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12/19/11 9:55 AM EST
Big-money pitchers come with big risk
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
We pause now to consider the $100 million pitcher. To put it delicately: buyer beware. First, though, a word about Yu Darvish. He may be every bit as good as advertised. Here's hoping he is. In the things that can be measured, he's very close to a can't-miss prospect. He's 25 years old. He's 6-foot-5, 215 pounds. His fastball has been clocked consistently in the 92- to 95-mph range, and he's coming off a season in Japan in which he put up breathtaking numbers: 276 strikeouts and 33 walks in 232 innings. Not every scout believes he's going to be a bona fide No. 1 starter, and there'll always be some debate about that stuff. But virtually all of them rave about his talent and poise. Still, there's a risk. Daisuke Matsuzaka arrived with similar statistics and reviews, but has gone 49-30 in five seasons, pitched 200 innings only once and never come close to justifying the Red Sox's original $103 million investment. Enter Darvish. The Toronto Blue Jays have had six talent evaluators see him in person at least four times, according to Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun. The Blue Jays don't spend recklessly, so if they believe Darvish would justify a $100 million investment, it's because they're convinced he's a guy worth building a rotation around. There's just this one teensy weensy thing that should give every team bidding for Darvish pause, and it's really such a small thing it's hardly worth bringing up. That would be the money. And the risk. Both are huge. Only six pitchers have gotten deals worth $100 million, and there has been some -- let's be kind about this -- heartbreak. (Matsuzaka isn't technically a member of the $100 million club since Boston's investment was broken down into a $51.11 million posting fee and a $52 million contract. It's believed at least a similar commitment will be required to land Darvish.) Of the six pitchers who've signed $100 million deals, just one of them -- CC Sabathia -- has been exactly what he was projected to be. Maybe that's why he's on the list twice, most recently with a $122 million contract he signed with the Yankees after opting out of his original $161 million deal after three seasons. Now about the others. Mike Hampton and Barry Zito were gambles that didn't pay off. Johan Santana and Kevin Brown were very, very good until both got injured. And Cliff Lee has just finished the first season of a five-year, $120 million deal with the Phillies. Those six contracts are a window into the risk that comes with giving a pitcher a long-term contract. Even if the club is exactly right on its evaluations, the risk of injury is frightening. To compare Darvish -- or almost anyone -- to Sabathia is a huge leap. Sabathia is a five-time All-Star who has averaged 215 innings and 183 strikeouts per season. Still only 31 years old, he's on his way to being mentioned in the same breath with some of the all-time greats. Is that what the club signing Darvish can expect? OK, don't be silly. Zito is 43-61 in five seasons with the Giants since signing a seven-year, $126 million deal. His contract is a cautionary tale for every club considering a long-term contract for a pitcher. Similarly, the Rockies signed Mike Hampton to an eight-year, $121 million deal, then parted company with him after he went 21-28 in two seasons. The Dodgers gave Kevin Brown a seven-year, $105 million contract in 1999. For their $105 million, they got three really good seasons. Santana got a six-year, $137.5 million deal from the Mets. He pitched three very solid seasons, then missed the entire 2011 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. On the other hand, players -- young players, players in their prime, infielders, outfielders, pitchers -- don't come with guarantees. Even baseball's best scouts are wrong way more than half the time. They can evaluate a player's individual skills, but to know how those skills will translate in various leagues is among the toughest things in sport. And there's the injury factor. There's a significant attrition rate among young pitchers. In the case of Darvish, he has proven himself to be both durable and dominant in Japan. If he stays healthy, there's every reason to believe he'll be successful. And the Blue Jays have done their homework. General manager Alex Anthopoulos has said he regrets not being completely prepared for the Aroldis Chapman sweepstakes. When it seemed likely Darvish would be available, Anthopoulos was ready. The Blue Jays have said they would spring for a big-ticket signing once their roster reached a certain point. After winning 85 and 81 games the last two seasons, they may feel their time has come. Some of us thought they'd go hard for Prince Fielder, and they still might if they don't land Darvish. In an extremely competitive division, and with a second Wild Card berth coming no later than 2013, the Blue Jays may see Darvish as the guy who can get them into the playoffs for the first time since 1993. If that happens, Blue Jays fans won't remember anything about the posting fee or the risk. To them, it'll just be about the winning.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.