has a direct chance to affect only about 20 percent of their games.
Here are a few numbers to consider while debating the wisdom of signing Sabathia to a long-term deal for nine figures:
Twenty-two free-agent starting pitchers have signed a long-term deal (four or more years) since 2000. Only half of them have had winning records so far.
Of the 79 seasons by those pitchers in that time, in only 31 has the pitcher had an ERA+ of 100 -- that's considered average -- or better. That means that about 61 percent of the time those pitchers have been below-average.
Twenty-two times in those 79 seasons -- about 28 percent of the time -- the pitcher has made 15 or fewer starts. Eight entire seasons have been lost. A pitcher has made 10 or fewer starts 18 times.
Of those 22 pitchers, only eight have averaged 30 starts over the seasons they've completed in their contracts. (Nine pitchers have yet to complete their contracts, and a 10th -- A.J. Burnett --just opted out of his.)
Eight of the 22 pitchers have appeared in a postseason game during their contracts. Four of them (Kevin Appier, Mussina, Jason Schmidt and Matsuzaka) have appeared in a World Series. And the only two to win a World Series ring are Matsuzaka, as a rookie with the Red Sox in 2007, and Appier -- after the team that signed him before the '01 season, the Mets, traded him to the Angels, who won the Series in '02.
You don't have to bring up Denny Neagle or Darren Dreifort to prove that, most of the time, signing pitchers to a long-term deal is extremely risky business. Neagle (who signed a five-year, $51 million deal with the Rockies before the '01 season) and Dreifort (five years, $55 million with the Dodgers that same year) remain two of the worst deals. But there's Jarrod Washburn, too, and Mike Hampton and Chan Ho Park and Bartolo Colon and Martinez. Barry Zito's deal (seven years, $126 million) isn't looking good. Neither is Kei Igawa's (five years, $20 million, plus a $26 million posting fee). The people in Seattle already are regretting the signing of Carlos Silva (4-15, 6.46 ERA in 28 starts in '08) to a four-year, $48 million deal last winter.
Yes, there are a few that have worked out over the years. Mussina's six-year, $88.5 million deal before the '01 season was a good one. He was 92-53 with a 3.80 ERA over the stretch of that contract. He never started fewer than 27 games. Schmidt was 60-27 with a 3.29 ERA in his four-year, $30 million deal with the Giants that he signed before the '02 season. Derek Lowe was 54-48 in his just-completed four-year, $36 million deal with the Dodgers. In more recent signings, Ted Lilly (four years, $40 million) looks like he could work out for the Cubs, as does Gil Meche for the Royals (five years, $55 million) and Matsuzaka in Boston (six years, $52 million, plus a $51 million posting fee).
But for every one of those pitchers, there's a Zito and an Igawa, a Russ Ortiz ($33 million for four years from the Diamondbacks) and a Carl Pavano ($40 million for four years from the Yankees). The odds that any free agent will pitch well over the length of a long-term contract -- or, in too many cases, even close to the length of the deal -- just aren't very good.
Then there's what a long-term signing does to a team's payroll flexibility. The salaries for Neagle and Hampton handcuffed the Rockies for years. The Mariners are committed to Silva for at least $11 million a year for each of the next three years. The Giants are paying Zito an average of $18.9 million a year through 2013. Think those teams couldn't use some of that money in a better fashion?
With so few quality pitchers on the market, though, and fewer still available in trades, needy teams will roll the dice despite the history of these long-term deals and the current economic outlook. The Brewers have put in a bid for Sabathia -- who, by the way, threw 256 2/3 innings this year and 256 1/3 in 2007 (including postseason starts in both those seasons) -- and the Yankees are said to be preparing one (Heyman says it will top the record $137.5 million that the Mets gave Santana after his trade from the Twins), and at least a couple of other teams are expected to get in on the fun, too.
Nobody ever learns.