On baseball

It’s a roll of the dice

No guarantees in huge contracts

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / April 13, 2011

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It is hard, if not harsh, to assign the label “worst contract’’ or even “really bad contract’’ to a pitcher who has a 46-29 record in four-plus seasons.

But if the Red Sox could have a do-over with Daisuke Matsuzaka, would they? Of course they would, though nobody in the organization is willing to say it in on the record with the pitcher still in their employ.

The killer in the 2006 deal was the $51 million posting fee, which was basically the cost of doing business. Without putting that up, the Sox couldn’t have negotiated a six-year, $52 million deal with the pitcher’s agent, Scott Boras, who has hypnotized many a general manager into signing a contract he probably regretted.

The difference here is that Matsuzaka is a Japanese pitcher, and there is never an easy transition for them into a different culture and a different brand of baseball. The Japanese lineups aren’t nearly as formidable. The training is different. Pitchers work “backwards,’’ throwing off-speed pitches instead of fastballs when behind in the count.

All of these things have to be taken into consideration, and at the time, the Sox felt Matsuzaka, based on their international scouting, could handle those issues. To some degree, he has — but has he given them $103 million worth?

“We’ve all had bad contracts,’’ said a National League general manager. “It’s hard enough to have every single scouting tool to make a decision on an American pitcher. And even then it’s a crap shoot.

“You can be as thorough as you can possibly be, and feel you’re 100 percent certain that this is the player you should sign, and for some reason it doesn’t work out.

“So take that, apply it to signing a Japanese pitcher. You’re really going into it blindly. You don’t think you are at the time. You think you have it all figured out. But you don’t.’’

The GMs we asked yesterday all said their teams couldn’t have signed Matsuzaka. Much too risky. Asked whether it was a bad contract, the short answer was, “No, but . . .’’

The Mets, Yankees, and Rangers bid on Matsuzaka at the time, but the Sox blew everyone out of the water with their offer.

“If we had signed him, he would probably have been more successful in our division,’’ said former Mets GM Omar Minaya, who finished second in the posting with a bid of $39 million. “You can’t say that that was a bad signing. He’s won in one of the toughest divisions in baseball. He’s won in the World Series. So to say that’s a bad contract is not the way I would characterize it.

“We had scouted him and we thought he was going to be a very good top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. Now, we all know injuries get in the way and make it tough for a guy to be everything you hoped he’d be when you make that kind of commitment, but it’s not like he hasn’t given the Boston Red Sox anything. He’s given them some big wins.’’

There certainly have been bad contracts given to American pitchers in recent years.

The Giants signed Barry Zito to a seven-year, $126 million deal in December 2006, and he has been a bust. Zito is 40-58 with a 4.47 ERA for them.

In fact, the Sox passed on the opportunity to sign Zito, who was the hottest major league free agent at the time. The lefthander had a 102-63 record and had won the 2002 American League Cy Young Award, so the Giants felt safe signing him.

They had been able to watch him closely in nearby Oakland, and the theory was that in the National League, he’d be even better because there is no DH.

The NL general manager quoted earlier reasons that Zito and Matsuzaka are actually very similar in that they are capable of pitching very well in stretches, but all of a sudden, there’s a loss of rhythm, or concentration, or something bad happens.

Minaya, too, probably wishes he had one or two contracts back. Embattled lefthander Oliver Perez signed a three-year, $36 million deal in February 2009 and was released by the Mets before this season.

Minaya also signed Pedro Martinez away from the Red Sox in 2005, giving him a four-year deal worth $52 million. At the time it seemed like a coup. But the Sox had decided that Martinez’s shoulder would not hold up, and they were right.

Martinez had a very good first year — 15-8 with a 2.82 ERA in 31 starts — but he made only 48 more starts for the remainder of the contract and finished his Mets career 32-23 with a 3.88 ERA in 79 starts.

One of the classic worsts was lefthander Mike Hampton, whom the Colorado Rockies signed in December 2000 to an eight-year, $121 million deal. He lasted only two years in Colorado, putting up ERAs of 5.41 and 6.15, before being traded. Suffice to say, he never lived up to the billing.

Right there with Hampton was the Dodgers’ signing of righthander Kevin Brown to a seven-year, $105 million deal in December 1998. Brown went 58-32 with a 2.83 ERA as a Dodger, but in 2001 and 2002, he made a combined 37 starts.

After a good year in 2003 (14-9, 2.39), Brown was traded to the Yankees, who paid him the remaining $31.4 million for a 14-13 record and a 4.95 ERA in 35 total starts.

The Yankees were also burned by Carl Pavano, who signed a four-year, $39.9 million deal in December 2004 but wound up making only 26 starts for them, going 9-8 with a 5.00 ERA. His Yankee career was marred with controversy, injury, and underachievement, and from a team standpoint, his may be one of the worst contracts ever signed.

While pitching contracts are risky, long-term deals for position players can also haunt you. The Cubs gave Alfonso Soriano an eight-year deal for $136 million, and it has been a weight around their neck. Toronto was fortunate to get out from under the seven-year, $126 million deal it gave Vernon Wells by trading him to the Angels in the offseason.

If you’re a big-market team, you’re bound to have your share of clunkers, and when you do, they’re very noticeable.

The Julio Lugo deal — four years, $36 million in December 2006 — didn’t work out great for the Sox, though he was the starting shortstop on the 2007 World Series championship team. The Edgar Renteria signing ($40 million, four years in December 2004) didn’t work out, either.

Matsuzaka is clearly seen as a bust in these parts, and if you take his last 39 starts, from 2009 on, only a third of them (13) have been quality ones. He has battled injuries and adjustments. He has resisted the Americanization of his pitching style.

“I don’t know the ins and outs there, but he still has this year and all of next year,’’ said Minaya. “I think he has good enough stuff. I always thought so.’’

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