Big payday on horizon for Suppan

Originally Published: November 6, 2006
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

When Jeff Weaver dazzled Detroit to win the final game of the 2006 World Series, some saw it as a potential watershed moment for a former first-round pick whose career has been defined by mediocrity.

Weaver's agent, Scott Boras, saw Derek Lowe revisited.

In 2004, Lowe was strafed for a 5.24 ERA with Boston in the regular season. Then he recovered to pitch shutdown ball in October, and Boras parlayed it into a four-year, $36 million deal with the Dodgers.

Weaver, similarly, was on a downward slide when St. Louis acquired him in a trade with the Angels in July. We're talking about a pitcher who flopped with the Yankees, lost his spot in the Angels' rotation to his younger brother and has played for five teams since 2002.

Now, suddenly, that dude is history. He's been replaced by Big Game Jeff.

In the aftermath of Weaver's fine pitching down the stretch and 3-2 record and 2.43 ERA in the postseason, Boras won't hesitate to use the Mr. Clutch angle in his sales pitch to teams.

"When Jeff Weaver or Derek Lowe come out and do what they do during the postseason, you're talking center stage," Boras said. "Every owner knows, 'I have a guy who can not only do it for me during the regular season, but is a force for me in the postseason.' "

With a flood of second- and third-tier starters on the market this winter (from Gil Meche and Ted Lilly to Vicente Padilla, Adam Eaton and Randy Wolf), teams will look at every factor to distinguish the good bets from the bad investments.

How much does a strong showing on a big stage enhance a player's marketability? For a look at the phenomenon from both ends of the spectrum, the Cardinals' rotation provides an intriguing case study.

Exhibit A is Jeff Suppan, winner of 44 games the past three seasons and the National League Championship Series MVP this year. Suppan filed for free agency last week, and at least seven teams have expressed an interest. His agent, Scott Leventhal, said the early response has been "overwhelming."

Exhibit B is Weaver, suddenly reborn as an autumn marvel.

And then there's Jason Marquis, who won 14 games this year with a scary 6.02 ERA. The Cardinals were so disenchanted with Marquis, they left him off their NLCS and World Series rosters entirely and chose rookie Anthony Reyes to pitch Game 1 against Detroit.

We asked a half-dozen front-office people and scouts the following question: If you could give a multiyear deal to one of the three St. Louis pitchers, which would you choose?

The consensus: 1) Suppan; 2) Weaver; 3) Marquis. The ability to emulate John Smoltz in October isn't the only reason. But it sure helps.

So what can these three free birds expect in free agency? Here's a look at their strengths, weaknesses and employment prospects:

Jeff Suppan
Jeff Suppan

Suppan, 31, is a competitive guy with a good clubhouse presence and the attribute that talent evaluators like to call "pitchability." He hasn't spent a day on the disabled list since 1996, and he's reliable enough that the downside risk is limited.

"Given his profile as a strike thrower, teams probably feel pretty comfortable with what they're going to get," said an NL executive. "He's a guy who's taken the ball quite a bit and has a very good track record of keeping his team in the game."

Mulder drawing interest
Mark Mulder's run of five straight 15-win seasons ended this year because of shoulder trouble that necessitated surgery in September. Can he come close to regaining the form that made him a 20-game winner with Oakland in 2001? Lots of teams are interested in finding out.

Agent Gregg Clifton told reporters last week that eight clubs have already expressed interest in signing Mulder as a free agent. The Mets, Orioles, Dodgers, Giants, Diamondbacks, Padres and Devil Rays are among the teams at the forefront of early speculation, and St. Louis would like to keep him around if the price is right.

Mulder isn't expected to begin throwing off a mound until March at the earliest, and he won't be ready for opening day. He'll probably have to sign a one-year guaranteed deal with a low base salary and lots of incentives, then prove he's healthy and productive before he gets a bigger contract.

Given the slew of pitchers who have signed long-term contracts recently only to fall victim to injury or declining performance (Russ Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright and Matt Clement, to name a few), the short-term commitment required to sign Mulder will be a selling point rather than a deterrent. He won't have any trouble finding a place to land.
--Jerry Crasnick

But what's the upside? In 12 major league seasons, Suppan's ERA is 4.60, compared to an overall league ERA of 4.67. In three years with St. Louis, he's averaged 192 innings, 109 strikeouts and 66 walks.

Translation: He's a ground ball guy who pitches to contact, so he better have a solid infield defense behind him. And he might want to exhaust his other options before pursuing a job in, say, the American League East.

"People will be sorry if they go crazy for him," said a National League front-office man. "He's a back-of-the-rotation guy who can step up at times and have a great game, but his stuff is marginal and he has to be very clean to be successful.

"One thing he can do is control his emotions very well. He's proven he can pitch in a big game. That has some value. But day in, day out over the course of a 162-game season, you're going to have your ups and down with him."

Here's one number that Suppan's agents, Leventhal and Damon Lapa, will be sure to sell: His 2.39 ERA after the All-Star break was the third lowest by a National League starter after Roger Clemens and Anibal Sanchez.

An American League executive expects Suppan to get three years and $21 million, "minimum." But if Matt Morris could fetch $27 million over three years last winter without Suppan's postseason portfolio, that estimate appears conservative. Don't forget that in 2004, Suppan beat Clemens in Game 7 to pitch the Cardinals into the World Series.

Leventhal plans to meet with St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty this week in Arizona so that the Cardinals can make a final pitch to Suppan before their exclusive negotiating window expires.

"St. Louis has expressed a pretty strong desire to have Soup on that staff for years to come," Leventhal said.

But if the Cardinals won't pay, don't expect Suppan to stay. He has too many choices for that.

Jeff Weaver
Jeff Weaver

When Weaver was throwing from a three-quarter motion earlier this year, his ball flattened out and he lacked the movement or velocity to get lefty hitters out consistently.

St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan raised Weaver's arm angle, adding sink to his ball and giving him more leverage. And when it mattered most, Weaver found a different gear. In the World Series clincher, he threw seven straight fastballs to Curtis Granderson that were clocked from 90-94 mph.

"We first saw him and he was topping out at 88-89 and everybody was like, 'Is he hurt?' " said a National League coach. "All of a sudden, boy, he got stronger. He got the innings under him and started letting it go a little bit."

Weaver has a well-deserved reputation for durability, and he's more of a competitor than people think. He surpassed 199 innings five times in a six-year span from 2000-05. But he can be gopher-ball prone, and when things go wrong he's a monument to bad body language. He leads the league in slumped shoulders.

In light of Weaver's 8-14 record and 5.76 ERA this season, it might not be a bad idea for him to sign a one-year deal with St. Louis, continue to build confidence under Duncan, then go back on the market with something more impressive on his résumé.

But that isn't Boras' style. And it might be tough for him to sell patience to Weaver after last winter, when Boras clients Kevin Millwood, Jarrod Washburn and Kenny Rogers all signed multiyear deals and Weaver had to settle for a one-year, $8.3 million contract with the Angels.

Jason Marquis
Jason Marquis

Marquis' ground ball-to-fly ball ratio has dropped from 2.17 to 1.16 over the past three seasons. His strikeout-to-walk ratio has dipped from 1.97 to 1.28. And not surprisingly, as his sinker loses bite, he's having trouble keeping the ball in the park. This year he led the National League with 35 homers allowed.

"His ball flattens out, and he's a little headstrong," said a scout. "He thinks he throws harder than he really does. He tries to pitch like he's a hard thrower even though he's not."

One NL talent evaluator ranks Marquis among that group of undersized righties who have to put more effort into their deliveries because they throw on such a flat plane, causing their stuff to "back up" over time. That syndrome hasn't affected Greg Maddux, but it might be the case with Tim Hudson.

Marquis, an exceptionally bright guy, has also earned a reputation as slow to embrace instruction -- either because he's stubborn or is convinced he knows better than his coaches. He hasn't meshed with either Leo Mazzone or Duncan, strong-willed pitching coaches who aren't always popular, but have had plenty of success in the game.

"I don't know how many teams are going to say, 'He's only been with Mazzone and Duncan. We can turn him around,' " said a National League executive. "I think more teams will look at him and think, 'He is what he is.' "

Those reservations notwithstanding, Marquis has thrown 602 innings since 2004 and won 42 games, two fewer than Dontrelle Willis and Curt Schilling and more than Jason Schmidt, Barry Zito, Mike Mussina, Hudson, Jake Peavy, Andy Pettitte and Kevin Millwood.

Marquis is clearly better off staying in the National League, and not only because opposing lineups are weaker. He's a .223 career hitter and former Silver Slugger winner, a good baserunner and a fine athlete who enjoys playing the all-around game.

To his credit, he's not wasting any time sulking after a dissatisfying October. Keith Miller of ACES, the agency that represents Marquis, said Marquis traveled to Florida after the World Series to work with a prominent major league pitching coach. He declined to mention the coach by name.

"Jason doesn't want to wait until December or January to start working," Miller said. "He wants to go at it now while his arm is still fresh. He knows his ball wasn't sinking like it has in the past. That's the one thing he wants to get back."

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer