Thursday, May 7, 2009

Pavano, Class of '04 a cautionary tale

Most biting tabloid-inspired nickname ever. Thanks to this site for the photo.

Exhibit 1A of why it’s usually a bad idea to sign free agent pitchers to long-term contracts was on the mound at Fenway Park last night, where Carl Pavano tossed six solid innings to earn the win as the Indians beat the Red Sox 9-3.

It was the first appearance at Fenway for Pavano since he was the poor sap who started for the Marlins when they fell to the Sox 25-8 June 27, 2003. That he’s gone nearly six years between starts at Fenway is just one way to measure how off-the-charts badly his tenure with the Yankees unfolded.

Pavano seemed like a pretty good bet to make a lot of starts at Fenway back in the winter of 2004, when both the Sox and Yankees were hotly pursuing him as a free agent. He chose to go to the Yankees for four years and $39.95 million, which was about the best thing that could have happened to the Sox and the worst thing to happen to the Yankees.

Pavano threw just 145 2/3 innings for the Yankees as he battled numerous injuries, most of which appeared skeptical to inside and outside observers alike and at least one of which was self-inflicted. The Yankee Years, the book that Joe Torre didn’t write even though his name is splashed across the front cover, spells out in jaw-dropping detail just how much Pavano’s teammates despised him.

Yet the really frightening thing about the free agent class of 2004-05 is that Pavano wasn’t even its biggest bust. That honor, such as it is, goes to Russ Ortiz, who signed a four-year, $33 million deal with the Diamondbacks and provided them a grand total of 28 starts, during which he went 5-16 with a 7.00 ERA, before he was released in June 2006.’s Keith Law had an interesting take on Ortiz’ release and the misguided perception that the Diamondbacks were eating the contract when they cut him.

Matt Clement, whom the Sox signed to a three-year deal worth $25.5 million after they lost out on Pavano, was a bargain compared to Pavano and Ortiz, but his pockmarked tenure in Boston—Clement went 18-11 with a 5.09 ERA in before he underwent what turned out to be career-ending shoulder surgery at the end of the 2006 season—made the Sox more determined than ever to develop their own pitching and avoid the major league free agent market whenever possible.

Such tales of woe were common for the class of ’04. The nine free agent starting pitchers who signed multi-year deals that winter—Pavano, Ortiz, Clement, Derek Lowe, Pedro Martinez, Odalis Perez, Brad Radke, Kris Benson and Eric Milton—were paid a combined $277 million to go 199-207 with a 4.63 ERA.

Only three of those pitchers—Perez, Radke and Lowe—did not undergo arm surgery at some point during their lucrative deals. Perez (21-27 with a 5.49 ERA for the Dodgers and Royals, the latter of whom acquired him during the second year of his three-year deal with the Dodgers) pitched as if he should have gone under the knife while Radke (21-21 with a 4.17 ERA with the Twins) had such a ravaged shoulder by the end of his two-year deal that he couldn’t brush his teeth or pour milk with his right arm.

Clement, Martinez and Benson all underwent shoulder surgery while Pavano, Ortiz and Milton all had Tommy John surgery. Of those six, the only one not to miss an entire season recovering was Martinez, who went 11 months between starts after his operation.

Only Lowe (54-48 with a 3.59 ERA) provided a quality return on the investment. He pitched 850 1/3 innings over his four years with the Dodgers. The only pitcher among the Class of ’04 to pitch even half that many innings during his deal was Martinez, who had an excellent first year with the Mets and might have helped them to the World Series in 2006 if he didn’t miss the postseason due to his shoulder surgery. Think the Mets might have liked to have Martinez start one game in the NLCS instead of Steve Trachsel?

Today, Clement and Radke are retired, Perez and Martinez are unsigned, Milton is playing in the minor leagues and Benson and Ortiz are barely hanging on to roster spots with the Rangers and Astros, respectively. Lowe pitched so well in Los Angeles that, at age 35 and in a rotten economy, he actually got a raise when he signed a four-year deal with the Braves last winter.

That means Pavano, who signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Indians and slid into the middle of their rotation, is in the second-best situation of the Class of ’04 hurlers. How’s that for a summation of how badly the entire group fared? But on the bright side, after last night, he’s only 114 1/3 innings away from reaching his total with the Yankees!

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