MLB Pitchers Exploit Tight Market

Barry Zito LHP (Giants, $126 million over 7 years)

Another smoke and mirrors job by Scott Boras resulted in a huge payday for a client, this time Oakland's Barry Zito, the last of the great Mark Mulder/Tim Hudson/Zito triumvirate to leave the Coliseum.

Zito was supposedly this offseason's premier pitching free agent and was slated to end up in New York. Instead, he surprised the pundits by wisely crossing the Bay to the friendly confines of the NL West, where power hitting is as rare as Paris Hilton enjoying a quiet night in.

It's even debatable whether Barry Zito was the best pitcher on the Oakland staff, let alone a top-10 MLB pitcher, as Boras (and some of the press) portrayed him. His 2002 Cy Young was his signature year, but he's been extremely hittable ever since, particularly last year.
Boras hoped to panic GMs into a long-term mega-deal and he got his way with the Giants brass, which inexplicably let the cheaper Jason Schmidt walk and now needed a front-line starter.

Zito has plus points (durability, lefty, 3.55 career ERA), but he isn't a Johan Santana or Chris Carpenter. He walks a lot of guys (a career high 99 last year), gives up a lot of homers (27 last year), and he's showing signs of decline even though he's only 28. His WHIP was an unspectacular 1.40 in 2006, out of line with his ERA of 3.83. He got lucky with stranding base runners and his BB/9 was again a career high at 4.03.

That said, he should fare better in the NL and made a wise move avoiding the AL East, which has traditionally hit him long and hard.
$18 million a year is maybe explainable until 2008. After that the Giants will most likely view it as an albatross, especially as Zito isn't an everyday player. It smacks of panic on behalf of Brian Sabean, who has already (probably) saddled himself with another year of the Barry Bonds circus. Rather than the ridiculous Mike Hampton-like contract he landed, Zito was worth around $15 million a year for four years.

Gil Meche RHP (Royals, $55 million over 5 years)

GM Dayton Moore has really taken some heat over this one. Meche is the poster-boy for those who prescribe to the theory of over-spending and dull-witted baseball executives. I've not seen one scribe who has a good word to say about this signing.

Meche doesn't have inspiring numbers so far. He's shown some ability in the majors, though not much was expected from him as a first-round pick out of high school.

The plus side is he's still young, he posted his best strikeout numbers last year, and his BB/9 was almost the same as Zito at 4.05. He still walks too many, gives up too many homers, and his career ERA is 4.65. But so did Chris Carpenter at 28 (his career ERA was 4.83). Carpenter was languishing in the Toronto bullpen and seemingly on his way to obscurity rather than a Cy Young.

That's not to say Meche is a future Cy Young winner. But he has an upside and could make a decent No. 2 starter. This deal isn't necessarily the dud it's portrayed as. The Blue Jays and the Cubs were both prepared to pay Meche $11 million a year, but didn't offer a fifth year.

The Royals are in a situation where they have to overpay to sign even mediocre free agents, but they are looking to get better fast with a new GM that's prepared to gamble. This gamble may pay off.

Andy Pettitte LHP (Yankees, $16 million over 1 year, with option for 2008)

Brian Cashman is hoping to see the Andy Pettitte that dominated in the NL after the All-Star Break last year, rather than the inconsistent, homer-prone, has-been that showed up for the first half of the season. It's a gamble and one that may owe something to nostalgia and a yearning to re-sign his buddy Roger Clemens.

Pettitte isn't that old (34), he's a lefty who still dominates righties, and is still a gamer that has been in the big one and not buckled. But he's not the 1997 Pettitte who sported an ERA of 2.88 and who gave up a measly 7 home runs in 240 innings. His last year in New York (2003), he went 21-8, but his ERA had crept up over 4.00.

That said, Pettitte is worth the price in the current market. In the AL East, it's tough for starting pitchers to put up outstanding numbers, but Cashman will expect him to keep his team in the game for the high-powered offense. History says he will.

Randy Johnson LHP (traded by the Yankees to the Diamondbacks)

Johnson was an enigma in New York. He had a decent 2005, though he struggled at times. He totally collapsed in 2006, looking his age (finally), though he was playing through injuries in mitigation. He looked troubled on and off the mound, wasn't comfortable being just another famous player on a team full of stars, and was prone to giving up XBH in bunches. So he's headed back to the comfortable NL West and his Arizona home, joining the likes of Jeff Weaver, Javier Vasquez, and Kevin Brown who tried and failed in the Bronx.

Though Brian Cashman seems to have picked up some decent talent in compensation (and not parted with much cash), this isn't necessarily a great short-term deal for the Yankees. The $14 million saved isn't a big issue to a cash-rich team and Johnson could rebound in 2007 and have a good season. If he's healthy, he can still dominate and the Yankees don't have that sort of pitcher on the roster (unless Clemens takes his spot in the rotation).

As far as 2007 goes, this deal depends on what Clemens does. If Cashman spends the money he's saved on one last (maybe) hurrah for Clemens, then it's a good deal. If the Yankees are forced to rely on Carl Pavano, it isn't.

Daisuke Matsuzaka RHP (Red Sox, $52 million over 6 years)

It's not hard to suspect that Boras whiffed on this one given that Gil Meche and Ted Lilly scored $10 million a year each. Boras postured for as long as he could to try to panic the Red Sox brass into an overblown offer, but the suspicion is that Matsuzaka put an end to it and signed anyway, fearing another season of complete-game, 150-pitch efforts in Japan.

That said, it's tough not to be impressed by Theo Epstein's determination to land Matsuzaka. A posting fee of $51.1 million far eclipsed anything the Mets or Dodgers were prepared to pay. The contract itself, in today's climate, is a relative bargain should the Japanese righty be anything like as advertised.

Obviously with foreign stars who are transplanted into MLB, there is an element of the unknown. By all accounts, Matsuzaka has the arsenal to compete in the majors. He's been on the big stage in his own country, was MVP of the inaugural World Baseball Classic, and seems a composed young man that might be able to cope with the demands of the frenzied Boston media.

The only worries with Matsuzaka are his health and whether he can survive in the AL East, the land where ERAs go to die.

According to the available information, Matsuzaka has been seriously abused in Japan. He threw a 250-pitch game as a high-school pitcher and has regularly run up high pitch counts in the pros (he threw 11 games of over 130 pitches in 2005 and eight of 129 or more in 2006), though Japanese pitchers do work on six days rest.

Given the available data on his abuse, it's amazing Matsuzaka hasn't had rotator cuff or elbow problems. Maybe that's to come. Thankfully for Red Sox fans, Dusty Baker isn't in line to get the manager's job anytime soon.

The verdict on Matsuzaka is great deal, providing he stays healthy. Even in the AL East, he could post a sub-4 ERA.

He'll join Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Josh Beckett, and Jonathon Papelbon in what looks the best rotation in the AL East — on paper. The problem is that Schilling is old and injury-prone, Wakefield gets lit-up with regularity, Beckett stunk out Fenway in his first season, and Paplebon has never started in the majors. Matt Clement, anyone?

Ted Lilly LHP (Cubs, $40 million over 4 years)

Lilly has made a living in the AL East most of his career, so he's battle-hardened at least. The rest of his resume is spotty. The upside is he's still relatively young (30), is a lefty, and posted his best K/9 figures in 2006 since becoming a full-time starter. The bad news is more plentiful and worrying. He's not particularly durable (he's never pitched 200 innings in his career), he walks too many batters (81 last year), gave up a career high 28 homers in 2006, and his career ERA is a moderate 4.60.

At best, Lilly is a back-of-the-rotation starter and he's more exposed than Meche with less room to improve, yet the Cubs are throwing $10 million a year at him. He may post better numbers in the weaker hitting NL, but it's a big risk for GM Jim Hendry to rely on Lilly to carry the load behind Carlos Zambrano. All-in-all, I prefer Meche's chances of justifying his pay-check.

Adam Eaton RHP (Phillies, $24 million over 3 years)

A complete head-scratcher. Eaton posted some seriously average numbers over six years in San Diego — a pitcher friendly park. An injury-hit season in Texas did little to enhance his reputation (a 5.12 ERA in 13 starts). He's a fly ball pitcher that seems unlikely to prosper in a small park and can't stay off the DL, yet GM Pat Gillick saw enough to offer him three years. Batters hit .299 off him last year, compared to his career year in 2003, when they only managed .245. The key to success for Eaton is keeping the ball on the ground, which he hasn't done to any degree since 2003, when he posted a GO/AO ratio of 1.15. History says that when he's healthy, Eaton is going to be watching a lot of balls sail over his shoulder and into the bleachers.

Freddy Garcia RHP (acquired by Phillies for Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez)

The Phillies pad out their rotation with the 6'4" Garcia, who can either be dominant or appear disinterested on the mound. He's got one year of his contract remaining at $10 million, so Pat Gillick is gambling he's going to be looking for a career year and get his huge payday in 2007.

The good news: Garcia is durable (over 200 innings for the last six seasons), has a big-game temperament (6-2, 3.11 ERA in postseason play), and he doesn't walk that many (career low BB/9 of 2.00 last season).

The bad news: his strikeout numbers have fallen every year for the last four years to 5.62 per nine, he gives up too many homers (32 in 2006), and he's become a flyball pitcher (GO/AO ratio of 0.92 last year, exactly the same as Ted Lilly). Plus, he has attracted a lot of criticism in Chicago for his (seemingly) casual manner on the mound.

This deal looks good for Philadelphia, who can score runs at ease, but can't pitch. If Garcia can keep the ball in the park (no mean feat in The Cit), he could be a good rental for a year. Pat Gillick didn't give up the farm, either. Gavin Floyd has a 7-5 record with a 6.96 ERA in 24 major league appearances — hardly inspiring though he has a power arm, with a fastball sitting at 91 to 94 mph, along with a hard, biting curve and a fading change to battle left-handed hitters.

White Sox GM Kenny Williams believes a few adjustments can be made on Floyd's delivery so that the White Sox can get him in a better place with his command. Gonzalez has switched between the White Sox and Phillies so many times he can retire on his frequent flyer miles.

Jason Marquis RHP (Cubs, $20 million over 3 years)

At the end of 2004, Jason Marquis looked about to take his place amongst the elite of NL pitchers. Since that year with the Cardinals (15-7, 3.71 ERA), Marquis has regressed significantly, despite only being 28-years-old.

There was a point last season when Marquis led the league in wins, but that was misleading — his ERA was 6.72 after the break and he wasn't even on the Cards roster after the NLDS.

The problem with Marquis is he's become a flyball pitcher — something he wasn't in 2004. His GO/AO ratio has declined from 2.05 in 2004 to 1.12 last year and inevitably his homer total was a career high 35. Alarmingly, he struck out only 96 batters in 194 innings and walked 75 — again a career high.

It's disconcerting that St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan appears to have given up on Marquis, who was viewed as a future gem whilst in Atlanta. With a smaller park to pitch in and a less talented infield to help him out, Marquis is a big risk at the price. He offers innings, but is nothing more than a back-of-the-rotation pitcher who looks overpriced. The pitching-light Cubs need the 2004 version of Marquis to show up or they could be in trouble.

Randy Wolf LHP (Dodgers, $7.5 million over 1 year with an option for 2008)

First the bad news: Wolf had Tommy John surgery in 2005, hasn't pitched 200 innings since 2003, and had an ERA of 5.56 last season, his first since the operation.

The good news is Wolf, a flyball pitcher, is moving from Citizens Bank to Chavez Ravine, where it's a lot harder to get one out the park. If the 2002 Wolf (210.1 IP, 3.20 ERA, 1.12 WHIP .223 AVE) shows up, he's a great addition. If the surgery has taken its toll on his elbow, then Ned Colletti is only in the hole for a one year rental.

Jason Schmidt RHP (Dodgers, $47 million over 3 years)

Ned Colletti and new Dodgers trainer Stan Conte are familiar with what Schmidt has to offer and most of it is good. Schmidt, 33, has put together five solid consecutive seasons as a Giant, finishing second in the 2003 NL Cy Young ballot and he's familiar with the NL West hitters. He has suffered groin problems in the past, but still logged over 1000 innings in the last five seasons so he's durable. He is more of a flyball pitcher than strikeout pitcher nowadays, so is prone to the homer (21 last season — his highest since 1999 in Pittsburgh), but that's not such a problem in cavernous Dodger Stadium.

Schmidt is a major pickup for Colletti and bolts-on nicely to what is shaping up to be the best rotation in the NL. If only the Dodgers can find 25-30 homers and 100 RBIs to replace J.D. Drew, they might be in good enough shape to win the NL pennant.

Mark Mulder LHP (re-signed with Cardinals, $13 million over 2 years)

This deal could end up costing the team $45 million over three years if all goes well. Walt Jocketty hopes it does because his rotation looks shaky after Chris Carpenter.

Mulder is coming off rotator cuff surgery and will miss the first-half of 2007. He pitched only five innings after June 20th last year, but at 29, is still young enough to bounce back.

Whether Mulder can ever be the force he was in 2001-03 is another question. He's never been a pure power guy, instead using his control and guile to outwit batters.

The St. Louis version of Mulder has been more of a groundball pitcher than the guy that came into the league, as indicated by his declining strikeout numbers (6.90 K/9 in 2002 compared to 4.87 K/9 in 2005). That alone wouldn't be a problem, except the walk and hit totals per nine innings have gone up, also.

If Mulder can get back down to his best Oakland walk numbers (around 40) and regain some velocity he can contribute after the break. That's a big if after serious surgery, so Jeff Weaver might not look so bad after all come September.

Other Deals of Note

LHP Kei Igawa, 27, signed for the Yankees (reportedly $20 million over four years and a $26 million posting fee) and will figure at the back of the rotation. Brian Cashman will be having toad-based nightmares until he's satisfied Igawa can actually pitch in the majors.

Doug Davis, LHP, took his soft-toss routine to Arizona in a six-player trade. He had a couple of good years in Milwaukee (3.39 and 3.84 ERA in 2004 and 2005), but his walk total ballooned last year (102) and his ERA paid the price (4.91). The bigger ballparks and weaker hitters in the NL West should help his stats.

Braves GM John Schuerholz stole reliever Rafael Soriano away from Seattle for mediocre starter Horacio Ramirez and further bolstered his bullpen by trading away 1B Adam LaRoche for lefty reliever Mike Gonzalez, who closed last year in Pittsburgh. Gonzalez walks too many batters still, but will be an invaluable set up man and back-up closer should Bob Wickman go down, though the Braves will sorely miss LaRoche's power.

Former über-closer Eric Gagne ($6 million for one year) is hoping to bounce back from a succession of injuries in Texas as the Rangers' new closer. Gagne is a great character and (apparently) a nice guy, so I'll be rooting for him, but the speed with which he broke down last year is ominous for a complete comeback. At his best, he was lights-out.

Mike Mussina ($22 million over two years) bounced back from a couple of moderate seasons in New York to pitch well in 2006 (3.51 ERA, 1.11 WHIP). The key to his success was his BB/9 ratio, a career low 1.60. The fans in the Bronx have never really warmed to the slightly robotic Mussina, but he stays in good shape and is dependable. He has pitched his entire career in the brutal AL East and his ERA is 3.63 — that alone is worth $11 million a year.

Veteran lefty Tom Glavine elected to end his career in Shea (one year at $10.5 million) rather than return to Atlanta. Glavine has had three consecutive solid seasons with the Mets and there's no reason to suppose he'll be any different in 2007. He'll need to hit the ground running in 2007 as the Mets' rotation looks vulnerable without Pedro Martinez. At less than $11 million, Glavine looks a solid re-sign.

Conversely, Orlando Hernandez looks a risk at $12 million for two years. He's injury-prone (the last time he even approached 200 innings was in 2000 with 195.2) and old (he's listed as 39, but that's debatable), but he is capable of dominant spells on the mound, particularly in October, where he has a career ERA of 2.55. If the Mets can nurse him to 150+ innings and into October, Omar Minaya has gambled and won.

Takashi Saito ended up closing in Los Angeles after Eric Gagne went down and did an outstanding job, despite the skeptics claiming he didn't have the stamina or arsenal to close. He ended the year with 24 saves, an ERA of 2.07, and a WHIP of 0.91. He'll be back in Dodger Stadium in 2007 keeping the closers chair warm for Jonathon Broxton. Saito doesn't throw that hard, but he's deceptive and ridiculously hard to hit (opponents hit only .177 against him and right-handers a paltry .129). He is 37, but he's in good condition and didn't wear down as many predicted as the season wore on. At $1 million for 2007, he's the best signing this offseason.

Comments and Conversation

January 24, 2007

Howard Ilbcinla:

You might consider doing your homework regarding wins and losses, here’s why:

(1) See Nov. 15, 2006 edition or USA TODAY when Hal Bodley reported the following:(This is the ‘jist’ of Bodley’s comment, not the exact quote)
“If Zito, in his career with the A’s, had gotten at least 2 runs of support …., then in those games he’d 100 Wins 21 Losses.

“(2) In the SF Chronicle, Susan Slusser plus other reporters in 2006:
“If Zito, in his A’s career, had gotten at least 3 runs of support …., then in those games he’d be 85 Wins 4 Losses.

(3) In the SF Chronicle, Susan Slusser plus other reporters in 2006:
“If Zito, in his A’s career, had gotten at least 4 runs of support …., then in those games he’d be 89 Wins 5 Losses.

‘That’s’ part of what Zito is all about.

Only the Giants & the A’s have seen that kind of production and performance on a day to day basis during Zito’s time in Oakland. The self anointed-expert-loud-mouth- NY reporters don’t have a clue about what Zito’s really all about. Most reporters merely read stats and then anoint themselves to be experts.
They also specualte about something, as though the something is ‘real’, and then they write a column based on their own speculation. In my book, that’s called NO TALENT.
Ernest Heminway’s they’ll never, ever be.
Here’s a test for you: In 6 words or less, write a dramatic story that contains passion & emotion.
Anyway …………
When a pitcher has to go start after start knowing that he has to try to throw a shutout each time cause his team can’t hit shit … then that sure puts mucho pressure in the pticher’s head, and when he tries to be ‘perfect’ …., he usually ends up being worse than ever.

As for ‘walks’…, again you need to do your homework.
Here’s why:
The MLB average for runs scored that were first walked by the pitcher …. is ….. 29%.
Zito’s averge is 19%, well below the MLB average.

If ever you want to get to the top of your profession, whereby you can earn top money in your category, you’ve really got to do your homework and become unique, rather than become a clone of all the other reporters who merely look at the surface of things.
That’s one of the reasons that Vince Sculley is who he is.
Also ………..
Did you know that the A’s were in the bottom 3 to 5 in runs they scored in the majors for the 7 years that Zito was there.
The moneyball concept of selecting players who get on base often works for about a minute or two because ……. somebody forgot to ALSO get the players that will allow those men on base to come across the plate, rather than continuously stranding them on base.
Here’s some more homework for you ……. check out to see which teams stranded the most baserunners.
The answer might surprise you.
Anyway …… overall …… your writings and comments were fairly professional. If you’d also had done your homework, you’d probably end up being a pretty good writer.

Best to you and your loved ones.


January 24, 2007

Seth Doria:

Two other crazy deals:
Jeff Suppan, Brewers, 4 years, $42 million
Jeff Samardzija, 5 years, $10 million (much lower number than the others, but still a ton of cash for a guy who spent the fall playing football.)

January 25, 2007

Mike Round:

Thanks for your comments and the career advice.
As regards your specific comments vis-a-vis Zito;
1. Win-losses is a pretty poor indicator as to a pitchers projected performance. They aren’t that good at evaluating a pitchers current performance either - hence you end up with Kevin Millwood winning the AL ERA title a couple of years ago with a .500 win-loss record.
2. There’s no doubt that the Oakland offense has cost Zito wins over the years. That in no way affects his declining peripheral stats, such as his career high walk numbers and his WHIP of 1.40 in 2006.
3. The fact that only 19% of his walks turn into runs may be (in part) down to Zito’s skill as a pitcher. It also may be partly due to good defence and pure luck. Eventually that figure could rise if he persists in allowing so many baserunners.
4. Trying to evaluate the worth of a contract requires more than a straightforward look at a pitchers win-loss column, as I’m sure Brian Sabean and his team know. Obviously, Brian Sabean knows more about baseball than I do (or indeed the New York media know) but as a fan with a degree of knowledge of the sport, in my opinion this is a poor value signing for the Giants. That is the point I was making rather than an attack on Zito as a pitcher.
5. Barry Zito is a solid pitcher with many attributes and in the light-hitting NL West he’ll more than likely prosper and return better stats than he did in Oakland the past 3 seasons. But will $18 million a year look so wise in 2010 and beyond? - that is my point.

As far as your comment that I am merely a clone of other writers, I refer you to my comments on Gil Meche. Every article I have read on this signing has been negative. I actually think, as I said in the piece, that in the current fiscal climate and in comparison to the Lilly, Eaton and Marquis signings, the Meche contract has more chance of being of value to the club for its duration.

As far as your Moneyball comments go, I agree with you that one of the problems with a philosophy that stresses OBP is that you can run the risk of stranding runners. Hence the A’s will hope Mike Piazza can do what Frank Thomas did last season.


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