The stupidity of paying top dollar for mediocre pitchers
Have you heard of Anibal Sanchez?
He threw a no-hitter, once. It was his rookie season, 2006. Sanchez was 22 years old, fresh off being included in the blockbuster deal that sent Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell to Boston and a bevy of youngsters (including young Anibal) to the, er, frugal Florida Marlins. On September 6th, in the midst of a splendid first-year campaign in which he went 10-3 with a 2.83 ERA in 17 starts, Sanchez no-hit the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Other than that, he’s had a pretty normal career, as far as pitchers go. He’s spent time on the disabled list – all of 2003 (elbow, while he was in the minors), most of 2007-08 (labrum) and part of 2009 (shoulder pain). He put two fairly average seasons together in 2010 and 2011 for the Marlins and was in the midst of another one in 2012 when he was dealt to the Detroit Tigers for the stretch run. He pitched well in the postseason, posting a 1-2 record with a 1.77 ERA in 20.1 innings for the Motor City Kitties, who were swept in the Series by the San Francisco Giants.
His record the last five years is 36-47 with a 3.85 ERA in 121 games. He turns 29 in February and has already had three major health issues in his young career. For the sabermetricians in the crowd, he’s been a FIP darling, ranking in the top-27 in that department each of the past three seasons. For the non-sabermetric people, he’s a sub-.500 pitcher with an ERA just below league average over that same time frame.
He’s a free agent, now.
Want to know his asking price?
I’ll tell you.
It’s $90 million over six seasons.
I disagree with a lot of people on a lot of topics, mostly because I’m a difficult person, but one thing that really bothers me is when sports fans complain about the high salaries of professional athletes. If someone’s going to offer a person a lot of money to do a job, why fault the person for accepting it? If anything, blame the guy offering the dinero if you think things are way out of whack. The players are engaged in a lucrative industry – one of the rewards for doing so is great monetary compensation. It’s the free market, people.
That isn’t to say fans don’t have the right to mock athletes for blowing their fortunes (see Young, Vince and Walker, Antoine) or even becoming angry at fat, lazy miscreants collecting paychecks despite their lack of effort (Curry, Eddy and Haynesworth, Albert). So Anibal Sanchez has every right to ask for $15 million per season – he’s shown no signs of Walkerism or Haynesworthism… yet.
I said all that so I can say this…
The average fan’s disillusionment with the game of baseball (read also: MY disillusionment) begins with the fact that Anibal Sanchez can ask for $90 million over six seasons, knowing full well that some team will be desperate enough to come at him with $60 million over four or $75 million over five. Even his consolation prizes seem preposterous. He’s never been much more than a number 3 pitcher on a decent team – a somewhat important player, granted, but hardly one who seems worth that kind of money. He’s not an ace – nowhere close to it – but he’s likely to earn an average salary in the neighborhood of what Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and Jake Peavy make, regardless.
The amount of money in baseball is absolutely staggering. Pitchers come at a premium and make exorbitant sums of money – even ones who are injury prone. Consider: Scott Baker, who missed the 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery and hasn’t started a game in 15 months, got $5.5 million in guaranteed money from the Chicago Cubs. Mark Prior earned an extra few million dollars by signing four (FOUR) one year contracts with various clubs: the Padres (in 2009), the Rangers (in 2010), the Yankees (in 2011) and the Red Sox (in 2012), despite the fact his last big league pitch was on August 10th, 2006.
Apparently, Sanchez’s people are using C.J. Wilson’s 5 year, $77.5 million free agent deal that he signed with the Angels a year ago as a blueprint for what they’d like to see in an offer. Since Sanchez is younger (29) now than Wilson was at the time (he was 30), they added the sixth year to the request. Wilson had only two years as a starter under his belt – Sanchez has three. Proffered this way, it doesn’t seem all that insane, does it?
… Until you consider that Dwyane Wade (30), Tony Parker (30) and Manu Ginobli (35) have all earned less than $90 million in their careers, and that all three were either core members of title teams (plural). When Rajon Rondo, the NBA’s second-best point guard, hits free agency at the age of 29, he’ll have earned around $60 million in his career. Chris Paul, the NBA’s best point guard, will be 28 next summer, with $77 million in his pocket already. If Sanchez actually gets this deal, he’ll earn more money than all of them.
So I guess it is insane. The whole thing is completely insane. No contract in baseball is as dicey as the long-term deal given to a pitcher, no matter how good the hurler might be. Johan Santana was a sure bet – little to no injury history, four seasons of more than 219 innings pitched, two Cy Young Awards – when he signed his six year, $137.5 million agreement to join the Mets. The result? Five seasons, one healthy, three plagued by injuries, and one lost completely due to shoulder surgery. Was it worth it? Even a pitcher with an incredible pedigree like that was a bust. So how will it work out, giving a mega-deal to a marginal pitcher with an injury history?
Consider the following resumes of free agent (or soon to be free agent) pitchers.
|36-47, 3.85 ERA, 121 starts, 8 K/9, 1.34 WHIP, 5 CG, 4 SHO
.300 career BABIP
|Age||Turns 29 in February|
|Notes||Missed all of 2003 (elbow), parts of 2007 and 2008 (labrum) and part of 2009 (shoulder)… Top-27 in FIP past three seasons.|
|Salary||Asking for 6 years, $90 million (earned $8 million in 2012)|
|62-56, 4.12 ERA, 154 starts, 7.2 K/9, 1.27 WHIP, 4 CG, 0 SHO
.290 career BABIP
|Age||Turns 30 in January|
|Notes||No major injury issues in his career… 29+ starts in each of the past 5 seasons.|
|Salary||$9.5 million option picked up by team (part of 5 year, $25 million deal signed in 2009)|
|59-52, 4.06 ERA, 160 starts, 6.9 K/9, 1.36 WHIP, 4 CG, 2 SHO
.306 career BABIP
|Age||Turned 29 in September|
|Notes||30+ starts every year since 2007… 996 innings in the past five seasons… Has been traded five times in his career… no major injury issues to report.|
|Salary||Earned $11 million in 2012 on a one-year deal from Washington… last year he asked for $60 million over 5 years, (obviously) didn’t get it.|
|63-57, 4.04 ERA, 156 starts, 5.1 K/9, 1.35 WHIP, 7 CG, 3 SHO
.292 career BABIP
|Age||Turns 32 in June|
|Notes||4 seasons each of 194+ innings pitched and 31+ starts… Has thrown at least 174 innings every year since 2008… Missed all of 2003 season with shoulder issues.|
|Salary demands||Earned $6 million in 2012 on a one-year deal.|
If you were a GM, which one of the four would you choose to pay? One of the three guys with spotless health records, or the guy with injury issues who’s a tiny bit better than the rest?
I’m not sure there’s a correct answer to that question. Those four pitchers are all around the same age, with similar pedigrees. The case of Edwin Jackson last offseason (when he had to settle for a contract four years and $49 million short of what he was seeking) shows that wishes aren’t always granted. But the obsession with pitching, and the willingness to take big risks on pitchers, leaves fans shaking their heads. It hardly seems equitable, it hardly seems sensible – yet there’s no indignation from baseball writers over Anibal Sanchez’s lofty asking price. Only resignation.
It’s obvious that all of these guys – Joe Saunders, Gavin Floyd, Edwin Jackson, Anibal Sanchez – will command salaries north of eight figures. In other words, more than what Aaron Rodgers ($8 million) and Tim Duncan ($9.6 million) currently earn in salary from their respective teams.
Read that again. Anibal Sanchez, the 50th (or so) best pitcher in baseball, will make more money than the best quarterback in the NFL.
Look, I know the cross-sport comparisons probably aren’t fair, and that each sport’s marketplace exists in its own vacuum. Dwyane Wade’s salary shouldn’t affect what any team offers Anibal Sanchez – that’s absurd – but that’s not the point I’m making. The next time you hear anyone talking about overpaid basketball or football players, kindly inform them that the majority of unmerited millionaires play baseball, and more specifically, they pitch.
My fault isn’t with Sanchez. I don’t blame him for taking what he can get, maximizing his earning potential while he is able. I don’t blame the owner who will sign off on the deal, either. Baseball is a money machine; all the more power to them. But forgive me for being cynical, and a little sickened by the whole charade. Non-impact pitchers earn more than elite stars in other sports. The list of terrible, crippling contracts handed to injury prone pitchers (Mike Hampton, Kevin Brown, Jason Schmidt) who eek out the last few years of the deal, milking it for every penny before pocketing their small fortunes and retiring, sends me into existential shock.
By that I mean, every night I kick myself that I didn’t work harder at being a pitcher.
BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!