December 5, 2006
Flying into Inactivity
I am not a good flier. It's not so much a fear of flying as it is a fear of crashing and dying, and no amount of education, therapy, and desperate appeals to the left side of my brain seems to be helping. Anti-anxiety medication does a pretty good job, though, and my use of it to get from Los Angeles to Orlando overnight Sunday is also why I didn't make it to the lobby of the Dolphin hotel until late that afternoon. I never remember if it's one pill for every four flight hours or four pills for every one, so I think I took 16 to be safe. The end result was a full-body veto of my planned "short nap" that had me arriving in the late afternoon.
I picked the right day to miss, as it was a very quiet afternoon. The only news that I got upon my arrival at the meetings hotel-Ted Lilly to the Cubs for a crapload of years and money-didn't actually happen. Honestly, there weren't even many good rumors to be had, although Will Carroll worked his network of contacts-think the Verizon Wireless ads, but with better-dressed people-for as much information as he could grab.
Officially, the Giants signed Rich Aurilia for two years, presumably to be a utility guy since they also re-upped Pedro Feliz for one, this on the heels of signing Ray Durham. There was also a notion going around late last night that the Giants were about to sign Bengie Molina to a three-year deal, creating the beautiful idea that Mike Matheny could credibly be used as a pinch-runner in 2007.
The problem with all of this is that we've seen this movie already. In 2005, the Giants put "the team around Barry Bonds" on the field without Bonds, and they posted their worst record since 1996. For most of his career in San Francisco, the Giants have been competitive because they've started with a 10-win edge on the league in Bonds, and losing that edge in '05, while paying for his salary, left them without a competitive team.
The Giants are painting themselves into a corner. Every time they spend money on a player in his thirties, a player with more past than future, they make it that much more critical that they sign Bonds for 2007 to complete the roster and give them that chance at winning the other moves reflect a desire for. If they don't sign Bonds, it's 2005 all over again, an aging team with an average pitching staff that won't score anywhere near enough runs to compete. With Bonds, it's a wild-card contender. Had the Giants passed on signing four 30-plus guys in about 72 hours, they could have sold 2007 as a rebuilding season, played Kevin Frandsen and Fred Lewis, and given Todd Linden 600 chances to have a career or not. Now, they're like a BLT that's shy one very important B, and who wants a salad on toast?
Of the other moves that actually happened, the big news was the Cardinals' extending Chris Carpenter almost to the teens, reaching agreement on a deal that will pay him $65 million through 2011, with a club option for 2012 worth $12 million. The initial reaction last night, and I include myself among the people who said this, was that the deal sounded like a quite a bargain. Thirteen million per for arguably the top starting pitcher in the NL? I'll take two, thanks. With a lost season on his resume and some nagging injuries in 2006, I have no real faith that Carpenter will throw 1000 innings over the life of the deal, but even so, looking at it as a three-year deal for that money almost makes sense in this market.
Thinking about it some more, though, I wonder if the Cards haven't jumped the gun here. Carpenter had been signed for 2007 at $7 million and for 2008 at $8 million. So the scenario I listed above isn't actually that far-fetched; this is essentially a three-year extension for an additional $50 million, or just shy of $17 million per year. Again, that's not unreasonable in this market. Where I question the deal is the timing. Right now, Chris Carpenter is one of the best pitchers in the NL, and as such, is a decent bet to be a good pitcher through 2007, and even 2008. But given his background and the age range we're talking about here, the Cardinals have assumed a lot of risk. They've bought Carpenter's Age 34-36 seasons at $17 million per without yet knowing what he's going to be at 32 and 33. Given the attrition rates of pitchers, that's a major risk.
Contracts like this are usually justified by the club as a means of locking up a player who's important to them, rewarding him for performance, even showing the fan base that they're committed to winning. I think it's both inconsistent with practices elsewhere-watch what pre-arb players, even good ones like Justin Verlander, get in 2007, or how many teams complain about the price of competing for talent in the marketplace-and it's also generally bad business. It's one thing to have to overcommit to a player's probable decline phase in an effort to win a competitive process; that tradeoff is at the core of every single major free-agent signing. To make that overcommitment when it's not necessary to do so, and when you're 400 innings away from the first pitch covered by the new deal? That's just asking for trouble.
I made these same arguments when David Ortiz signed his extension with the Red Sox. Like Carpenter, Ortiz is a key contributor to a championship team and one of the best players in the game. Also similar to the Carpenter contract, Ortiz's deal was reached two years before a possible decision point, with the player likely to be declining when the new contract kicked in. The contract reflected something other than a dispassionate evaluation of the player's on-field contributions and his likely performance going forward.
I didn't like the Ortiz deal, and I have to say that I've changed my mind on the Carpenter deal for the same reasons. In fact, because of the specifics with Carpenter-he's a 32-year-old pitcher with an injury history-I may like it even less that the Ortiz deal. It's hard enough to predict what a pitcher's health and performance will be next year; making a $50 million bet on what it will be three, four and five years out is basically wishcasting.
Despite all that, I happen to really like Chris Carpenter. He throws a ton of strikes, works quickly and battled back from what could have been career-ending surgery to become a star. I would like this to work out for the Cardinals. I just can't see the justification for committing that far out to a pitcher, any pitcher. The job is too hard with too high a failure rate.
I'll be dropping notes on Unfiltered throughout the day, as will Kevin and Will, so check there often for news and analysis. Back tomorrow with a full wrap.