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Throwing Good Money After Bad Teams are frantically bidding up the market for pitching--but their own research reveals how they should limit their largesse

March 26, 2001
March 26, 2001

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March 26, 2001

Baseball 2001 Preview

Throwing Good Money After Bad Teams are frantically bidding up the market for pitching--but their own research reveals how they should limit their largesse

Texas Rangers general manager Doug Melvin, munching on a
sandwich, stepped out of the team's Port Charlotte, Fla., spring
training office building last month, squinted against the glare
of a bright midday sun and stared smack into the future. Walking
toward him came Jovanny Cedeno, Texas's top pitching prospect,
who has the same build (6 feet, 170 pounds), home country
(Dominican Republic) and even birth date (Oct. 25) as Pedro
Martinez. Cedeno, a 21-year-old righthander, is 26-6 over four
minor league seasons, none spent above Class A.

This is an article from the March 26, 2001 issue Original Layout

After they exchanged greetings and Cedeno continued into the
clubhouse, Melvin remarked, "You know what I should do? I should
put this sandwich down and go in there and offer him a five-year
contract for a million dollars. He's a kid we signed to a $4,000
signing bonus. A million dollars--when you're making $20,000 in
the minors? We give that away to [major league] journeymen all
the time. It could be a lot cheaper for us to do something like
that for Jovanny now. You look at him and wonder, Is he the next
Pedro? Who knows? Who really knows?"

Chew on this: Despite the Rangers' best intentions, given the
highly unpredictable, labrum-straining, payroll-draining,
logic-defying business of pitching, Cedeno is more likely to
familiarize himself with orthopedic medicine or another
organization than to be at the top of the Texas rotation any time
soon. Pitchers are harder to read than Sanskrit. The Los Angeles
Dodgers, for instance, looked at a 22-year-old Martinez in 1993
and saw a skinny kid who couldn't withstand the rigors of
starting. So they traded him to the Montreal Expos for second
baseman Delino DeShields. No wonder there's a saying among
general managers when it comes to developing pitchers: You will
make five mistakes on pitchers for every one you make on position
players.

"Everybody says the same thing--they want to rely on player
development," says one National League assistant general manager.
"Waiting on pitchers buys you time [with your owner]."

"Fact is," Melvin says, "we can't develop pitchers fast enough."
The trickle from the pipeline of young pitching--a classic case of
supply failing to meet demand--is at the root of the pricing
madness in the pitching market. Every winter general managers
gamble millions of dollars in increasingly outrageous increments
to fill out their staffs. This off-season they shelled out more
than half a billion dollars ($544.9 million, to be more precise)
on 42 free-agent pitchers, guaranteeing them an average of $5.86
million per year. In what has become a through-the-looking-glass
world, among the curiouser developments were the Philadelphia
Phillies' spending $15.55 million on two shopworn relievers,
rewarding 34-year-old righthander Jose Mesa for his 5.36 ERA for
the Seattle Mariners last year with a two-year, $6.8 million
contract and 33-year-old lefthander Rheal Cormier for his 4.61
ERA for the Boston Red Sox with a three-year, $8.75 million deal.
The Dodgers gave $55 million over five years to Darren Dreifort,
a 28-year-old righthander with a losing career record (following
story); the Colorado Rockies bet $121 million that lefty Mike
Hampton, 28, can stay healthy for eight years; the New York Mets
made a three-year commitment to pay 40-year-old lefty setup man
John Franco nearly as much per batter ($14,000 plus change, based
on hitters faced last year) as the crosstown Yankees will pay new
ace Mike Mussina, 32. Finally, two veterans, righthander Kevin
Appier, 33, and lefthander Denny Neagle, 32, will collect more
than $10 million per year until 2004 from, respectively, the Mets
and the Rockies despite their history of injuries and
middle-of-the-rotation reputations.

"Maybe five percent of the pitchers are exceptional and deserve
the big money," says Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, who
did not exercise a $5.6 million option to keep Appier in Oakland,
"but 95 percent of the pitchers should fall into a range between
$500,000 and $3 million because on a year-to-year basis their
performances are almost interchangeable."

This season's Andy Ashby (three years, $22.5 million from the
Dodgers) is last year's Darren Oliver (three years, $19 million
from the Rangers) is 1999's Joey Hamilton (three years, $17
million from the Toronto Blue Jays) is 1998's Andy Ashby (three
years, $15 million from the San Diego Padres)--only more
expensive. "We need to do a better job studying the numbers and
the risks," Melvin says. "Contracts for pitchers are getting more
and more difficult. Maybe the best thing would be if you couldn't
get insurance [against injury] anymore. That way you couldn't
afford to offer long-term contracts."

Teams continue to throw escalating amounts of money at pitchers
even as the return becomes less reliable. Documents obtained by
SI from Major League Baseball and from individual clubs reveal
how fragile these investments are.

--From 1995 through '99--the season for which the latest numbers
in the category are available--pitchers collected 15% of their
combined salaries while on the disabled list, for a total of
$335 million paid to pitchers who couldn't pitch.

--From 1996 to '99 the number of pitchers on the DL jumped 19% (to
182) and the cost for that downtime soared 39% (to $90 million in
'99). Pitchers stayed on the disabled list for an average of 72
days in '99.

--Of the 63 starting pitchers signed to multiyear contracts from
1997 through the 2000 season, 31 went on the disabled list during
the contract. Thirteen of those 63 pitchers--more than one out of
every five--spent more than 80 days on the DL.

--Only 37 starters threw 200 innings last season, down from 44 in
1999 and 56 in '98. Just 13 have pitched that much in each of the
past three seasons, and only five have done so while winning more
than 13 games each year: Aaron Sele (with the Rangers and the
Mariners), David Wells (with the Yankees and the Blue Jays),
Atlanta Braves Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, and Randy Johnson
(with the Mariners, the Houston Astros and the Arizona
Diamondbacks).

--Of the 50 highest-paid starters, only eight have remained with
their original organizations: Dreifort, Glavine, James Baldwin of
the Chicago White Sox, Charles Nagy of the Cleveland Indians,
Chan Ho Park of the Dodgers, Andy Pettitte of the Yankees, Brad
Radke of the Minnesota Twins and Shane Reynolds of the Astros.

Though pitching will remain an unpredictable business, the data
suggest four ways for general managers to lessen the chance of
failure.

1. Don't count on young pitchers to anchor your rotation. If
you'd drawn up a list of young aces in the making in 1998, you
would have included Matt Morris of the St. Louis Cardinals, Carl
Pavano of Montreal (who was obtained from Boston for Martinez),
Jose Rosado of the Kansas City Royals, Justin Thompson of the
Detroit Tigers, Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs and Jaret Wright
of Cleveland (whom the Indians refused to trade for Martinez).
All of them were between 20 and 25 years old. All of them have
broken down with injuries.

Last year, if you had tried to project pitchers in their early
20s to be the next aces--as Melvin does with Cedeno this year--you
would have named Ryan Anderson and Gil Meche of Seattle, Rick
Ankiel of St. Louis, John Patterson of Arizona, and Matt Riley of
the Baltimore Orioles. They, too, all broke down. (Ankiel,
though, has battled control problems, not physical woes.)

Another subgroup of aces-in-training, those who have passed their
25th birthdays in relatively good health and with some success,
has not met expectations. They include Kris Benson of the
Pittsburgh Pirates, Chris Carpenter of Toronto and Matt Clement
of San Diego. Another member of that group is Dreifort, who has a
39-45 career record. "He's always had good stuff, but he never
wins," one American League general manager says. "Scouts love
him. Great. I'll take the guy with command and control who knows
how to pitch. We think that was the worst signing [last winter]."

Says Rockies G.M. Dan O'Dowd, "No matter how much you like a
young guy and his stuff, you don't know about him until he gets
to the big leagues. Just try to think of pitchers who made a big
impact with their organizations at a young age in the past five,
10 years. You first think of Wood, but he broke down. Success
happens very rarely."

Only three pitchers 25 or younger are consensus
front-of-the-rotation starters and still with their original
teams: Bartolo Colon of Cleveland, Scott Elarton of Houston (who
survived shoulder surgery) and Tim Hudson of Oakland.

Pitchers in this Age of Slugging are the NFL quarterbacks of
baseball. The learning curve for the position is exponentially
longer than any other position's. Hudson, a 20-game winner last
year in his first full season, which he began when he was 24, is
as rare in baseball as Peyton Manning is in the NFL. Most star
pitchers have bounced among organizations while serving long
apprenticeships, overcoming injury or because the rarity of their
skills has great value on the free-agent market.

2. Avoid veteran "rotation fillers." Teams typically give
two-year contracts to veterans who can be their No. 4 or 5
starters because they don't trust them for a longer term. Those
fears are well placed. In fact, even a two-year deal is too long:
From 1997 to 2000 pitchers on two-year contracts had the highest
rate of failure among those signed to multiyear deals. One recent
example is the Anaheim Angels' giving Tim Belcher, who was 37 at
the time, a two-year deal worth $10.2 million before the 1999
season. Belcher went 10-13 in those two seasons.

The Rangers made a similar mistake with Mark Clark, whom they
paid $9.3 million to win a total of six games the past two
seasons. "With Clark and Darren Oliver I was looking for guys who
could give me 200 innings and win 12 to 14 games if things broke
right," Melvin says. "I looked at Clark and thought the Cubs [his
former team] didn't turn double plays behind him, he didn't get
great defense, and he didn't get run support. I maybe
overanalyzed that. With Oliver, he had led the Cardinals in
innings and had a 3.35 ERA in the second half of 1999. He won two
games last year. You can talk yourself into reasons for signing a
guy."

This winter several teams might have made this two-year mistake,
especially large-revenue clubs under pressure to contend. Such
risks taken recently include the Mets' signing of Steve Trachsel
($7 million), the Diamondbacks' signing of Armando Reynoso ($6.5
million), the Red Sox' signing of Tim Wakefield ($6.5 million)
and Frank Castillo ($4.5 million), and the Cubs' signing of
Julian Tavarez ($5 million) and Jason Bere ($4.5 million). Of
this group only three--Bere, who was a combined 12-10 for the
Brewers and the Indians; Castillo, who went 10-5 with the Blue
Jays but has a history of injury; and Tavarez, 11-5 for the
Rockies--had winning records last year.

Research shows teams are much better served by developing a No. 5
starter from within than by signing a rotation filler. The Mets,
for instance, could have given the spot to prospect Grant Roberts
rather than signing Trachsel. However, says New York general
manager Steve Phillips, "Steve Trachsel gives us a higher degree
of predictability than a rookie in that spot. [Committing to
young starters] happens less in large-market cities. A lot of
times a large-market pitcher has to do his developing in the
bullpen or for another team."

Trachsel is one of eight pitchers to throw 200 innings in each of
the past five seasons. He's 52-62 in that span. Says Beane,
"People begin to rationalize quantity by saying, 'Oh, he'll give
us innings.' At some point quality has to come into the
equation."

No team has sunk more money into its rotation than Los Angeles,
which this year is paying Ashby, Dreifort, Kevin Brown, Ramon
Martinez and Chan Ho Park $43.4 million--and that doesn't even
count the $15.5 million, three-year deal it squandered on Carlos
Perez in 1999. Over the last two seasons Perez is a combined 7-18
with a 6.28 ERA.

Says San Francisco Giants general manager Brian Sabean, "Teams
like us, because of limited resources, can't make any big
mistakes and go off half-cocked like the big-market teams can. We
have to be very aware of what we're doing, and I like that."

The market was so saturated with rotation fillers this winter
that some couldn't get a two-year deal. The Angels' Ismael Valdes
($2.5 million), the Astros' Kent Bottenfield ($2 million) and the
Padres' Bobby J. Jones ($625,000) settled for one-year contracts.
"There should be more Ismael Valdeses out there," says Padres
general manager Kevin Towers. "Every year with these guys it
should be, Let's see what you can do. I love Ashby, but there's
no way I would give him $7 million. We'd like to extend the
contract of Woody Williams [entering the final season of a
three-year, $12.75 million deal, with a club option for a
fourth], but I told him, 'If you want six or seven million, it's
not going to happen here.'"

3. Younger isn't always better. A pitcher in the 30 to 32 age
range is less of a risk than one at 28 or 29. Among the 63
pitchers signed to multiyear deals in the previous four seasons,
the 28-29 group accounted for a higher percentage and a greater
severity of injuries than the 30-32 group. Age 30 seems to mark a
threshold at which the risks of poor mechanics and overuse
associated with youth are reduced. That data would suggest the
Yankees made a wiser investment in the 32-year-old Mussina than
the Rockies did in Hampton, 28, who also must endure the grind of
pitching in Coors Field, a haven for hitters. "If they get six
years out of Hampton in those eight years, they'll consider
themselves lucky," one National League assistant general manager
says, "especially if they win [a championship] once in that
time."

Says O'Dowd, "We realize it's a gamble, but we're going to do
everything we can do to minimize the risk by doing such things as
getting him days off and limiting his pitches. If he just gives
us innings, we'll win. We know it's tough to pitch in our park.
If he has an ERA in the threes or low fours, he should go
straight to the Hall of Fame."

4. A large component of free-agent value is timing. Willie Blair
was a lifetime 25-41 pitcher before he won 16 games for the 1997
Tigers, just in time for free agency. Smitten and shortsighted,
Arizona gave him $11.5 million for three years. Blair went 18-33
with a 5.48 ERA in that span, during which he was traded twice.
Take a look at how similarly Appier, Ashby and Hideo Nomo (now
with the Red Sox) have pitched over the past two years.

AGE G W-L ERA IP H/9 IP
Appier 33 65 31-25 4.85 404.1 9.57
Ashby 33 62 26-23 4.35 405.1 9.33
Nomo 32 60 20-20 4.64 366.1 8.94

All three signed free-agent contracts this winter, yet their
average annual salaries and lengths of contract are all over the
map, starting with Nomo ($4.5 million for one year), then Ashby
($7.5 million per for three years) and Appier ($10.5 million per
for four years). Why? Appier won 15 games last year for Oakland,
a first-place team that provided him with the sixth-best run
support (6.23 per game) among AL starters. Ashby, who split the
season between Philadelphia and Atlanta, and Nomo, who pitched
for Detroit, didn't enjoy that kind of backing.

"I was getting pressure from our fans [to go after] Ashby," the
Rangers' Melvin says. "Our scouts didn't like his stuff. You get
pressure from media and fans because they get caught up in name
value. We do too sometimes."

Says the Padres' Towers, "There are 30 teams, and probably 20 of
them think they at least have a shot at a wild card. They're
competing for pitchers who might get them there. It's a gamble.
You know you could wind up with Carlos Perez all over again."

The mistakes will proliferate. The Rangers and every other team
can't develop enough Jovanny Cedenos--whatever may become of
him--to keep up with demand, forcing teams to compete against one
another in what's become an expensive recycling business. General
managers never stop looking at pitchers and asking, "Who really
knows?"

COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Hampton's recent record might justify his staggering price, but studies show that, at 28, he might not last as long as his contract. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Many in the baseball world were aghast when the Phillies shelled out big bucks for oft-shelled reliever Mesa.COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACECOLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Given Mussina's age, the Yankees may well have made the off-season's wisest pitching investment.

Outlandish

During the off-season 42 pitchers signed free-agent contracts.
Two of them, Cubs closer Tom Gordon and Astros reliever Mike
Jackson, didn't throw a pitch last season yet still got deals
that could earn them, with incentives, more than $2.5 million and
$750,000, respectively. Calculated below, for each of the 40
other pitchers, is the ratio of his new average salary to his
2000 outs (cost per out). --David Sabino

STARTER, TEAM NEW AVERAGE 2000 COST
SALARY OUTS PER OUT

Mike Hampton, Rockies $15.1 million 653 $23,162.33
Mike Mussina, Yankees $14.8 million 713 $20,687.24
Darren Dreifort, Dodgers $11.0 million 578 $19,031.14
Kevin Appier, Mets $10.5 million 586 $17,918.09
Denny Neagle, Rockies $10.3 million 627 $16,427.43
Rick Reed, Mets $7.3 million 552 $13,134.06
Andy Ashby, Dodgers $7.5 million 598 $12,541.81
Pat Hentgen, Orioles $4.8 million 583 $8,233.28
Hideo Nomo, Red Sox $4.5 million 570 $7,894.74
Ismael Valdes, Angels $2.5 million 321 $7,788.16
Julian Tavarez, Cubs $2.5 million 360 $6,944.44
Armando Reynoso, Diamondbacks $3.3 million 512 $6,347.66
Steve Trachsel, Mets $3.5 million 602 $5,813.95
Frank Castillo, Red Sox $2.3 million 414 $5,434.78
Mark Gardner, Giants $2.0 million 447 $4,474.27
Jason Bere, Cubs $2.3 million 508 $4,429.13
John Burkett, Braves $1.8 million 403 $4,342.43
Ramon Martinez, Dodgers $1.5 million 383 $3,916.45
Kent Bottenfield, Astros $2.0 million 515 $3,883.50
Pat Rapp, Angels $2.0 million 522 $3,831.42
Cal Eldred, White Sox $1.0 million 336 $2,976.19
Scott Karl, Padres $625,000 262 $2,385.50
David Cone, Red Sox $1.0 million 465 $2,150.54
Kevin Jarvis, Padres $550,000 345 $1,594.03
Bobby J. Jones, Padres $625,000 464 $1,346.98

RELIEVER, TEAM NEW AVERAGE 2000 COST
SALARY OUTS PER OUT

John Franco, Mets $3.5 million 167 $20,958.08
Dan Plesac, Blue Jays $2.4 million 120 $20,000.00
Mark Wohlers, Reds $1.5 million 84 $17,857.14
Jeff Nelson, Mariners $3.6 million 209 $16,985.65
Rheal Cormier, Phillies $2.9 million 205 $14,227.64
Jose Mesa, Phillies $3.4 million 242 $14,049.59
Turk Wendell, Mets $3.1 million 248 $12,634.41
Mark Petkovsek, Rangers $2.5 million 243 $10,082.30
Mark Guthrie, A's $1.8 million 214 $8,411.21
Ricky Bottalico, Phillies $1.5 million 218 $6,880.73
Tim Wakefield, Red Sox $3.3 million 478 $6,799.16
Jeff Fassero, Cubs $2.6 million 390 $6,538.46
Terry Mulholland, Pirates $3.0 million 470 $6,382.98
Doug Henry, Royals $1.4 million 235 $5,851.06
Ricky Bones, Marlins $850,000 232 $3,663.79

Journeyman's Wages

Righthander Andy Ashby (lifetime 84-87, 4.10 ERA), who this
winter signed a three-year, $22.5 million free-agent contract
with the Dodgers (with a club option for a fourth year at $8.5
million), is an example of a pitcher who has taken full
advantage of a seller's market. Here's Ashby's elevator ride up
the salary scale, even if his pitching stats haven't always kept
pace.

1991
Phillies 1-5, 6.00 ERA $100,000

1992
Phillies 1-3, 7.54 $109,000

1993
Rockies 0-4, 8.50
Padres 3-6, 5.48 $150,000

1994
Padres 6-11, 3.40 $225,000

1995
Padres 12-10, 2.94 $755,000

1996
Padres 9-5, 3.23 $1.9 million

1997
Padres 9-11, 4.13 $3.1 million

1998
Padres 17-9, 3.34 $4.1 million

1999
Padres 14-10, 3.80 $5 million

2000
Phillies 4-7, 5.68
Braves 8-6, 4.13 $5.9 million

2001
Dodgers $6 million

2002
Dodgers $8 million

2003
Dodgers $8.5 million

2004
[Dodgers $8.5 million]

"Ninety-five percent of pitchers should fall between $500,000 and
$3 million," says Beane, "because their performances are
interchangeable."