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For free-agent pitchers, it's buyer beware

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  November 12, 2008 08:40 AM

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Historically speaking, we needn't look far to recognize that pitching often can be as volatile as stocks. For every good long-term pitching deal that pans out, there are seemingly several that do not.

MAZZ'S HOT STOVE SERIES: Continuing today and ending on Nov. 13, the day before free agents can sign with any team, the Globe's Tony Massarotti will tackle an offseason topic of interest to Red Sox fans each day. Check out the schedule below.
  • Tuesday, Nov. 4:
    Shortstop in focus
  • Wednesday, Nov. 5:
    Yankees: Under construction
  • Thursday, Nov. 6:
    Handicapping the field of potential Manny suitors
  • Friday, Nov. 7:
    Top prize: Mark Teixeira
  • Tuesday, Nov. 11:
    Most likely Sox trade partners
  • Wednesday, Nov. 12:
    For free-agent pitching, it's buyer beware
  • Thursday, Nov. 13:
    Tony's best- and worst-case offseason scenarios for the Red Sox and Yankees

  • Sox' 5 biggest offseason questions
  • Player-by-player Sox overview
  • Big names in play
  • Agent could Boras to death
  • Red Sox aren't afraid to be bold
  • Sox look soft in the middle
  • While this year's deep crop of free-agent starters includes A.J. Burnett, Ryan Dempster, Derek Lowe, CC Sabathia, and Ben Sheets, among several others, all interested parties are encouraged to proceed with caution. History has shown that mediocre pitching (or worse) can carry a very steep price, and nothing can damage a team's payroll structure more than a pitching contract gone bad, depending on the size of the payroll.

    For example:

    • Though the pitching market was thin last offseason, the biggest award went to righthander Carlos Silva, who signed a four-year, $48 million contract with the Seattle Mariners. The possessor of a 55-46 record to that point in his career, Silva promptly went 4-15 with a 6.46 ERA last season -- in a pitcher's ballpark, no less -- and still has three years remaining on his deal. He is completely untradeable.
    • In 2006, multiyear deals were given to a cast of starters that included (in alphabetical order):

      Miguel Batista (three years, $25 million)
      Adam Eaton (three years, $24.5m)
      Orlando Hernandez (two years, $12m)
      Kei Igawa (five years, $20m)
      Ted Lilly (four years, $40m)
      Jason Marquis (three years, $21m)
      Daisuke Matsuzaka (six years, $52m)
      Gil Meche (five years, $55m)
      Mark Mulder (two years, $13m)
      Mike Mussina (two years, $23m)
      Vicente Padilla (three years, $33.75m)
      Jason Schmidt (three years, $47m)
      Jeff Suppan (four years, $42m)
      Woody Williams (two years, $12.5m)
      Barry Zito (seven years, $126m)

      Of the pitchers on that list, only Lilly (32-17 for the Cubs), Matsuzaka (33-15 for the Red Sox) and Meche (23-24 with a 3.82 ERA for the Royals) have pitched consistently well, while the remaining pitchers on the list have suffered from varying degrees of injury, inconsistency, ineffectiveness, and ineptitude.

    Looking back, Epstein and the Red Sox do not look so foolish for paying $51.11 million for the negotiating rights to Matsuzaka, who was the youngest notable free agent available on that year's market.

    For the Red Sox, in particular, big pitching contracts have been few and far between during Epstein's tenure. Even the signing of Matt Clement (three years, $25.5 million) was not nearly as debilitating as it could have been, particularly when compared with other pitching contracts signed following the 2004 season. That year, the best deal awarded any starting pitcher (from the team's standpoint) was the four-year, $36 million contract given by the Los Angeles Dodgers to Lowe, who averaged 34 starts and 213 innings while going 54-48 with a 3.59 ERA for a team that consistently had difficulty scoring runs.

    The other pitchers who signed that winter? Pedro Martinez (four years, $53m), Carl Pavano (four years, $40m) and Brad Radke (two years, $18m), all of whom now have careers in varying states of disrepair. (Radke has retired, Martinez may be on his way there, and Pavano made 26 starts over the life of his contract.)

    Get the picture?

    With regard to this year's market, in particular, a major league source has confirmed that the Sox have inquired with agent Scott Boras about Lowe, interest deemed sincere enough that Boras has equipped the Sox with one of his famed marketing portfolios, or "books," on the player's value.

    Meanwhile, Burnett has long been a favorite of owner John Henry, who owned the Marlins when the talented righthander pitched for the club, but his asking price will be so steep that at least one major league general manager believes the Red Sox will not invest the $16 million-$18 million annually that it could take to sign a pitcher who seems motivated only in seasons in which his contract is up. (Before this year, Burnett went 20-16 for the Jays, but pitched just over 300 innings combined in two seasons.)

    As for Sheets, he has a lengthy injury history. And despite Sabathia's reputation for being a horse, one big league coach last season expressed serious concerns regarding the big lefthander's knee and shoulder over the long term, fearing that the pitcher will break down sooner rather than later. All of that makes the 35-year-old Lowe among the most probable targets for the Red Sox -- the pitcher never has been shy about declaring his fondness for Boston and East Coast baseball -- largely because he is the safest and most reliable option, assuming the Sox can get him for what they would term "value." (Nonetheless, he won't come cheaply -- plan on at least $15 million a year.)

    In the interim, expect the Sox to go hard after young Japanese righthander Junichi Tazawa and continue giving opportunities to young pitchers like Michael Bowden, Justin Masterson, and Clay Buchholz, the last of whom's wretched 2008 campaign (2-9, 6.75 ERA) still makes him a far more cost-efficient option than someone like Silva. The failure rate of free-agent pitching is one of the biggest reasons Epstein has placed emphasis on the drafting and developing of pitchers, allowing the Sox to throw lavish contracts at people like Mark Teixeira and, to a lesser extent, J.D. Drew.

    As for the bullpen ...

    Many executives in recent years have identified the bullpen as their greatest challenge, largely because the performance of relievers can fluctuate dramatically on a year-to-year basis. Relievers generally pitch a fraction of the innings that starters do, meaning the sample size is much smaller. A hot streak subsequently can skew the performance, particularly in roles where intangibles (mental toughness, etc.) can play such large roles.

    Regardless, most every executive agrees that effective relievers must share one common trait: an ability to consistently throw strikes. Though there are no absolutes -- David Aardsma has trouble in this area, for instance -- but the Red Sox generally adhere to this belief, explaining the signings of, among others, Keith Foulke (2003), Hideki Okajima (2006), and Mike Timlin (2002).

    According to one Sox official, here are other elements the club looks for in its relievers:

    • A repertoire that includes two or more pitches deemed "average" or "above average" by a scout or evaluator. For example, Jonathan Papelbon throws an effective splitter to go along with his fastball. Over the years, Manny Delcarmen has developed an excellent changeup to go along with a power fastball (with which he sometimes lacks command) and an inconsistent curve. Hideki Okajima, when on top of his game, has an extremely effective split/changeup and can throw his curveball for strikes at will. (Okajima's fastball is average, but he generally locates it with precision.)
    • A strikeout rate that is average to above-average, or an uncanny ability to induce ground balls. While power is one thing -- who doesn't like strikeouts? -- ground balls are another. When Timlin first arrived in Boston, he could pound the strike zone while possessing strikeout ability and a power sinker. If and when Justin Masterson can more consistently throw strikes, he will have the same assets.

    Given the erratic nature of most relievers, the Sox are not likely to pursue many, particularly those who come with high price tags. While someone like lefthander Brian Fuentes would be a nice fit in the Boston bullpen -- Fuentes would give the Sox a power setup man alongside Papelbon and someone who could close in a pinch, all while allowing Masterson to start -- Fuentes will likely command big dollars and seek an opportunity to close. The Sox always have had an interest in veteran Doug Brocail, historically a good strike-thrower, though his performance slipped some last year at age 41. And if the Sox are looking for middle relief help, Epstein could bring back Brandon Lyon, an excellent strike-thrower who was miscast as a closer (for at least part of the time) in Arizona.

    As always, trades are a possibility, though the Sox generally are in decent shape in their bullpen, where the performance improved considerably last year after Masterson joined the group. Once that happened, manager Terry Francona had setup options (Masterson, Okajima) to go along with the luxury of two lefthanders (Okajima, Javier Lopez) and a young, powerful middle reliever (Delcarmen). The Red Sox also have more power arms on the way (Daniel Bard), suggesting that the club's overall interest in free-agent pitching this offseason will be minimal.

    Given the recent history on the free-agent market, after all, Epstein appears content to let other clubs make the mistakes.

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    About Mazz

    Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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