Health risks give teams incentive to lock up good young pitchers
The issue of giving pre-arbitration pitchers long-term extensions is more complicated than the doing so with hitters. Pitchers don't follow quite so steady a career arc as position players do, particularly star players, and the specter of injury hangs over every single pitch they throw. That's what made the five-year, $14 million contract the Rays gave rookie Matt Moore last December such a surprise; we just haven't seen that type of deal.
Now, that may be sui generis; Moore got just a $115,000 bonus when he was drafted in the eighth round in 2007, making him particularly amenable to the security of what could turn out to be a very team-friendly deal. It's rare for a player taken outside of the top of the draft to ascend the prospect ranks the way Moore did.
Contracts for pitchers have tended to follow a different model. The Giants signed Tim Lincecum to a two-year, $23 million contract when he was a Super Two player (someone with more than two but less than three years of service who is arbitration eligible) after his second Cy Young Award in 2009. That limited the Giants' exposure but also their upside, and Lincecum's subsequent contract -- signed this offseason -- shows the cost: $20.5 million AAV for two years.
More typical is what the Angels did with Jered Weaver, settling prior to arbitration when Weaver was two-plus and going to arbitration when he was three-plus before locking in a long-term deal this past season. The Tigers' Justin Verlander, the Mariners' Felix Hernandez and the Giants' Matt Cain had four years in before their teams came to them, buying out some free-agent years but at a steep price. Teams seem to want to wait longer and see more when it comes to pitchers.
There's good reason for that. Think about the A's, who signed Brett Anderson to a four-year deal in April of 2010. Anderson has made 32 starts in the two seasons since then. They signed Trevor Cahill last April when Cahill was coming off his best year -- 18-8, 2.97 ERA in 2010 -- only to see him regress a bit statistically (while improving his skills) in 2011. The Indians locked down Fausto Carmona only to watch him become practically a different person after the deal. The Marlins' Josh Johnson has made 37 starts in the first two seasons of his big contract.
There's just substantially more risk in these contracts for pitchers, and baseball is generally a risk-averse industry. If you can get Moore or Ubaldo Jimenez or James Shields to sign a great contract for the team, you do it, and if you can't, you wait until the pitcher has shown he can throw 600, 800 innings without grabbing his elbow, even if that means a much more expensive deal in two years.
Who out there now seems worth the risk? I have to go with the Giants' Madison Bumgarner, who may be arb-eligible at the end of 2012. Bumgarner is very polished and as good a pitcher now as he's ever going to be. You want to sign him to a contract that pays him over the next three years and gives you options beyond that, as unlike a hitter, it seems likely that Bumgarner's performance peak will be in his pre-free-agency years. Buy out his arbitration years for a good number and get some options on his services at 25, 26 and 27 in exchange, and you've guaranteed yourself the meat of his career at below-market prices with the chance to extend that purchase if performance warrants. Bumgarner may not sign a Moore deal; this will be a bit more costly than that.
Even though he's already had a major injury, Washington's Jordan Zimmermann is an intriguing choice. With a great pitchers' build, he seems like he'll be durable, and his surgically-repaired elbow seems to be holding up nicely. The Nationals could have a rapidly-rising payroll should their young stars live up to their billing, so locking up Zimmerman would provide cost certainty as the prices of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper rise. Because Zimmerman doesn't have great statistics yet, you may be able to sign him more cheaply based on the idea that his arbitration cases won't be strong.
The Rays have two guys they may need to pay. David Price could already be too expensive, although if you were going to sign him, now would be the time to do it, as he's coming off a year that looks like a decline, but is in fact an improvement over how he pitched in 2010. Price improved his underlying indicators even as his ERA jumped (from 2.72 to 3.49) and his win total fell (from 19 to 12), and seems poised for a huge season. It could be impossible for the Rays to afford Price's price on their limited payroll if they wait another season -- he's my pick to win the AL Cy Young Award this year. If a true long-term deal is too much, the Rays could look for an intermediate deal along the lines of what the Giants and Lincecum did two years ago. Just letting Price play out 2012 is a recipe for a $12-million arbitration award in 11 months.
The Rays also have Jeremy Hellickson, 2011 AL Rookie of the Year. Hellickson, like Bumgarner, is polished and could be as good now as he ever will be. Hellickson's low strikeout rate is enough of a warning sign, though, that the Rays may wish to see how 2012 plays out. It's not that Hellickson could fall apart, but rather, he may have a less-impressive season and be more amenable to a team-friendly deal a year from now.
Some pitchers are just not candidates for this treatment. The Braves' Tommy Hanson is incredibly talented and has been an above-average starting pitcher in two-plus seasons in the majors. However, there have already been concerns about his shoulder, which is often the kiss of death for pitchers. Atlanta can't invest tens of millions of dollars in a pitcher who has that particular risk factor. The Yankees rarely make this type of deal anyway, but they certainly shouldn't with Michael Pineda until they see how he handles a much more difficult ballpark, and to some extent, where his shape goes over the next year. At 6-foot-7, 260-pounds, Pineda is a very big guy, and carrying that much size can cause back and leg issues. With just one big league season under his belt, it's too soon to know what his health record will be.
Are there any Matt Moore deals on the horizon? If you're the Cardinals, do you try to lock down Shelby Miller for a long time? How about the White Sox with Chris Sale, or the Braves with Julio Teheran? (I wonder if the window to strike was between the fifth and sixth homers Teheran allowed in his first outing this spring.) Would the Royals make a long-term deal with a proving-to-be-healthy Mike Montgomery? With pitchers who have never pitched in the big leagues, it seems like the risk they take -- having to throw maybe 700 MLB innings before they get to arbitration, in the case of a midseason call-up -- is so high that they'd be vulnerable to this type of contract.
Say Miller, just to pick an example, gets called up to St. Louis in August and never goes back down. The Cardinals can pay him the minimum, and as a practical matter won't pay him much more, through the 2015 season. Miller would have to wait until 2016 to make real money. That's four years away, and a lot of pitches from now. If the Cards come and say, "We'll guarantee you $10 million right now, with a chance to make $30 million over eight years, but you have to give us options through 2020." Is that something that you can turn down, knowing the risks of your profession?
The practice of reaching long-term agreements with young players, pioneered by John Hart when he was Cleveland's general manager in the 1990s, is one of the signature innovations of modern baseball business. The more aggressive teams are about locking in their young players, the more upside they can capture. Particularly with pitchers, there are opportunities to take advantage of the imbalanced risks to make very strong deals at low cost. Teams should be more, not less, aggressive about finding candidates for the kind of contract Matt Moore signed with the Rays.