The Mid-Rotation Starters of Your Dreams

It’s no secret that any free agent capable of throwing 180 innings in the major leagues is going to have a lucrative offseason. Most of them already have, making the remaining options even more desirable.

The two most notable pitchers still on the market are Jeff Suppan and (of course) Barry Zito. Both are workhorses and solid above-average performers; Suppan is riding the high of his NLCS MVP, and Zito has his 2002 Cy Young Award as a calling card. Zito will get more money, more years, and more starlets, but both pitchers will become extremely wealthy in the next several weeks.

To get a general idea of how this market will value them, let’s take a look at the pitchers already signed. Leaving out a few guys who didn’t pitch much last year (Wade Miller, Kerry Wood, Kip Wells, and Randy Wolf), there are 12 starters who have signed this offseason.

For each one, I’ve come up with a rough estimate of their 2007 value by taking a weighted average of their performance (measured by WSAB) for the last three years. I haven’t used any age adjustment, but since most of them are in their 30s, many are likely to decline at least a little bit. The last column is their cost per WSAB.

Pitcher   $/yr    04 WSAB 05 WSAB 06 WSAB 07 WSAB $/WSAB
Batista*  $8.33   5       5       5       5.00    $1.67
Eaton     $8.17   0       2       2       1.67    $4.90
Glavine   $10.50  8       8       9       8.50    $1.24
Hernandez $6.00   6       1       4       3.33    $1.80
Lilly     $10.00  10      0       7       5.17    $1.94
Maddux    $10.00  5       3       8       5.83    $1.71
Marquis   $7.00   8       6       -3      1.83    $3.82
Meche     $11.00  1       0       4       2.17    $5.08
Mussina   $11.50  4       4       10      7.00    $1.64
Padilla   $11.25  0       2       7       4.17    $2.70
Pettitte  $16.00  3       15      8       9.50    $1.68
Williams  $6.25   2       -2      7       3.17    $1.97
Total     $116.00                         57.33   $2.02
Adj Total $89.83                          51.67   $1.74

*Since Batista was a reliever in 2005, I've given him his 2004 and 2006 WSAB total for 
that year, assuming that had he started, he would've pitched about as well.

The final row is the one I’m most interested in. It doesn’t seem right to project salaries based on the ridiculousness of Jason Marquis‘s contract, or on the questionable confluence of motivations that led to Gil Meche or Adam Eaton‘s deal. Because of that, the last row is the average, excepting those three pitchers. In short, established starting pitchers are getting about $1.75 million per WSAB.

Since Suppan is near the middle of this pack, it seems reasonable to expect he’ll be paid at that average rate. Zito, on the other hand, could easily get more; he’s perceived as the pitching prize of the offseason, so it seems likely that someone will be willing to overpay for him.

Using the same method to guesstimate Suppan’s and Zito’s performance in 2007, let’s see what the going rate translates into for the pair:

Pitcher 04 WSAB   05 WSAB 06 WSAB 07 WSAB $2.02/  $1.74/
Suppan    1       7       8       6.50    $13.13  $11.31
Zito      6       7       12      9.33    $18.85  $16.24

If we put the most stock in the rate of $1.74 million per WSAB, the results jibe nicely with intuition. Suppan has been widely predicted to get a deal for four years and $40-44 million, while Zito may have an offer on the table for $100 million over six years.

So What Does This Mean?

It’s important to put these numbers in perspective. Three Win Shares is equivalent to one win, so signing Suppan should add about two wins to your team’s bottom line. Zito would add three. That’s the case if they would take the rotation spot of a replacement-level pitcher—say, Kyle Snyder or John Rheinecker.

As is the case with the vast majority of players—even most good ones—neither of these pitchers is likely to make a huge impact. Two or three wins could very well be the difference between a playoff berth or a 10 am tee time in October, but that’s only the case for a handful of teams.

Given the high cost of starting pitching in this year’s market, there’s an easy way to whether a signing has the potential to be a good one: does the team have a shot at contending? If the answer is no, spending nine figures per year for Jeff Suppan is ridiculous.

Take, for instance, the Pirates, who are rumored to be bidding for Suppan. I don’t think even the most optimistic Bucs fan anticipates a wild card run this year—this is certainly not a season in which two wins will make much of a difference. Shawn Chacon‘s 109 innings last year were precisely at “bench” level; is finishing with 69 wins instead of 67 worth spending $10 million to replace Chacon with Suppan?

The same can be said of the Mariners and their possible involvement with Zito. Of course, signing Zito to a six-year deal would mean that he’ll be around if the team contends at some point in the next half-decade. But unless it’s reasonable to expect that’ll happen (doubtful, in my view, for both the Bucs and the M’s), laying out that kind of money is a poor way to build for the future.

In general, then, the teams considering adding one of these two starters are making the same kinds of decisions clubs face at the trading deadline: are we in it or not? The value of Suppan to the Brewers or Zito to the Rangers is not entirely encapsulated in the numbers above: it depends on whether those teams view themselves as two or three wins away from a playoff spot.

As bizarre as it may have sounded even a few months ago, if the addition of Jeff Suppan turns a team into a Wild Card winner, he probably will have been worth $11 million. Even if he doesn’t repeat as championship series MVP.

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