The soapbox for arguing against extending pitchers' long-term contracts is always crowded. Baseball "experts" caution general managers against making such commitments and, after they go ahead and do it, are equally generous with the criticism.

This is again a lively debate following an offseason in which three of the longest contracts have gone to pitchers: Boston went to a five-year deal to get John Lackey off the free-agent market, and Seattle and Detroit went to the same lengths to keep, respectively, Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander off that market.

Those three teams thus ignored an unwritten, but understood, rule in most front offices: No contracts longer than three years to pitchers.

The inspiration for such policies is the generally-held belief that, like any perishable on the shelf, pitchers come with an expiration date and that they hit their wall in Year Four.

But is that inspiration fueled by fact, or mere apprehension? Is there evidence of pitchers declining after Year Three of long-term contracts? Does their performance graph resemble the Alps, a three-year incline followed by a sharp decline?

That is what we are here to examine -- but not to answer. The track record is varied enough to preclude any absolutes. Draw your own conclusions.

But the issue certainly is timely, and not only because the aforementioned trio kept it topical.

Four pitchers who signed long-term contracts prior to the 2007 season are entering the fourth seasons of those deals: Barry Zito, Roy Oswalt, Gil Meche and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

What can we expect from them, based on the lessons of the past?

A couple of ground rules first: We considered only starting pitchers signed to contracts of five-plus years (a moot restriction, inasmuch as few relievers have ever received deals of that length, and none may ever again thanks to the Blue Jays' B.J. Ryan experience).

And this is not about the money. No dollar signs -- just possibly warning signs. We're not getting into "contract valuation" double-talk. Simply taking a snapshot of the performance risks of extended pacts for pitchers.

Of course, teams underwrite those long-term deals for hurlers with plenty of zeroes, so the two concepts are inseparable.

Still, we are all about taking the hill, not about going to the bank.

The good news for Mariners and Tigers fans is that Hernandez (23) and Verlander (27) are young enough to fall out of any historical trends; very few pitchers landed the long deal at such a young age, although even their results have been mixed. The same goes for Red Sox lefty Jon Lester, who was 25 last season in the first year of his own five-year contract.

"There's a gamble on anybody that you sign long term," Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski said when announcing Verlander's deal. "But to gamble on somebody that has premium talent, premium work ethic, has been a Tiger since Day 1 -- and you really know the person and know those things about him -- if you're going to be aggressive and make things happen, those are the people you need to keep in your organization."

The call for his Seattle counterpart, Jack Zduriencik, was even easier.

"In this particular case, he's 23 years of age," Zduriencik said of Hernandez, "he's athletic as can be, he's going to get bigger and stronger and I think that ... when you have the opportunity to secure a guy like this, you do it."

Lackey, 31, is in a more precarious position. Of the seven 30-plus pitchers signed to contracts of five-plus years in the past, only three -- Bob Forsch, Greg Maddux and Kevin Millwood -- sustained their prior performance through the fourth season.

Boston general manager Theo Epstein covered himself somewhat with the innovative contract clause that would give the Red Sox a sixth season of Lackey at the minimum salary if at any time during the five seasons he has to go on the disabled list with an elbow injury.

FOUR SCORE
A look at pitchers who signed deals of five or more years, showing their average records and innings prior to signing, in the first three years of the contract and in the fourth season
Name, Age Length, Yrs. Prior Avg. Years 1-3 Year 4
Dave Stieb, 27 11: 1985-1995 14-11, 232 IP 11-11, 218 IP 16-8, 207 IP
Barry Zito, 28 7: 2007-13 15-9, 204 10-14, 190 TBD
Mike Hampton, 28 8: 2001-08 11-7, 158 12-12, 191 13-9, 172
Darren Dreifort, 29 5: 2001-05 6-8, 111 4-6, 78 1-4, 51
Denny Neagle, 32 5: 2001-05 10-7, 152 6-8, 123 DNP
Roy Oswalt, 30 5: 2007-11 16-8, 2000 13-8, 201 TBD
Chan Ho Park, 29 5: 2002-06 10-7, 148 5-6, 90 12-8, 155
Kevin Millwood, 31 5: 2006-10 12-8, 173 12-12, 185 13-10, 199
Pedro Martinez, 26 6: 1998-2003 11-6, 152 20-6, 221 7-3, 117
Kevin Brown, 34 7: 1999-2005 12-8, 182 14-6, 199 3-4, 64
Gil Meche, 29 5: 2007-11 9-7, 136 10-11, 185 TBD
Daisuke Matsuzaka, 27 6: 2007-12 --- 12-7, 144 TBD
Mark Prior, 22 5: 2002-06 --- 10-5, 149 11-7, 167
Wayne Garland, 26 10: 1977-86 7-4, 107 6-11, 136 6-9, 150
Don Gullett, 26 6: 1977-82 13-6, 170 9-3, 102 DNP
Doyle Alexander, 27 6: 1977-82 8-8, 137 10-9, 180 14-11, 232
Ross Grimsley, 28 6: 1978-83 12-10, 207 12-10, 177 DNP
Mike Torrez, 32 7: 1978-84 10-8, 161 14-14. 237 10-3, 127
Dave Goltz, 31 6: 1980-85 12-10, 205 6-8, 113 0-6, 64
Greg Maddux, 32 5: 1998-2002 15-9, 217 19-9, 240 17-11, 233
Bruce Kison, 29 5: 1979-83 8-7, 137 6-5, 97 10-5, 142
Bob Forsch, 30 6: 1980-85 12-10, 199 12-8, 191 10-12, 187
Craig Swan, 29 5: 1980-84 6-6, 115 5-6, 103 2-8, 96
Rick Honeycutt, 29 5: 1983-87 7-11, 142 11-11, 180 11-9, 171
Len Barker, 28 5: 1983-87 8-6, 128 6-11, 128 DNP

The protection is eminently sound, given a terrain pockmarked by the notorious failures of ...

• Kevin Brown, who was given a seven-year contract by the Dodgers in 1999 and in the fourth season pitched only 64 innings while going 3-4.
• Don Gullett, who signed a six-year contract with the Yankees in 1977 and by the fourth season was out of baseball.
• Craig Swan, who received a five-year deal from the Mets in 1980 and in the fourth season went 2-8 in 96 innings.

There have been many more breakdowns ... Darren Dreifort went 1-4 in the fourth year of a five-year deal with the Dodgers, Denny Neagle was out of baseball by the fourth season of his five-year deal, Ross Grimsley sat out the fourth year of his six-year pact.

Yet there have also been some notable success stories.

• Greg Maddux didn't miss a beat on successive five-year contracts, signing the latter in 1998 with the Braves, for whom he was still a classy 17-11 in 233 innings in 2001.

• Dave Stieb stepped it up in the fourth year of his record 11-year deal with the Blue Jays, going 16-8 in 207 innings in 1988.

• And for a contemporary snapshot, Millwood went a characteristic 13-10 in 199 innings in the fourth year of the five-year contract he signed with Texas prior to the 2006 season.

Overall, however, it remains definitely a case of signer beware.

Of the 21 pitchers on our list (not all-inclusive, incidentally) with that Year Four already in the books, only nine maintained their prior level of performance and three of those seriously crashed soon thereafter -- Mike Hampton, Chan Ho Park and Mark Prior.

Perhaps most interesting: Fourteen of the 21 pitchers maintained their prior level of performance through the first three years of their deals -- and six of those could not keep it up in Year Four.