Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 15, 2004
BASEBALL: San Pedro de Shea
As you can tell from my commentary the past few days, I have decidedly mixed feelings about the Mets' signing of Pedro Martinez to a four-year, $50 million contract. Some thoughts, some original, some not, in no particular order:
1. Four years is obviously too much guaranteed time for a guy with Pedro's injury history. On the other hand, the cost of the deal is money ($50 million), players (the draft picks the Mets give up) and opportunity cost (the innings Pedro takes away from other players). Given that Pedro seems unlikely to reach the point where he's pitching a lot of innings but pitching ineffectively, an extra year only costs the Mets one of those, the money. On the other hand, you can hardly blame the Red Sox for deciding that this was crazy money.
2. In the same vein: finding good young hitters is not that hard; finding good young pitchers these days - guys who can consistently take 30 turns in the rotation with a better-than-league ERA - is next to impossible. And Barry Bonds notwithstanding, in general, hitters decline much more predictably with age than do pitchers. And, a starting pitcher usually does much less to block the progress of good young arms, since few teams are so glutted with pitching that they can't quickly find room for a good youngster. All of which are a way of explaining why, as a general matter, I'm more willing to see even a rebuilding team take on an expensive starting pitcher in his 30s, as compared to a Sammy Sosa-type declining slugger.
3. Pedro is, as I discussed yesterday, a pitcher of historic levels of greatness. If you are going to gamble, better to gamble on a guy who's an inner-circle Hall of Famer than on . . . well, on Kris Benson and Victor Zambrano, for example. Given his track record, I view Pedro as much more of a proven commodity, and not a significantly greater injury risk, than Carl Pavano or Jaret Wright, both headed to the Bronx after precisely one year of being healthy and effective. (Of course, all pitchers are greater injury risks than almost all everyday players).
On the durability front, well, Pedro is replacing Al Leiter, who is six years older and was never an iron man himself. Leiter, working for an average salary the past 3-4 years of about $2 million per year less than Pedro will make, averaged 194 innings a year in his seven seasons at Shea, only once throwing more than 210 (Pedro threw 217 last year, but with diminished effectiveness compared to 2001-03). If we get about the same from Pedro, I'll be happy. I don't expect 230 innings.
4. Shea is a great place for a power pitcher, especially with Mike Cameron in center field, and facing a pitcher instead of some Frank Thomas/Edgar Martinez type DH every nine hitters is a great way to cut down the number of stressful pitches thrown. Both of which are a way of saying that Pedro may wind up being more valuable with the Mets than he would have been with the Red Sox. Bringing a power pitcher to Shea is like bringing a power hitter to Wrigley (see, Dawson, Andre; Alou, Moises).
5. Of course, none of this should be viewed as a substitute for the long-term strategy the Mets need to develop young talent. But frankly, I'm not about to hold my breath waiting for that to happen. Given the existing strategy of trying to half-rebuild while continuing to prop up the team with veterans, Pedro is a decent fit in that context.
6. I know the market has changed a lot, but $50 million really doesn't look like an extraordinary amount of money compared to past contracts given to Mike Hampton, Kevin Brown, Darren Dreifort, Kevin Appier, Mike Mussina, Tom Glavine, Chan Ho Park . . . yeah, there's a lot of bad decisions there, but this isn't a Mo Vaughn style 7-year $100-mil-plus millstone here; it's basically one Kris Benson plus one Kaz Matsui. If this deal deters the Mets from two more middle-market contracts like those, where's the harm?
7. Just for a little perspective, if you look at the most similar pitchers at the same age, Pedro is around the same age at which Tom Seaver went to the Reds, Roger Clemens to the Blue Jays, Mussina to the Yankees, and Lefty Grove to the Red Sox. Most of the guys on that list had their ups and downs in their mid-30s, but in general they had some real high points as well. Of course, physically, Martinez resembles Mussina, Grove, Greg Maddux, Whitey Ford or Juan Marichal much more than he does Seaver or Clemens. On a more sobering note, Pedro is also about the same age Frank Viola and Bret Saberhagen were when they left the Mets.
8. Can we finally have a no-hitter now, please?
9. Dan Lewis asks Five Questions:
1) Will this guy improve the team next year?
Go see his answers; I do think there's a missing factor here: the deal has upside. Although I don't regard it as the most likely possibility, it's certainly one of the plausible scenarios to get 800 innings, 800 strikeouts and an ERA below 3.00 from Pedro over the next four years. Given the scarcity of highly effective pitchers these days, that would be worth more than $12 million a year, in my view. (A return to something close to vintage Pedro, which is not going to happen, would be worth much more). That's one thing that distinguishes this from the contracts that a lot of mid-30s hitters get, where you are paying them a salary equal to the best value they are likely to give you. Hey, you win in baseball by taking risks. This deal is a big risk, but then Vladimir Guerrero last year was a big risk too. This is one that could pay off. Better that than give out more $25 million contracts to guys who are a safe bet to turn in a 4.25 ERA.