You know what's frustrating? When fans convince themselves -- and try to convince me -- that some free agent is worth [insert huge number here] million dollars ... after he's been signed. Did anybody in San Francisco really think, a month ago, that Barry Zito was worth $18 million per season? I doubt it. Well, nobody except Barry Zito; baseball players, just like me and you, tend to have an inflated and fantastical sense of their own worth. Anyway, since Zito signed with the Giants, you should see the e-mail I've been getting.
Zito won a Cy Young Award!
The Giants needed to send a message to the fans!
Compared with Gil Meche, Zito's a bargain!
You get the idea. But I'm really, really not here today to mock the Giants for believing Scott Boras. It has happened to many teams before, and it'll happen to many more. Boras is smarter than nearly every general manager, so usually he's going to make one of them look ridiculous. This time, it was Brian Sabean's turn, but in a sense, getting beaten by Boras -- and blowing a few million bucks -- is just the cost of doing business these days. No, what I'd like to do today is explore this notion that the skyrocketing cost of good and adequate pitchers is a natural product of their scarcity. Is it true that there simply aren't enough decent starting pitchers to go around, so if you want to compete, you have to crazy-spend?
I don't think so. Yes, every team would like to have five dependable starting pitchers. Or at worst, four. And it's probably true that there aren't 150 good starters running around, or even 120. But then, there never have been. Historically, even good teams generally have to scrape about for a fifth starter, and in fact few teams have a fifth starter for more than a few weeks at a time. And of course, because of off days, you don't always need a fifth starter anyway. Yet every team wants a name in those first four slots (and in the fifth if it can get one).
Look at the Cubs. They've just committed $21 million over the next three seasons to a pitcher whose ERA last season ranked 38th among 38 in the National League and who wasn't good enough to crack the Cardinals' postseason roster. Ah, but Jason Marquis does have one thing going for him: He's an established major leaguer. Apparently, because Marquis has earned millions of dollars before, he somehow deserves to make millions more. And this rule generally applies only to pitchers. When a hitter hits like Marquis has pitched, GMs will give up on him quickly (unless he's fast, in which case another rule applies, the one that says general managers, in the primordial, reptilian parts of their brains, prefer sprinters to baseball players because it's important to be able to outrun predators, or something).
A shortage of pitchers, though? The Cubs alone had, in 2006, five pitchers younger than 25 who started at least one game for the big club. All five have identifiable talents. Granted, none of them actually pitched well in the majors, but then rookie pitchers rarely do pitch well. When Greg Maddux was a rookie, he went 6-14 with a 5.61 ERA. No, none of the Cubs' youngsters arrived with Maddux's minor league credentials, nor will any of them win 300 games. But among this quintet -- Sean Marshall, Carlos Marmol, Angel Guzman, Juan Mateo and Jae Kuk Ryu -- is at least one good major league starter. Perhaps two or three.
And how much room do the Cubs have now? They've got room for one. To rotation holdovers Carlos Zambrano and Rich Hill, the Cubs have added Marquis and Ted Lilly, leaving just one slot. And I'd be willing to bet a couple of bucks that the second-best of the five young pitchers will be just as good as Marquis. The Cubs won't just release the losers in the competition, of course. Some or all of them eventually will pitch out of the bullpen. Which brings us to another point: Teams often are too quick to turn a young starter into a young reliever. Kid has two good pitches and he's struggling to refine that changeup? Hey, we'll just send him to the pen.
Which often is exactly the right move. But I'd love to see somebody make a serious effort to figure out how many good relief pitchers would have been adequate or better starting pitchers if given a real chance. I'll bet the number right now runs to at least a couple of dozen.
Interestingly enough, just a few miles from Wrigley Field, White Sox GM Kenny Williams seems to have figured all this out. He has been castigated in Chicago for trading Freddy Garcia and Brandon McCarthy for pitchers with no track records (or lousy track records) in the majors, but Williams apparently believes that if he collects enough young pitchers with potential, he'll wind up with a few cheap-but-good starters, and at the moment there's nothing more valuable. This strategy isn't foolproof. First, you have to sort through all that talent, and even if you're "right," the vagaries of luck can make you look wrong.
There are plenty of decent starters out there, though, if you know where to look and your judgment is sound. No, it's not easy. But it sure does beat letting Boras make a fool of you.