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Posted: Friday April 9, 2010 11:08AM; Updated: Friday April 9, 2010 2:54PM
Tom Verducci
Tom Verducci>THREE STRIKES

Beckett and Gallardo just latest aces to be locked up early

Story Highlights

Teams are trying to buy out arbitration and free agent years of their young aces

Barry Zito of the San Francisco Giants is showing signs of his young self

Houston got swept by the Giants and things will only get worse for the Astros

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yovani-gallardo-ap2.jpg
At 24 and with just 22 wins in his career, Yovani Gallardo got a $30 million guaranteed contract from the Brewers.
Cost of Aces' Free-Agent Years
Player FA Yrs. Ave. Cost Per FA Year
Roy Halladay 3 $20 million
Justin Verlander 3 $20 million
Felix Hernandez 3 $19.3 million
Josh Beckett 4 $17 million
Matt Cain 1 $15 million
Josh Johnson 2 $13.75 million
Zack Greinke 2 $13.5 million
Yovani Gallardo 1 $13 million

1. Got pitching? If not, your team may be in a heap of trouble if you expect to find someone to help at the front of your rotation over the next few years. This week, Josh Beckett of the Red Sox and Yovani Gallardo of the Brewers were just the latest in a long line of some of the best pitchers in baseball who signed contracts that bought out free agent years. Beckett could have been a free agent after this season and Gallardo could have been a free agent after the 2014 season.

In just the past 15 months, the pitchers who signed extensions that kept them off the free agent market reads like a who's who of aces: Zack Greinke of Kansas City, Josh Johnson of Florida, Felix Hernandez of Seattle, Justin Verlander of Detroit, Roy Halladay of Philadelphia, Matt Cain of San Francisco, Gallardo and Beckett. To the right is a chart looking at the cost of buying up free agent years for aces:

It's 19 years of ace pitching made unavailable at a cost of $312.4 million, or an average of $16.4 million per pitcher per year.

These kinds of extensions continue to make free agency an inefficient market because they keep top pitchers off the market in their prime years. Look at the last free agent class, for example: John Lackey, 31, who began both of the previous two seasons on the DL, was the cream of the crop.

If clubs weren't locking up pitchers with these extensions, here is what the upcoming free agent classes would have included:

After 2010 season: Beckett, Halladay, Greinke

After 2011 season: Verlander, Hernandez, Cain, Johnson

Instead, because of the industry trend of locking up young pitching, this is what's left on the market:

After 2010 season: Cliff Lee, Brandon Webb, Javy Vazquez

After 2011 season: Mark Buehrle

In short, if you're waiting for the next CC Sabathia, an ace who hit the market at age 28 (and can opt out of his Yankees deal after 2011), you'll be waiting a long time -- maybe Cole Hamels and Greinke after the 2012 season or Tim Lincecum after the 2013 season. Of course, they just might sign extensions with their clubs between now and then.

2. It may seem difficult to remember now, but Barry Zito was Sabathia Lite back in his day: the rare ace to hit the free agent market at 28, and left-handed, as well. That was back in 2006, after Zito was coming off six straight years of double digit wins and 200 innings.

Sure, there were warning signs. His strikeout rate was trending down slightly and his walk rate was trending up. But Zito was durable, young, left-handed, a three-time All-Star and a former Cy Young winner. The Giants gave him $126 million over seven years. Sabathia and Johan Santana are the only pitchers ever guaranteed more money.

Entering year four in San Francisco, Zito has a losing record under that contract (32-43), an ERA almost a full run higher (4.51) than what it was in Oakland, and no All-Star selections.

Now, one month before he turns 32, Zito is giving vibes that he might just be better than that -- and certainly smarter. Over these past two seasons Zito has incorporated a slider -- sort of a souped up cutter. Why? His velocity has been an issue, but so is his famous looping curveball. It's almost too good: its arc doesn't spend enough time near the strike zone to tempt hitters to swing or umpires to call it a strike. The slider is a breaking ball that for 45 feet is camouflaged as a fastball, before it moves off the barrel of the bat.

Over his past 15 starts, Zito is 6-3 with a 2.63 ERA and 7.88 strikeouts per nine innings, a rate he hasn't seen over a full season since he was 21. The Giants are 11-4 in those 15 starts.

Look at how he shackled the Astros this week with six shutout innings. Zito did so without throwing a single pitch that reached 90 mph. But his breaking stuff was extraordinary. Zito threw 11 sliders, 10 of them for strikes, and 13 curveballs, 11 of them for strikes. That is amazing command while spinning the ball: 21 strikes out of 24 breaking balls. Zito is giving the Giants hope that their rotation, already considered one of the best in baseball, just might be even stronger.

3. The Houston Astros are the official winners of the title of First Team in Trouble. Could the season have begun any worse for a team that lost 88 games last year and has lost half a million paying customers in two years? The Astros were swept at home by the Giants. How ugly was it? Houston was outscored 18-6, drew only two walks while striking out 22 times, never held a lead, never hit a home run, and lost reliever Sam Gervacio to the disabled list, where he joined first baseman Lance Berkman.

You say it has to get better? You haven't checked their schedule or their roster. Houston plays its next 12 games against the Phillies, Cardinals, Cubs and Marlins, completing a welcome-to-2010 opening sequence of 15 straight games against teams that won between 83 and 93 games last year. Its roster continues to be curiously overloaded with older players for a team that is not a contender. Of the 23 players used in the Giants series, 16 are in their 30s and only two are younger than 27: Chris Johnson and J.R. Towles.

Brad Mills was an inspired choice as manager, a guy who ran an upbeat training camp. But he is being tested already: keep hope and faith alive for a little while longer, at least before schools get out in Houston for the prime drawing weeks when summer hits. Otherwise, as one former Astros coach might put it, it will get late early in Houston.

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