Sunday, February 12, 2012

Long-Term Deals Lead To Long-Term Headaches

In 2006, the Mets needed one more win to reach the World Series.  When they failed to do that, they decided to go shopping for a pitcher that would help them get that win.  Barry Zito was the name on everyone's minds that offseason.  In seven years with Oakland, Zito had an impressive 102-63 record and a 3.55 ERA.  From 2001 to 2006, Zito made at least 34 starts in every season and did not pitch fewer than 213 innings in any of those campaigns.  He was also a three-time All-Star and a former Cy Young Award winner.  But to get him, the Mets would have to pay a pretty penny.  They'd also have to give him many years.

The San Francisco Giants beat the Mets to the punch, signing Zito to a seven-year, $126 million contract.  At the time, it was the largest contract ever offered to a pitcher.  Zito has thanked the Giants for their generosity by going 43-61 with a 4.55 ERA over the first five years of his contract.  The Giants thanked him back by leaving him off the World Series roster in 2010.

It could have been the Mets paying for Zito over the past five seasons.  Before becoming a Giant, Zito's lifetime numbers (102-63, 3.55 ERA, 222 starts, 1,096 strikeouts) looked a lot like what Ron Darling put up with the Mets (99-70, 3.50 ERA, 241 starts, 1,148 strikeouts).  Since then, Zito has been paid an average of $18 million per year to pitch like Al Jackson.  (Jackson went 43-80 with a 4.26 ERA as a Met.)

Fortunately, the Mets didn't give Zito the long-term deal afforded to him by the Giants.  But that hasn't stopped them from giving other deals of four years or more to pitchers.  In fact, over the past decade the Mets have given a number of long-term deals (four years or more) to various pitchers and although they haven't been Zito-esque, they still weren't rewarded the way they expected to be.  Let's take a look at those faulty deals.

2000:  Armando Benitez - Four years, $22 million

After long-time Mets closer John Franco was sidelined with an injury in 1999, Armando Benitez stepped in and became the team's closer.  Benitez helped the Mets end an 11-year playoff drought in 1999, but gave up a game-tying single to Ozzie Guillen (yes, that Ozzie Guillen) in the tenth inning of Game 6, with the Mets two outs away from forcing an improbable Game 7 after losing the first three games of the series.  It would not be the first time Benitez would blow a lead in a crucial game.  However, it didn't stop the Mets from signing him to a four-year deal during that offseason.

In 2000, Benitez was armed with a new contract to go with his blazing fastball.  He set the Mets' single season record with 41 saves and was part of the team's first World Series appearance since 1986.  But he gave up a game-tying three-run homer to the Giants' J.T. Snow in Game 2 of the NLDS, a game eventually won by the Mets in extra innings when John Franco, the man Benitez replaced as closer only a year before, struck out Barry Bonds to tie the series.  Franco couldn't help him in Game 1 of the World Series, as Benitez gave up a walk, two singles and a game-tying sacrifice fly in the ninth inning, blowing yet another save in a crucial postseason game.  The Mets went on to lose the game and the series to the Yankees.

The following season, the Mets didn't make the playoffs, but that didn't stop Benitez from blowing huge saves.  In 2001, the Mets were attempting to make a 1973-like run to the top of the division.  After starting the year with a 54-68 record, the Mets went on a tear, winning 22 of their next 27 games to pull to within 3½ games of the first place Braves.  With the Mets one out away from cutting the lead to 2½ games, Armando Benitez gave up a two-run homer to Brian Jordan and an RBI single to B.J. Surhoff, in a game eventually lost by the Mets in 11 innings, when Jordan hit his second home run in as many at-bats.  A week later, Benitez was at it again, blowing a four-run ninth inning lead by giving up five runs in two-thirds of an inning to the Braves.  By then, Benitez had worn out his welcome in New York, with fans booing loudly every time he came into a game.  With a few months left on his contract in 2003, the Mets were finally able to unload Benitez, trading him to the Yankees who in turn flipped him to Seattle.  Benitez thanked the Mets in 2004 by saving 11 games against them as a member of the Florida Marlins.  He's still waiting for a "you're welcome".

2001: Kevin Appier - Four years, $42 million

After the Mets went to the World Series in 2000, Mike Hampton defected to the Colorado Rockies in order to pay the $121 million tuition bill for their precious school system. (That was his reason for leaving, right?)  Needing to fill the void left by Hampton's departure, the Mets turned to free agent Kevin Appier.  Appier was a 12-year veteran with 136 career wins and a respectable 3.63 career ERA.  Those numbers look good on paper, but most of them were achieved during his first five seasons in the majors.

From 1989-1993, Appier was 59-38 for the Kansas City Royals with a stellar 2.95 ERA.  In the seven years prior to becoming a Met, Appier had gone 77-67 with a 4.11 ERA for the Royals and Oakland A's, hardly the numbers that would earn a player a four-year, $42 million deal in 2001.  But the Mets were desperate, so they overpaid for Appier.

Appier pitched one year for the Mets, going 11-10 with a 3.57 ERA.  Although the ERA was his lowest since 1997, it was still not the kind of season the Mets expected from their $42 million man.  The Mets traded Appier after only one season in New York, sending him to Anaheim for the past-his-prime Mo Vaughn.  Appier won 22 games over the remaining three years of his contract, never pitching again after the deal was done.  Vaughn played 166 games for the Mets, before retiring due to knee problems.  Who says the stomach isn't connected to the knee bone?

2003: Tom Glavine - Four years, $42.5 million

In 2002, the Mets suffered their first losing season since 1996 and first last place finish since 1993.  Much of the blame was placed on their free agent flops, as Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar and Jeromy Burnitz brought underachieving to new depths. But another reason for their failures was their pitching staff.  Al Leiter and Steve Trachsel were .500 pitchers.  Pedro Astacio was the rotation's sole winning pitcher at 12-11.  Jeff D'Amico (another free agent flop) won six games.  And Shawn Estes couldn't hit the strike zone or Roger Clemens.  To fix the pitching mess, general manager Steve Phillips imported one of the best pitchers from the Mets' fiercest rival.

Tom Glavine had always been a thorn in the Mets' side.  Prior to 2003, Glavine had gone 17-7 with a 2.82 ERA in 36 starts against the Mets.  The Mets expected great things from the 242-game winner and got a season reminiscent of another eventual 300-game winner named Tom.  Unfortunately, that season was Tom Seaver's 1983 campaign, a season that Glavine mirrored two decades later by going 9-14 for the Mets.

Although Glavine did up his win by two every year for the next three years, he still failed to pitch like the Hall of Famer he will probably become.  Throughout the length of his original four-year deal (the fourth year was an option year based on innings pitched), Glavine was merely a .500 pitcher, going 48-48.  But the sting of losing to the Cardinals in the 2006 NLCS left Glavine wanting more, so he signed a one-year deal to pitch the Mets back to the playoffs.  He got his chance on the final day of the 2007 season.  How did he do?  Let's just say that instead of being the second coming of Tom Terrific, he became the first coming of Tom Horrific, but at least he wasn't devastated by it.  Too bad the same couldn't be said for Mets fans.

2005: Pedro Martinez - Four years, $53 million

In 2004, the Mets had just come off their third consecutive losing season and new general manager Omar Minaya felt the need to make a big splash (a common theme during his time in New York).  Free agent pitcher Pedro Martinez was the big name on the market and Minaya was adamant about signing him.  Martinez was arguably the best pitcher in the American League during his seven-year stay in Boston, going 117-37 with a 2.52 ERA.  He was also a six-time All-Star, three-time Cy Young Award winner, five-time ERA leader and three-time strikeout champion.  But one overlooked fact about Pedro was that in his final season in Boston, his ERA ballooned to 3.90 and his 193 hits allowed were the most he had ever given up in a full season.

Speaking of full seasons, Martinez had only surpassed 30 starts in four of the 11 seasons since he became a full-time starter.  Over his final six seasons in Boston, he had only gone past 30 starts once.  His fragility was the reason why Boston wouldn't guarantee a fourth year, something the Mets eventually did in order to bring him into the fold.

The contract looked like a bargain in 2005.  In his first season in New York, Pedro went 15-8 with a 2.82 ERA and 208 strikeouts.  He also made 31 starts and led the major leagues with his 0.95 WHIP.  However, after winning his first five starts in 2006, Martinez broke down.  And broke down.  And broke down some more.  From May 2006 to the end of his contract in 2008, Martinez went 12-15 with a 5.00 ERA, making only 48 starts, none of which came in the playoffs during the Mets' run to Game 7 of the NLCS.  His contract and injury history made him untradeable, and Martinez did not pitch again in the major leagues until late in the 2009 season, when he helped the Phillies reach the World Series.  Of course.

2006: Billy Wagner - Four years, $43 million

The Braden Looper experiment of 2004 and 2005 failed, to put it mildly.  Although the Mets were headed in the right direction in 2005, improving by 12 wins under first-year manager Willie Randolph, Looper wasn't the right fit for the team coming into late-inning pressure situations.  General manager Omar Minaya felt that a change was needed at the closer position, so he dipped his toe into the free agent waters again.  Enter Billy Wagner, as the Sandman who did his best to give opposing hitters nightmares.

Wagner was outstanding in 2006, becoming the first left-handed pitcher in club history to record 40 saves in a single season.  But Wagner started to fall apart late over the next two seasons.  In 2007, it was his performance on the mound towards the end of the season (6.91 ERA, three blown saves in his final 14 appearances) that helped the Mets give up their seemingly insurmountable lead in the division.  One year later, it was his lack of appearances on the mound that led to the Mets' downfall.

After blowing a save against the Astros on August 2, Wagner did not pitch again in 2008, needing Tommy John surgery to repair his damaged elbow.  Two weeks after Wagner's season-ending injury, the Mets acquired Luis Ayala and he became the club's fill-in closer.  This was the same Luis Ayala who had racked up a whopping nine saves in four seasons with the Washington Nationals.  Two blown saves, two losses and a 5.50 ERA later, Ayala had done more than just blow the lead in various games.  He helped blow the Mets' lead in the division, all while Billy Wagner was collecting his paycheck in the recovery room.  Ayala was gone by 2009, as was Billy Wagner, who made two token appearances after the All-Star Break to up his trade value from getting a bag of golf balls to getting Chris Carter from the Boston Red Sox.  Perhaps the golf balls would have been the better deal.

2008:  Johan Santana - Six years, $137.5 million

A year after the Mets failed to make Barry Zito the highest paid pitcher in baseball, they pulled out their wallets for a far more deserving candidate in Johan Santana.  After completing a deal with the Minnesota Twins for the star lefty (not the first time the Mets sent a bushel of young players to Minnesota for a former Cy Young Award winning southpaw), the Mets signed Santana to a six-year extension, hoping the put the stunning late-season collapse of 2007 behind them.

In his first year in New York, Santana gave the Mets everything they could have wanted and more.  The 29-year-old finished the season with a 16-7 record and a major league-leading 2.53 ERA.  Santana finished third in the Cy Young Award vote and could have finished higher had it not been for the seven games he handed over to the bullpen with the lead that they failed to hold.  (Dang you, Billy Wagner and Luis Ayala!)

In 2009, Santana started the season well (8-3, 2.39 ERA over his first 12 starts), but became an average pitcher over his final 13 starts (5-6, 3.80 ERA) before missing the final six weeks of the season with an elbow injury.  The 2010 season wasn't much different for Santana, who had a fine start (8-5, 2.79 ERA), followed by a sluggish finish (3-4, 3.47 ERA) and another season-ending injury.  However, this injury ended two seasons, as Santana has not thrown a baseball in a major league game since then.  Santana is entering his fifth season with the Mets with a 40-25 career mark in New York, which isn't bad, but the Mets probably expected him to be in the franchise's top ten in wins by now (Steve Trachsel currently rounds out the top ten with 66 wins as a Met).  Instead, Santana is still chasing guys like Craig Swan (59 wins), Mike Pelfrey (50 wins), Al Jackson (43 wins) and Pat Zachry (41 wins).  That's what $137.5 million buys you in the Mets' world.

The Mets have flushed a lot of their money down the toilet by signing pitchers to long-term deals.

In 2007, The Mets wouldn't offer Barry Zito the long-term commitment the Giants did, and rightfully so, as Zito has been one of the worst free-agent signings in baseball history.  However, that doesn't mean the Mets haven't given away (literally) their money to other top pitchers over the past decade.

Since the advent of the 21st century, the Mets have signed six pitchers to deals of four years or more.  Armando Benitez almost made it through the four years, but not before having to tell his kids that the correct pronunciation of their last name wasn't Boo-nitez.  Kevin Appier was traded away after one season for a player who retired before Appier's contract was up.  Tom Glavine was a .500 pitcher throughout his four-year deal, which of course translated into another one-year contract that the Mets and their fans would like to forget.  Pedro Martinez might have ushered in the "New Mets" before Carlos Beltran coined the phrase, but really ushered out his own career after one successful campaign.  Billy Wagner celebrated a division title in the arms of Paul LoDuca, but then had arm troubles of his own.  And Johan Santana still has a chance to earn some of his record-setting contract, but has thus far given the Mets one start in the month of September since becoming the last Met pitcher to record a win at Shea Stadium in 2008.

Bad contracts of four years or more have not been limited to pitchers (see Castillo, Luis) and not all bad contracts doled out to pitchers have been for four years or more (see Perez, Oliver).  But ever since the Mets signed Al Leiter to a four-year deal following the 1998 season, they haven't had much success with long-term contracts for pitchers.  Perhaps Sandy Alderson knows what he's doing by not giving out any contracts of more than two years to a pitcher since his arrival in 2010.  Either that or he's well-read on how Mets pitchers have fared after signing long-term deals in the 21st century.  My guess is on the latter.  Then again, like an Armando Benitez fastball in a crucial spot, it's kind of hard to miss.


DyHrdMET said...

I smell collusion coming on next offseason.

Ed Leyro (and Joey Beartran) said...

It's not collusion you smell. It's Flushing Bay. Derek Bell got his boat out just in time.