The price of pitching

Originally Published: December 4, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Fortunately, it still costs less to buy a back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher in modern-day America than it does to buy, say, Madonna's house.

But stay tuned on that. By the end of the week, the way the cost of pitching is exploding at baseball's pitching-starved winter meetings, you could almost envision some team deciding it would rather acquire that Madonna estate than, oh, Jeff Weaver.

The price tags and rumored price tags of (pick your favorite adjective) undependable/uninspiring/unproven/mediocre starting pitching rippled through the winter meetings lobby Monday, one by one. The GMs, club officials and veteran scouts who populate those lobbies could only listen and laugh.

"It's a great time," one of them said, "to be an agent."

Starting Pitcher
Seattle Mariners

Profile
2006 SEASON STATISTICS
GM W L BB K ERA
32 11 8 84 156 4.48

Gil Meche (career ERA: 4.65) is asking for 40 million bucks for four years. Ditto Ted Lilly (career record: 59-58, 4.60 ERA).

Vicente Padilla -- traded by the Phillies last winter (just before they were about to non-tender him) for a guy they later released -- agreed to a three-year, $34 million lottery payout from the Rangers on Monday.

Adam Eaton -- a man who has never won a dozen games in a season -- got three years and $24.5 million last week from the Phillies.

"I'll tell you one good thing about all this," said an official of one small-market club. "At least you don't hear any more talk about collusion anymore."

Nope. Sure don't. And that's a switch. But no matter what else may change about baseball over the years, one thing never changes:

Every darned night, somebody has to pitch.

And these days, the cost of finding that somebody is at an all-time high.

"But if you find yourself in a spot where you're a contending club and your young pitching isn't ready, what are you going to do?" Cubs GM Jim Hendry asked. "You're in a spot where you do what you have to do, even if you aren't doing what you want to do."

"It makes you think twice about trading any kind of young pitching. If a No. 4 starter is making $8 million a year for three years, you have to be very, very reluctant to trade a young guy who's making a few hundred thousand bucks a year."
-- Jim Duquette, Orioles VP of baseball operations

Hendry understands the Cubs are in no position this winter to be grumbling about the free-agent market on anybody or anything. They've already committed $212 million to just two position players -- Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez. And even after all that, they still need an outfielder and two more starting pitchers.

So the Cubs' GM is a man who will spend his week waving million-dollar bills around till a Lilly or a Meche or some other unemployed starting pitcher decides to take it.

"Obviously, this is a spot we've never been in, and it's not a spot you like to be in," Hendry said. "It wasn't too long ago that we thought we were all set with real good young starting pitching. Heck, in 2003, Carlos Zambrano was our fourth starter [behind Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Matt Clement]. We thought we were in great shape. They were all in their 20s. And they were all zero to three [years of experience]. But it didn't work out how we thought it would work out or how we expected it to work out."

So the Cubs now find themselves in the same position as about two dozen other teams -- not enough pitching and no choice but to forage for it in the overpriced free-agent jungle. Of course, if a Lilly or a Meche is going to cost them $10 million a year, they'll probably have to trade for a second starter. Even the Cubs can't afford two "top" free agents in this market.

Then again, it's not as if they'll have 50 affordable starters to choose from on the trade front, either.

"I'll tell you the one thing all this has done that people haven't talked about," said Jim Duquette, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations. "It makes you think twice about trading any kind of young pitching. If a No. 4 starter is making $8 million a year for three years, you have to be very, very reluctant to trade a young guy who's making a few hundred thousand bucks a year."

So the Orioles are hanging on tight to guys like Erik Bedard and Adam Loewen, despite lots of interest. And the one trade they did make for a starting pitcher was for a salary-dump closeout special (Jaret Wright) from the Yankees.

"It's very hard to trade for pitching right now," Duquette said. "So you end up considering a number of different options. You consider guys you never thought about before. Guys who were maybe going to get non-tendered before. Now you're looking at trading for those guys who are coming off a bad year, hoping you'll get a bounce-back year out of them."

The other option the Orioles took to combat starting-pitching inflation was to invest in their bullpen instead. Whereupon they've been accused of launching a whole new wave of relief-pitcher inflation -- by doling out three-year deals to three different setup men (Danys Baez, Chad Bradford and Jamie Walker) worth a combined $41.5 million.

"I can't say we're entirely surprised by this. We worked hard last year to build inventory. The Livan Hernandez trade [last August] was made with an eye toward this winter. We tried hard not to be in a position of need in this market."
-- Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes

"You know what? We didn't set that market," Duquette said. "We weren't the first to overpay for relief pitching. But unfortunately, when that market gets set, we're affected just like anybody else. It's no different than the starting-pitching market or the everyday-player market.

"Our feeling was, we wanted to be aggressive on the relief front to try and upgrade middle relief. We had the [second-]worst bullpen ERA in the league last year. And the only way to address that was to be aggressive."

Of course, "being aggressive" doesn't always have to be a synonym for "overpaying." But it sure has been this year.

Not for everyone, obviously. Some clubs can't afford to pay these prices. Some refuse to. Some know they aren't good enough to convince themselves it makes any sense. And some actually saw this coming, planned ahead and stocked up ahead of time.

"I can't say we're entirely surprised by this," Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes said. "We worked hard last year to build inventory. The Livan Hernandez trade [last August] was made with an eye toward this winter. We tried hard not to be in a position of need in this market."

But clearly, a lot of teams either didn't or couldn't work that far ahead. So now they're stuck, swimming with the sharks.

"If you're going to do business in the free-agent market, with every guy you sign, you have to overpay," Duquette said. "That's just the way it is. You never really have a free agent out there with two exactly equal choices, with exactly the same years and exactly the same money. So somebody always has to pay that extra year or extra dollars. That's the free-agent market. It's just the cost of doing business."

But the cost of doing business sure isn't what it used to be. And if this wave of free-agent pitchers turns into the next edition of the Carl Pavano Memorial All-Bust Team, let's just say a whole lot of people won't exactly be shocked.

"You always sit back and look at the free agents who are out there and try to assess what they're really worth," one GM said. "But this year, either some of these teams are going to turn out to be really right -- or really wrong."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com