The guys who run baseball never seem to learn.
Inexplicably, they’ve gone on another reckless spending spree for pitchers — you know, those guys who take the field once every five days and are constantly shadowed by ominous words such as “Tommy John” and “rotator cuff.”
A quick Google search will turn up countless pitching deals that went horribly wrong. Yet, it didn’t stop the Boston Red Sox from doling out $217 million to David Price. Or the Arizona Diamondbacks from forking over $206.5 million for Zack Greinke, whose average annual salary will be the highest in baseball history — a staggering $34.4 million a year!
“If it’s an impact guy, then you’re willing to spend that money, you’re willing to pay that cost,” Diamondbacks general manager Dave Stewart said. “Zack Greinke impacts our team.”
No one questions Greinke’s stuff. He’s one of the top five pitchers in the game, going 19-3 with a minuscule 1.66 ERA last season for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
At 32, can he keep that up for another six years?
Now, this isn’t one of those tiresome rants about overpaid players and how much better it was in the good ol’ days. There is nothing wrong with a player getting what the market will bear, and there’s no indication that Major League Baseball is in dire straits financially.
But the intelligent construction of a 25-man roster makes it clear: Mammoth deals for starting pitchers are rarely worth the investment.
Of the 18 pitchers signing contracts totaling at least $100 million, nine struggled for portions of their deals and often were outright flops by the latter years, some because of fragile health.
Price and Jordan Zimmermann (who signed with the Tigers for $110 million) are just beginning their deals. We’ll give them an incomplete, along with two other pitchers — Jon Lester of the Chicago Cubs and Washington’s Max Scherzer — who just finished the first years of their nine-figure contracts. (Though, it’s worth noting, Lester wasn’t even ace of his staff, while Scherzer failed to push the Nationals into the playoffs).
Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers ($215 million) and Seattle’s Felix Hernandez ($175 million) have been well worth the price, so far, while Greinke certainly lived up to his previous $147 million contract before opting out to land an even bigger deal.
That’s what the Diamondbacks are counting on.
“I think ownership saw an opportunity to grab a quality pitcher and we were in a situation where we had a serious need,” Stewart said.
That’s undoubtedly what the Rockies were thinking when they signed Mike Hampton to an eight-year, $121 million contract ahead of the 2001 season. He was a complete failure in the thin air of Colorado and was dealt to Atlanta after only two seasons. His career recovered somewhat, but he was never more than a solid big-league starter. In fact, he went just 56-52 while collecting all that money, working out to just under $2.2 million per win.
There’s more where that came from: Barry Zito. Kevin Brown. Johan Santana. Cliff Lee. Matt Cain. Justin Verlander. Homer Bailey.
CC Sabathia earned the big bucks under his initial $161 million deal with the Yankees, but he’s 38-33 with a 4.35 ERA after using the threat of an opt out in 2011 to add a guaranteed 2016 salary plus a 2017 option that will kick if he doesn’t finish next season — his first since alcohol rehab — with a left shoulder injury.
Greinke, who will make $31 million next year, or $9,570.86 per pitch based on his 2015 workload, isn’t focusing on all those big-money pitchers who failed before him.
“I don’t really think about it in those terms,” he said Friday. “You do your job and whatever happens, happens. You don’t really think about, ‘Oh, my contract.’ You think about, ‘OK, I have next year to go and play.’ I hope I have another 10 years to play, but you just think about what you can control.”
A big-money deal certainly brings added attention and expectations. Not everyone can handle that sort of scrutiny.
Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell doesn’t expect it to be a problem for Price.
“Setting aside the number on the contract, he’s a leader,” Farrell said. “I think he relishes being in a spot where he’s an example to others.”
Likewise, the Diamondbacks say Greinke’s value can’t be measured simply by a bottom line. They point to the confidence a team gains by having someone at the top of the rotation who reduces the chance of an extended losing streak, as well as the benefits to the younger pitchers on the staff simply being around someone of that caliber.
“He’s going to be able to help our young pitchers,” manager Chip Hale said. “And that’s one thing he indicated to our pitching coach is that he feels like he can be that missing link, not necessarily being a coach, but a guy that’s a player and that’s done it and can prod some of the younger guys and move them along to become better pitchers.”
The Diamondbacks are all giddy at the moment.
Chances are, they’ll be regretting this deal a few years from now.
They won’t be alone, either.