A bit of a grab bag today as your host is deeply ensconced in the preparation of the Baseball Prospectus annual, coming to a bookstore near you in February. Watch for the life-size cutouts of Joe Sheehan and Will Carroll pressing the book to their bosoms. Their own, that is, not each other’s. We’ll start with A-Rod and circle our way around to Johan Santana by way of Cleveland…
- One obvious reaction to the ten-year contract the Yankees have worked out with Alex Rodriguez is, “Ten-year contracts are scary.” A lot can happen in ten years, after all. The Yankees learned this for themselves back in the 1980s, when they signed Dave Winfield away from the Padres in exchange for a ten-year deal that began in 1981. Winfield was two years younger than A-Rod when he received signed his contract and actually kept up his value quite well during the deal, not breaking down until 1989, when he missed the entire season recuperating from surgery for a herniated disc. Until then, he had four top-ten finishes in the MVP voting, and he made eight All-Star teams. The bigger problem was that ten years is a long time to live with anyone that you’re not head over heels in love with, and Yankees ownership was head over heels in hate with Winfield pretty early on in the relationship. Part of the problem was that Winfield’s contract contained a cost of living adjustment, which meant that he received an automatic raise every year. He became much more expensive than the Yankees had initially planned (they apparently didn’t fully comprehend the impact of that clause at signing), and this was nettlesome to the owner. Things deteriorated from there, with the end result that then-commissioner Fay Vincent banned George Steinbrenner “for life” for his meddling with Winfield… but that’s a story for another day.
- From the short list of ten-year contracts, perhaps the most wonderful-“wonderful” in this case being a synonym for “godawful mistake”-was one of the first in the free agent era, that given by the Cleveland Indians to right-hander Wayne Garland for the 1977 season. Garland, 25, had been drafted by the Orioles in 1969. He had auditions for Earl Weaver beginning in 1973, but the O’s had a crowded staff-Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Mike Torrez, and Ross Grimsley took up the first four slots, and Doyle Alexander and Mike Flanagan were crowding in for spots as well-so it took until 1976 for him to get a regular rotation slot in Baltimore. Even then, Weaver’s rotation had to be totally blown apart by trades, age, and injuries for Garland to get a shot. He didn’t make his first start until May 28, and wasn’t fully liberated from the bullpen until June 17; in other words, Weaver didn’t exactly think this guy was the next Jim Palmer. Nonetheless, Garland did very well that year, pitching 231 1/3 innings and posting a 2.67 ERA, good for sixth in the league, albeit with a slightly below-average strikeout rate. He won 16 games in 25 starts and picked up another four wins out of the pen to give him the magic “20.” He also pitched four shutouts. It was at this moment that he became a free agent.
It was the Indians who decided to bite. For a team signing a free agent, one question always worth asking is, “Will spending this kind of crazy money make us contenders?” The answers, in this case, was a decisive no. In this phase of their existence, the Indians were not a horrible team. In a good year they’d win half their games, or a couple more, in a bad year a few less. In 1976 they had gone 81-78, which would seem like something a team could build on, but the AL East was the most competitive division in baseball. The Indians’ 81 wins had gotten them only within 16 games of first place, and the Yankees, Orioles, and Red Sox were in front of them, and no one of them was going anywhere. Within two years, the Brewers would also become competitive, putting even more pressure on the Indians. The Indians had a lot of decent players who would have made (and sometimes did go on to make) good complementary parts on winning ballclubs, players such as George Hendrick, Dennis Eckersley, and John Lowenstein, but they had no stars. When this cast played up to their abilities, as they did in 1976, the result was a .500 record. To compete in the East, the Indians needed something like two more power hitters, a high on-base leadoff type, and one more starting pitcher. Only at that point would a Jeff Suppan type like Garland have possibly made a difference.
As it turned out, Garland didn’t even get much of a chance to not to make a difference. Managers Frank Robinson and Jeff Torborg (Robby was canned after 57 games) rode Garland hard in 1977, pushing someone who had been a major league starter for less than a year to 21 complete games and 282 2/3 innings. His ERA of 3.60 was better than average, but as the Indians still couldn’t hit, he went only 13-19. That was the end of the line, as Garland’s arm didn’t make it out of April in 1978. He was shut down after six starts with a 7.89 ERA; Tommy John surgery followed. Back in a year, he was unable to pitch well or stay healthy. From 1979 through 1981 Garland would pitch in 55 games, 44 of them starts, and go 13-26 with a 5.02 ERA, worse then than now. He last appeared in the majors on September 25, 1981. His contract still had years to run.
The moral of the story, of course, is that pitchers are an unpredictable lot. They’re never healthy, just pitching between injuries. The contracts of Winfield and Garland can stand as archetypes in this regard. Position players are much more predictable than their hurling brethren. While any ten-year deal exposes a team to inordinate risk, the odds of a pitcher surviving ten years unscathed are minuscule.
It’s not that such deals are extinct. With Johan Santana in the driver’s seat with any possible trade due to his no-trade protection and the need for the acquiring team to negotiate an extension, the 29-year-old (as of March) will be able to make his pitch for a lengthy deal. Current reports have the lefty looking for a six-year deal, which would carry him through his mid-thirties, but in baseball’s flush economic climate (apparently the pension fund wasn’t heavily invested in the subprime mortgage market) and the super-competitive bidding on top players, it’s not difficult to envision an eager beaver ballclub coming through with a seventh year. Of course, many lefties have pitched well at that age, but the list of those who maintained their value to a degree that they would be worth the kind of length and value that Santana is apparently demanding is pretty small: Lefty Grove, Randy Johnson, and Steve Carlton comprise the top tier, after which you have to start cherry-picking the odd Jamie Moyer, Warren Spahn, Kenny Rogers, and David Wells seasons. As good as Santana is, history and human physiology are against him.
That said, it’s possible that no one cares. One of the interesting things we’ve seen this offseason-particularly in the contracts for A-Rod, Jorge Posada, and perhaps also what Santana will get-is the kind of contract where no one involved really thinks that the player will deliver value commensurate with the dollars involved throughout the term of the contract. The team does what it has to maintain its ability to win now, figuring that it will deal later with the problem of having an expensive, underperforming vet around. This is a new idea, and one suspects that there will be many an unanticipated consequences, but we won’t find out exactly what they are for several years.