Three makes a trend, so if you haven't yet you're surely going to soon read articles going on at length about the glory that is teams in small or poor cities keeping young ace pitchers. Be skeptical -- you may see Justin Verlander whipping curves in pinstripes yet.
Our trend began three weeks ago when Florida and Josh Johnson, 26, came to terms on an expensive new contract. Two weeks ago Seattle got Felix Hernandez, 23, to agree to an even pricier one. Now Detroit has bested them both. Verlander, 26, signed a new deal that reaches 2014 Thursday, and his explanation of why he decided to take an offer of $80 million topped Johnson's and Hernandez's handily.
"This is a blue-collar town with hardworking people," the new octupledecamillionaire said at a press conference. "I feel like we're kindred spirits."
All right-thinking people seem to agree that this sort of thing -- and a broader pattern of which it's part -- is Good for Baseball, as it will inspire fans in small markets and keep exciting young pitchers from the clutch of large markets. I'm unconvinced.
The pattern isn't in doubt. There are 17 starting pitchers who debuted no sooner than 2004, are under 30, and have pitched 400 innings with an adjusted ERA of 110 or better in the major leagues. Eleven of them are signed to long term contracts, and most of those delay the pitcher's free agency by at least a year. Unless San Francisco declines an option on Matt Cain, none of these pitchers will be a free agent after the coming season, and just two -- Cain and Philadelphia's Cole Hamels -- will be eligible in 2011. Rich teams such as the Yankees and Red Sox won't be able to buy young aces off the shelf any time soon, which is good if you're irritated by that sort of thing.
One really can make too much of this, though. It's quite rare for a large market team to sign a young ace on the open market anyway, and not only won't something as flimsy as a contract keep a pitcher like Kansas City's Zack Greinke out of Fenway Park, it might actually make him more likely to end up there. Don't take this on faith; just look at recent history.
Everyone has a unique definition of a large market, but the most reasonable one probably counts New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston. From 2000 through 2009, 72 different pitchers started at least 30 games with an average or better adjusted ERA for these teams. Twenty-five of these pitchers were originally homegrown, 23 were obtained in trade, another 23 signed as free agents, and one was claimed on waivers.
Of the 23 free agents, only four -- Kevin Brown, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina and CC Sabathia -- were aces when they signed, and of those four only Sabathia was especially young. It may seem like rich teams are always gloating over some newly signed mercenary, but it just doesn't happen very often.
What actually happens is that rich teams trade for stud pitchers on expiring contracts. This is how the Mets got Johan Santana and Mike Hampton, how the Red Sox got Pedro Martinez, how the White Sox got Bartolo Colon and so on. It's just in the way of things that a lousy or broke team, given the choice between one year of an ace's services or cash plus good young players, is going to take the latter.
As Marlins general manager Larry Beinfest put it after trading Josh Beckett to the Red Sox after the 2005 season, "The reality of the situation is the reality of the situation."
Nothing about the contracts any pitcher has signed recently is going to change this dynamic. Whether or not Greinke is under contract, the Royals are going to be awful heading into the 2012 season and will have every reason to move him. Whether or not Johnson is signed, the Marlins are still going to be cheap for the foreseeable future and will trade him if their price is met, as they traded Beckett and Brad Penny. And however similar Verlander's spirit is to the city of Detroit, he'll be playing for the hardworking blue-collar people of the Bronx if the Tigers braintrust thinks it makes sense. As long as teams like the Mets and Red Sox have money and prospects, they're going to treat the rest of baseball like a strip mine.
This isn't anything to complain about, by the way. Forty-seven million people -- one in six Americans -- live in one of the four major markets, and there's nothing really unfair about a system that steers great players toward this great mass of people. It's nice that minor league towns like New Orleans and Indianapolis can support football teams every bit the equal of those in big, rich cities, but if NFL teams had to fill their parks 81 times a year the Saints would play in Los Angeles and Peyton Manning would have taken Eli's job years ago.
Last year, Twins second basemen hit .209 BA/.302 OBA/.267 SLG. That's indescribably bad. Carlos Zambrano's career line is better, and not by a little. In the last 20 years only John Shelby and Tony Pena have managed to hit worse in all three categories in 250 or more at-bats. Ski Melillo would sneer.
All of this makes Orlando Hudson, who agreed Thursday to play for the Twins this year for $5 million, the best signing of the year, from a certain point of view. He hit .283/.357/.417 last year. That's around 40 runs better than what the Twins got! He's also a good fielder. It's a bit like having replaced Delmon Young with Ryan Braun.
Trying to win a pennant with Alexi Casilla and Co. was like running a marathon while bleeding out of a shotgun wound. The gore staunched, the Twins will be closer to their actual speed this year. A similar principle applies in Chicago, where the White Sox got a .607 OPS out of center field last year and a .684 from second base. If they get anything like normal production from Alex Rios and Mark Teahen, who will essentially be replacing those at-bats, they'll be much better, too.
Baseball is not a complicated game. Being good is largely about not being bad.