Inside Pitch: Hurlers bring risks
Longterm deals for pitchers can have big consequences
The Cubs' contract extension talks with pitcher Carlos Zambrano are on hold at the moment, and that's understandable considering the team will be up for sale after the season.
The new owners will certainly want to lock up Zambrano, one of the best pitchers in baseball in recent years, and while the right-hander can expect to secure a significant multi-year deal in line with some of last winter's signings, recent history suggests teams giving contracts of five years or more to pitchers more often than not wind up regretting the decision.
"With starting pitchers, it's more of a gamble [than position players] because you're looking at an obligation of say 30-35 starts per year, that's 150 or more, assuming he stays healthy," one front office person said. "Five years is a long time, an injury can trim that number a lot quicker than it can for a position player. You have to look long and hard at the age and health."
Mike Hampton signed an eight-year, $121 million contract with the Rockies prior to the 2001 season, but the left-hander has made just 12 starts since the 2004 season because of injury.
Kevin Brown was given a seven-year, $105 million contract prior to the 1999 season and then won 41 games over the first three seasons of the new deal with the Dodgers. The right-hander averaged only 19 starts per year over the final four years of the contract because of injuries and went 4-7 with a 6.50 ERA in his final season with the Yankees in 2005.
Age, injury or poor performance made other five-plus year pacts look worse in hindsight, such as the deals given to Chan Ho Park and Denny Neagle.
In the case of Zambrano, the Cubs might also want to consider some of the current pitcher contracts of five years or more on which the jury is still out on: Houston's Roy Oswalt ($73 million over five years), Toronto's A.J. Burnett ($55 million, five years), Toronto's B.J. Ryan ($47 million, five years), St. Louis' Chris Carpenter ($63.5 million, five years), San Francisco's Barry Zito ($126 million, seven years), Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka ($52 million, six years, not counting posting fee), Kansas City's Gil Meche ($55 million, five years), Texas' Kevin Millwood ($60 million, five years) and Kei Igawa of the Yankees ($20 million, five years).
Zambrano doesn't turn 26 until June and has demonstrated that he is durable as well as effective (59 wins and 861 innings over the last four years). So youth and a good health record would seem to make Zambrano one of the exceptions to the rule concerning contracts of five years or more.
There's one other factor to consider. The last time the organization was at a contract crossroads with a talented 26-year-old right-hander was 1992. Then, the Cubs didn't re-sign Greg Maddux to a long-term deal, and Maddux signed with Atlanta.
Zambrano isn't yet eligible for free agency, and maybe he won't be another Maddux, but can the new owners take that chance?
Pearls from the diamond
Rich Hill, who leads the Major Leagues with a 0.41 ERA, is the first Cubs left-handed starter to start the season 3-0 since Dave Roberts in 1978, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Hill's big sweeping curveball has been compared to the hook of former Major Leaguer Zane Smith.
"He throws it for strikes and it tails away from left-handed hitters and jams right-handed hitters," one scout said. "He's got them looking for that low and then he throws the fastball high and they can't catch up with it."
There have been all sorts of theories regarding Brad Lidge this year, but one scout believes it is simply a matter of the Houston reliever not throwing his slider for strikes.
"They're all sitting on his fastball and taking his slider and since he hasn't been able to throw the slider for strikes consistently he falls behind in the count and they're making him pay," the scout said. "Until he starts getting (ahead) 0-1, 0-2 on the slider they're going to eliminate it as something to worry about. If they don't have to worry about your breaking pitch they're going to be ready for the fastball no matter how good it is."
Lidge entered the season with 473 strikeouts and 140 walks in 334 career innings, a 3.37-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. This season Lidge has struck our four and walked seven in 5 1/3 innings. And you can disregard rumors that Lidge is about to be traded. Astros GM Tim Purpura has told other teams he has no plans to move Lidge, who is making $5.35 million this year. Lidge's problems are correctable, he's only 30 years old and even if the Astros were looking to move the right-hander it wouldn't make sense to do it when he's struggling and thus his value is at its lowest.
White Sox closer Bobby Jenks gave up two runs on four hits in two-thirds of an inning at Oakland on April 10 but since then the right-hander has made five appearances and has allowed a total of two runs while recording five saves. During that span he's allowed only two hits and one walk.
"He's smoothed out his delivery and is throwing his slider a lot more now," said one scout. "Before he was almost all fastballs, now he's using the slider more and it's made him more effective."
Another guy who appears to be mixing in his breaking stuff more effectively this season is Arizona's Brandon Webb. Webb had a career-high 13-strikeout performance against San Diego Wednesday night in a game in which he used his changeup and curveball much more frequently than he had in the past. If he continues that approach in combination with his outstanding sinking fastball it could mean even more K's for the Diamondbacks right-hander.
One scout doesn't believe the five homers in 29 at-bats by Josh Hamilton of the Reds is a fluke. "He's got a very nice compact swing with a lot of power," the scout said, "and he doesn't chase (pitches out of the strike zone)."
The Phillies moved Opening Day starter Brett Myers to the bullpen, something the team had been considering for a while because of concerns about closer Tom Gordon's shoulder. Myers, who will work as a setup man, was replaced in the rotation by Jon Lieber. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel believes the move will strengthen the bullpen without significantly weakening the rotation.
"That will help lessen the strain on their bullpen," said one scout. "Myers will give them quality innings and Lieber's a guy who can give them innings too. Bottom line: it lessens the load on some of the weaker arms on the staff."
With Alfonso Soriano returning Monday after sitting out with a hamstring problem, several baseball people said they expect the Cubs to start considering trades for one or more of their excess outfielders.
Soriano is expected to play left field, with top prospect Felix Pie getting a chance in center field. That leaves Matt Murton, Jacque Jones and Cliff Floyd as options for the one other outfield spot.
For Jones, who is in the middle of a three-year, $16 million contract, being on the trading block is certainly nothing new as trade speculation has followed the veteran outfielder in recent years.
"Jones can help somebody," one AL official said. "He's a lefty bat who's always produced and has some power, and there probably aren't going to be any Bobby Abreu's available [this July]."
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.