DANA POINT, Calif.—In one sense, this winter’s free-agent class of pitchers appears to represent a gold mine: a class headed by 2007 Cy Young winner CC Sabathia also features a postseason hero (Derek Lowe) and pitchers with legitimate swing-and-miss arsenals (Ben Sheets, A.J. Burnett, Ryan Dempster, Oliver Perez).
In another sense, the group can be viewed as fool’s gold, set to command wealth that is unlikely to ever spread back to the teams that pay to acquire them.
The suggestion is not an indictment of the free-agent class. The amount of talent in this group hasn’t been seen in years.
All the same, the history of free-agent pitching suggests that any team that jumps into this fray is treading on dangerous ground. That is particularly true this year, given that several big-market teams (Dodgers, Yankees, Mets) are in the market for multiple starters, and the two New York teams will enjoy a firehose blast of revenue from new ballparks.
In such a circumstance, the cost of starters this year is likely to spiral to extraordinary peaks. The danger for the teams acquiring the pitchers is substantial.
A pitcher’s shoulder is typically a time bomb, with the only question when—not if—it will detonate. Pitchers who are old enough to reach free agency are unlikely to remain healthy or productive for the years that they remain under contract.
For that reason, the Red Sox have tried whenever possible to limit their risk. Aside from the six-year deal conferred upon Daisuke Matsuzaka, the team has almost never gone past a four-year offer to a pitcher.
“It’s always safer to go short with pitching contracts if you can,” said Red Sox G.M. Theo Epstein. “You don’t sign too many free agents that way. Then again, there aren’t too many top free-agent pitchers who end up being worth their contracts.”
“The free-agency market is always the least appealing to go to because of the competition. You usually pay more than the player is really worth,” agreed Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman, whose team is expected to make a hard play for two or perhaps three members of the free-agent class, with Sabathia as the apparent primary target. “It might be the easiest one but it might not be the most efficient to go to. But it’s there for a reason.”
As such, the Sox will explore the market. As Epstein said upon his arrival at the G.M. meetings on Monday, “the more the merrier” is the prevailing attitude when it comes to rotation formation.
The Sox will see whether a fit exists with Burnett (though if the pitcher’s agents continue to seek a 5- to 7-year deal, the answer will be no), while Greg Genske (the agent for Sabathia) said yesterday that he expects to discuss his client with Boston. (The Sox did not express any interest in Ryan Dempster in a meeting with the pitcher’s agent, Craig Landis.)
Even so, the Sox find themselves in a position that separates them from most of the clubs in the mix for free-agent pitchers. The team already has a legitimate group of major-league starters that runs at least five deep.
Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield could be joined by either Clay Buchholz or Justin Masterson, with Michael Bowden viewed as a potential mid-year reinforcement. That being the case, the Sox rightly plan to approach the hot stove with oven mitts—and with good reason.
“If something makes sense to us, we’ll try to add a starting pitcher,” said Epstein. “Adding big-name starting pitching through free agency always sounds great on paper. (Teams can say), ‘Look—our No. 2 just became our No. 3, our No. 3 just became our No. 4, look how good we are.’
“But the reality is that those deals often don’t work out for the club. It just can be a risky transaction on day one, let alone looking back at it after the fact.”
The history of big contracts given to free-agent pitchers supports that note of caution. (See chart.) This decade, there have been a dozen free-agent contracts of more than $50 million given to pitchers. Each of those deals has been for at least four years.
Only one pitcher—Mike Mussina—has made it through the entire length of the contract without a significant injury. For most, it’s been a struggle to stay on the mound (only 20 of the 49 seasons provided under these contracts yielded 30 or more starts), and often a challenge to live up to expectations once there.
The same pattern will no doubt repeat itself with several members of the pitching class of ’08-’09. Payrolls could be burdened for years to come as a result of the contracts signed in the coming weeks and months.
The impact could be particularly pronounced given the state of the economy and the likely ramifications for the game in the coming seasons. Many acknowledge that an air of enormous financial uncertainty looms over the game. A contract that seems reasonable in the current market may become an albatross should the run of record-setting revenues in the game dry up.
“There are some very real issues in our economy, the country’s economy and the global economy,” said White Sox G.M. Kenny Williams. “For any of us to believe that these aren’t ultimately going to affect us in this business, I think you have your head in the sand.
“People are struggling,” he continued. “What does that mean? That means that people who spend their discretionary dollars on sports and other forms of entertainment have to make some decisions about what they want to do.”
The possibility of diminished revenues in the game would make a bad contract even more difficult to absorb. Moreover, comparable talents in the next winter or two may well receive less lucrative contracts than the ones that are handed out this offseason. While the risk assumed in contracts is likely to be huge for this free-agent class, it may be slightly more modest in both years and dollars in future years.
The conclusion is straightforward enough. Epstein has emphasized at these meetings that his primary goal is “to try to continue to build a deep and healthy organization.” The best way to do so, in all likelihood, is to ignore the siren of the elite free-agent pitching market this offseason.
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.