01/19/09 9:35 PM EST
Long-term deals for pitchers a risk
Position players more often prove to be better values
When you talk about risk, you are talking about signing pitchers to long-term contracts.
And that's exactly what has been taking place in the free-agent market of Major League Baseball.
The New York Yankees created a lot of headlines when they signed first baseman Mark Teixeira to an eight-year contract for $180 million, but that's not the real story of this offseason.
The most stunning part of this offseason is that of the six largest contracts given to free-agent players, Teixeira is the only position player on the list.
It is the need for pitching that has produced most of the large contracts, and the Yankees have been the biggest spenders with their investments in CC Sabathia ($161 million for seven years) and A.J. Burnett ($82.5 million for five years).
Following the Yankees' trio of Teixeira, Sabathia and Burnett on the top-dollar list this offseason are pitchers Derrick Lowe ($60 million for four years with Atlanta), Ryan Dempster ($52 million for four years with the Chicago Cubs) and Francisco Rodriguez ($37 million for three years with the New York Mets).
The top five free-agent contracts to pitchers total $392.5 million, and that is more money than has been spent on all of the free-agent position players, including Teixeira.
There is a trend in baseball that has to be frightening to any small revenue team that has a bright young pitcher, and that is the amazing escalation of salaries for star hurlers.
The recent record-setting contracts for pitchers have been expensive and long term, a dangerous combination.
In just over two years, we have seen Barry Zito signed by the Giants for a total of $126 million for seven years, Johan Santana signed by the Mets for $137.5 million for six years and now Sabathia for $161 million for seven years.
What's interesting is that the player holding the title of the highest-paid position player hasn't changed hands since Alex Rodriguez signed with the Rangers in January 2001 (a 10-year deal for $252 million), but the No. 1 spot in the salary list for pitchers has changed a half-dozen times during that period.
If you look at history, you will find that the position players hold their value far more than pitchers. You can make a case that Rodriguez was overpaid by the Rangers and again by the Yankees in their contract dealings, but A-Rod does produce year in and year out.
The same is true for shortstop Derek Jeter of the Yankees, and you could make a safe bet that Teixeira will be a long-term producer for New York.
Pitchers simply carry more risk despite the dollars that are spent, and you can look at the $100-million-plus deals of Mike Hampton and Kevin Brown as classic examples.
It's not as if teams aren't aware of the risks involved with signing pitchers to long-term deals.
The Yankees went strong after Sabathia and Burnett because they are driven to return to postseason play and want to give their young pitchers time to develop. The Braves have had an offseason in which little has gone according to plan, and thus they bid what would seem to be extremely high for Lowe. The Cubs didn't want Dempster to escape, and the Mets needed Rodriguez to try to escape ninth-inning disasters that have been part of their recent story.
Team executives always can give a reason, while agents always can make a case of how much sense the signing of a pitcher makes, and so the salaries for players who often work only one of five days keep escalating.
The escalation of salaries for pitchers has a chain reaction, and now we are seeing the evidence in this year's class of arbitration-eligible players.
The Phillies have signed their young ace left-hander Cole Hamels to a three-year deal for $20.5 million. It is the largest annual average for a starting pitcher in his first year of salary arbitration. Even with a payment of $20-plus million, Philadelphia wasn't able to buy out Hamels' final year of arbitration. He was a "Super-Two" in service time with 2.143.
In this offseason, during which not even a terrible economy has slowed down the salaries paid to pitchers, we have a quality free agent in Sabathia making $23 million a season and a young starter in Hamels with fewer than three full years of service averaging nearly $7 million.
When one looks back, it has been an amazing escalation of salaries.
As the former general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, I once signed my name to a contract that made Orel Hershiser the highest paid pitcher -- and player -- in the game.
It was 20 years ago (February 1989) when the Dodgers signed Hershiser to a contract for an amount that was record-setting: $7.9 million for three years.
I can recall at the press conference that Orel predicted the record wouldn't last long. He was right.
It's hard to imagine anyone will look back at this year's signing of pitchers and think, "Wow, those figures are really low," but only time will tell.
Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as Executive Vice President and general manager. His book, "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue," was published by SportsPublishing LLC. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.