BEWARE OF AGENTS BEARING CONTRACTS
[October 5th] -- In his last installment for the Examiner, Jim Bowden reminded Nationals' fans not to expect any major free-agent acquistitions in 2007. Said Bowden, "For fans looking for a quick fix through free agency, be patient. We do not figure to be a major player in the free agent market this year. But will be bargain hunters, especially on the pitching front. Our scouts will explore the depths of the earth in order to upgrade our pitching staff."
Fans on a couple of internet message boards were upset at Bowden's admission; they believed that the team should be willing to use those payroll dollars that would have gone to Livan Hernandez and Brian Lawrence and Jose Guillen and divert it to the starting rotation, the team's greatest need. Their inference is that Bowden is just being cheap, that the team is going to field an inferior team next year because they are miserly, cheap, and aren't looking out for the fan's best interests. I understand how these fans feel. It certainly looks that way.
But, (and this is hard to say) Jim Bowden is doing the right thing.
The Nationals want to give their young pitchers every opportunity to earn a starting spot in the rotation next year. Certainly, Mike O'Connor, Beltran Perez, Shawn Hill and Billy Traber did nothing to guarantee themselves a starting job, but they did enough to be give each at least an opportunity to try. By having veteran pitchers blocking their way -- pitchers like Ramon Ortiz and Pedro Astacio -- they will never have the opportunity to show if they can be a part of the Nationals' long-term future. The Nationals are at least three years away from being ready to compete in the National League East, so any pitcher the team signs now will likely not even be here when the team begins to improve. What if Astacio had never been injured this past season?Jim Bowden would never have had the opportunity to see O'Connor and Hill and other young pitchers show their stuff.
But let's assume for a minute that Bowden was willing to invest millions of dollars into the starting rotation. Would investing those dollars into long term contracts for free agent pitchers make the team any better? In the winter of 2005, there were eighteen starting pitchers signed as free-agents (I'm not counting Roger Clemens who was a unique situation). These were the eighteen: Tony Armas Jr, Pedro Astacio, A.J. Burnett, Paul Byrd, Scott Elarton, Jason Johnson, Esteban Loiaza, Joe Mays, Kevin Millwood, Brian Moeller, Jamey Moyer, Matt Morris, Russ Ortiz, Kenny Rogers, Glendon Rusch, Brett Tomko, Jared Weaver and Jarrod Washburn.
There are some clunkers in there, but the vast majority of these pitchers are solid major leaguers. These players received a combined $109 million dollars in salary for the 2006 season. Did they help their respective teams? Take a look at the average record for these players:
RECORD: 8 - 10 ---- ERA: 5.39 ---- AVERAGE SALARY: $6.055 MILLION
It wasn't just one or two bad pitchers who skewed the averages. There were no players with an ERA under 3.00, just two players with an ERA between 3.00 and 4.00, seven players with an ERA between 4.00 and 5.00, five players with an ERA between 5.00 and 6.00, and four players with an ERA above 6.00.
Those eight wins (the average total) cost $756,875 each -- too much money for too few wins.
Only two pitchers had records of two or more games over .500 while ten were at least three games below .500. This suggests that using free agent pitchers as a rotational "stop gap" just doesn't work. General managers, in desperate need of starting pitching, are over-paying free agents. Again, based on last year's free agent class, a given team has only a 35% chance of acquiring a pitcher who will have a record of .500 or better.
With those statistics, why bother?
This year's cast of characters have different names but similar histories. Barry Zito, Jason Schmidt, Mark Mulder, Adam Eaton, Andy Petite, Kery Wood and Jason Marquis headline the list -- pitchers who will never don a Nationals' uniform. Gil Meche (11-8, 4.48), Ted Lilly (15-13, 4.82), Tomo Ohka (yes, that Tomo Ohka - 4-5, 4.82), Randy Wolf (4-0, 5.56), Chan Ho Park (7-7, 4.81), Cory Lidle (8-7, 4.74), Vincente Padilla (15-10, 4.50), Mark Redman (11-10, 5.71), Jeff Suppan (12-7, 4.12) and Steve Trachsel (15-8, 4.97) are players who might fall into that "bargain basement" category that Bowden mentioned. Again, forgetting that first group, do you see anyone in "column B" who is going to do anything more than fill a short-term need in the Nationals' rotation and at an exorbitant price? The second group averaged 9 wins and a 4.80 ERA, very similar to last year's crop. There is no one young enough, or able enough, or loyal enough, to remain with the team through both the dark times now as well as the future that we hope will be bright. Unless they can do both, I don't want them.
I think it's great that Bowden understands that free agency, at least where pitching is concerned, isn't a panacea. Ramon Ortiz went 11-16 and was terrible -- could O'Connor or Hill have been any worse? They certainly would have been cheaper. Hall of Fame pitchers don't pitch like hall of famers early in their careers. 300 game winner Greg Maddux went 6-14, 5.61 in his first full season. Johan Santana had a first year ERA of 6.49. Most pitchers have to learn how to pitch in the major leagues, and on-the-job training is usually very ugly. Mike O'Connor looks like he might be a pitcher. Shawn Hill looks like he might be a pitcher. Beltran Perez looks like he might be a pitcher. If they aren't, isn't it better that the team finds out now, before they are ready to take on the NL East? And if they are going to succeed, they'll be experienced and ready to make a difference later this decade.
Mark Lerner and Stan Kasten have promised us that dollars not spent on payroll now will be invested in scouting and player development. Had the Nationals not signed Ortiz and Astacio, they would have saved nearly $3 million dollars -- money that could have been used to bring in young players from countries not part of the MLB amateur draft.
Look, I know 90 - 100 loss seasons aren't easily to stomach, and yes, the Nats are going to loose some of their peripheral (fair weather) fans. After thirty three years of no baseball in Washington, however, I'm willing to suffer a little longer before things begin to look up.
I'm willing to wait a little longer for good things to happen. Hopefully, you are too.
This might sound stupid, but why don't you roll down to http://www.nationalsforum.net/, if you haven't already. It's a great little forum with 15 or so die-hard poster. It's a great little community and I really would enjoy debating and talking with you on the lastest Nats News. So if you can find some free time between your teaching, learning, blogging and family life, why don't you stroll on buy.
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