WASHINGTON, December 11, 2011 – What’s the right price to pay for a starting pitcher? That’s always been one of baseball’s most crucial questions. Every offseason it seems, for every one starter that hits the $100+ million jackpot, another two are locked up on player-friendly extensions. Only one team appears to have mastered the art of keeping pitchers for as long as they want to and at as low a cost as possible: the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays signed Matt Moore to a low-cost, long-term extension of $14 million total for his first five years, with an option to keep him for up to three more years at $10 million per year. Now that’s the right answer.
There of plenty of teams who throw caution to the wind and decide that the only way they can win is by giving the most money possible to the best starter available. Now, this would work if the best pitchers weren’t continually signing extensions. Instead, the market just keeps inflating and inflating. This is why teams like the Los Angeles Angels get caught in a vicious cycle of doling out greater and greater paydays to lackluster players.
Then comes the market’s wild-card. The so-called posting system allows players to transfer from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League to Major League Baseball. First, all interested MLB teams bid for negotiation rights in a silent auction. Then the winner has 30 days to come to terms with the posted player. Why does any of this matter this offseason? Only because Yu Darvish, Japan’s best pitcher by far, and perhaps the best in the world, has entered the posting system, with the highest bid set to be announced late next week.
All this raises a debate over the best system is for one of the sport’s most demanding positions. This week brought all three to the forefront with the Rays signing young Matt Moore to a low-cost, long-term extension, the Angels inking C.J. Wilson to yet another five-year deal merely for being the best available, and the aforementioned upcoming jump for Darvish.
All teams should seek to emulate what the Rays have done in giving low-cost deals to cornerstones like Evan Longoria (admittedly not a pitcher), and Moore. With Moore, the Rays will only have to pay their future ace $14 million total for his first five years, and then could keep him for up to three more years at $10 million per year. It doesn’t take any financial experience to see not only the bargain that the Rays have created, but also the copious amounts of leverage that they’ve incorporated.
On the other hand, Los Angeles’ signing of Wilson as a cap on the Winter Meetings spending spree that also brought them Albert Pujols will only prolong the startling trend of giving ever escalating amounts of cash to pitchers with decreasing amounts of talent. Indeed, Wilson is a far cry from the best free agent starters of previous years. He truly has only had one season as an ace, and for that he’ll net a total of $77.5 million over the next five seasons.
As a comparison, most of the money that a team puts toward Darvish will go to his current team, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
Is there something wrong with this picture? Obviously there’s no way to eliminate the free agent market, nor should anyone try. But something has to change in this picture, if only for the sake of fiscal sanity in the baseball world.
When the news that one of baseball’s best young pitchers is content with financial security is dwarfed by headlines documenting the latest high-priced signing, arrows point to two solutions. Either baseball needs to finally implement a salary-cap, or all 30 teams need to become as smart or as lucky—depending on your view—as the Tampa Bay Rays.
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