Looking for Pitching Help

I read an article today about the offseason plans Dave Dombrowski has for the Boston Red Sox. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought Dombrowski was reading the same script Al Avila was reading from when he had a session with the media a few days earlier. Two underachieving, last place teams will go in to the offseason looking for starting pitching and bullpen help. They will need to get in line with pretty much every other team in baseball. Even the successful teams will be looking to improve their pitching this  offseason.

It’s why pitchers are paid so well. It’s why the best pitchers in the game make more money than most professional athletes. It’s also why so many teams end up setting themselves up for failure, with team payrolls that spell disaster. Pitchers are always high risk investments because of the risk of injury, and the skill required to consistently repeat the same mechanics game after game, season after season. Losing a couple miles per hour on your fastball, or making a couple mistakes with your command, can knock you off the mountain top quickly. Justin Verlander has given us a close up view of how quickly the fortunes of a star pitcher can rise and fall.

Last offseason, the big name pitchers on the market were Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields. Scherzer had a strong season individually. He threw two no-hitters, and nearly had a third. His record was a mediocre 14-12, with a great ERA and WHIP. He may be satisfied with his individual performance, but his impact on the team was hardly what you would expect for a guy with a contract worth over $200 million. The lesson learned may be that a pitcher is only as good as the team around him. Washington had what many considered the strongest starting pitching staff in the major leagues at the start of the 2015 season. They’re home watching as the post season heats up, while looking for a new manager.

Jon Lester and the Chicago Cubs are playing in the post season right now. But his impact is questionable. His record was 11-12 this season. Having a losing record on a playoff team is probably not considered getting your money’s worth from a guy with a $150 million contract. In his only appearance in the post season this year, he lost. I might add that he was also a factor in the 2014 playoff chase. Oakland gave up several top prospects and their clean-up hitter at the trade deadline to supposedly give them one of the best starting staffs in baseball. At the time of the trade, Oakland was walking away with the AL West division. They ended up limping in to the playoffs where they were quickly eliminated.

James Shields was the last of the big three starting pitchers to sign last offseason. I’m guessing there are some who don’t even remember who he signed with his impact was so minimal. San Diego was hoping he was the missing piece as they opened up the checkbook to make a serious run at the playoffs. While Shields ended up with a 13-7 record, his ERA and WHIP were unimpressive, and the team was once again a non-factor in the playoff race. I believe they were looking to move Shields at the trade deadline.

Short term, you can see the impact quality starters can bring to a team. Toronto would not be in the playoffs without trading for David Price. Cole Hamels has been a factor in Texas making the playoffs. But it’s a high risk/reward proposition. If you continually give up top prospects in your farm system to chase pitching, you will eventually look like the Tigers, with one of the worst farm systems in baseball, and still looking for that elusive pitching. They achieved their goal of making the playoffs five seasons in a row, but never won a championship, and now face the task of trying to reload, or rebuild, depending on your perspective. Long term, giving huge contracts to the best free agent pitchers during the offseason is not a recipe for success. Like taking the best looking girl to prom, it looks impressive, but it doesn’t guarantee success.

Al Avila and Dave Dombrowski stand tall in front of the media and assure us ownership will spend whatever is necessary to win. I think they miss the point. The team that spends the most frequently doesn’t win. Most would consider the Cardinals to be the model franchise for building a team from top to bottom. They’re not even in the top ten of the highest payroll teams. Several teams bringing a lot of excitement to the 2015 post season are not the highest payroll teams. The Cubs hired Theo Epstein a few years ago and immediately made the decision to rebuild. The foundation of their team is a bunch of kids who came up through the minors. The Mets were forced to stop spending money a few years ago, which resulted in them having one of the best young pitching staffs in baseball. The Royals have never been a high payroll team. Their young talent hit their peak at the same time, and the team has had achieved success not seen in Kansas City since George Brett was in their lineup. When you look at the playoff teams this season, most of them have strong bullpens. None of them spent big money in free agency to build those bullpens.

The sad part is I can see teams like the Cubs and Mets falling right back in to the big spending solution in an effort to find that elusive missing piece. Their payrolls will automatically jump substantially in the next few years as all that young talent becomes eligible for arbitration. It’s a necessary expense to hold on to the young talent they developed as long as they can. Now that the teams have experienced the thrill of the post season, like any good addict, they will do whatever it takes to get more of that. Their fan base will demand it. And they will once again fall in to the trap of thinking you can buy success. Like any good card player, success comes from knowing when to go all in and when to fold your hand. You can’t go all in every hand. Baseball teams need to know when to risk everything in hopes of winning that one hand, and when to back off and nurture the young players in their farm system. If you go all in every hand in poker, you will soon be out of the game. I’ve always felt if a team spent just a fraction of the  money they spend on the best players in baseball, to hire the best scouts in baseball, they would have a much stronger franchise long term. They wouldn’t have to getting in to bidding wars every offseason for free agents.

Mike Suty is a long time Detroit sports fan who loves sharing his passion for sports in the written word. If you enjoyed any of my posts and want contact me directly, you can email me at mgsuty@gmail.com