At the end of the 2008 season, the Mets will have just two members of their projected starting rotation under contract: Johan Santana and John Maine. Mike Pelfrey will be around to absorb one of the empty slots, probably Orlando Hernandez’s since the pair are already competing for the fifth spot in 2008. That will leave Pedro Martinez and Oliver Perez as tough walk-year decisions that the Mets will to face as the season comes to a close. Considering the recent trends in aging pitcher contracts, where established players such as Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, Hernandez, and John Smoltz have taken less risky one- or two-year deals, I think it would probably be easier and smarter for the Mets to re-sign Martinez than Perez, so let’s assume that happens.
That would give the Mets three above-average starters and Pelfrey, who despite my repeated jabbing of his secondary pitches, may or may not blossom into an average starter. Where does Oliver Perez fit into the Mets long-term plans? A big factor on his Mets’ future will be the two words that make many sports fans cringe: Scott Boras. Boras will be sure to hold on for every last dollar on the free agent market, and while Perez doesn’t have an incredible track record, neither did Carlos Silva or Gil Meche, and you can argue that neither pitcher, prior to free agency, had ever had a season to match Perez’s two best.
But is Perez a $15-million-a-year pitcher? That’s what the free agent market seems to be coming to lately. In the days of yore, we’d have attractive free agent classes with huge names. In the 2004 offseason, for instance, the Mets were able to sign Martinez and Carlos Beltran, two legitimate Major League superstars. Since then, the free agent classes have simply gotten weaker and weaker, as Dan Scotto has explained. In 2006, the Cubs were able to sign Alfonso Soriano, a pretty good player but definitely not a star as a corner outfielder, for $126 million. The three other players who headlined that free agent class, Carlos Lee, J.D. Drew, and Barry Zito, were all capable players in their own right, but certainly not near the quality of Beltran or Martinez. In 2005, the best of the lot were Paul Konerko, Johnny Damon, Kevin Millwood, A.J. Burnett, and closers B.J. Ryan and Billy Wagner. Again, certainly all quality players, but none of superstar quality. This offseason, Alex Rodriguez was theoretically a free agent, but other than that, the best of the rest included Torii Hunter, Aaron Rowand, Mike Lowell, Andruw Jones, and Francisco Cordero.
See a pattern in those players? Let me take out everyone who isn’t a starting pitcher: A.J. Burnett, Barry Zito, and Kevin Millwood (I realize I’m cherry picking by leaving Daisuke Matsuzaka out, but he wasn’t technically a free agent, nor was he as good as he was hyped up to be in his first year anyway). Of those three, Zito had terrific ERA’s, but a terrible downward trend in his peripherals that has led to a somewhat predictable blowup for the Giants. Burnett has had health issues, but has otherwise been a pretty solid contract for the Blue Jays thus far. Millwood has completely imploded as a Ranger. If Perez hurls another quality season for the Mets this year, he would have a better track record than either of these three when you take health into account.
The dearth of starting pitchers on the market can be traced directly to teams being more proactive. Just in the past few years, dreams of a free agent classes that could include Carlos Zambrano, Roy Oswalt, Johan Santana, and Erik Bedard, among others, have been dashed by long-term extensions and trades. It’s hard to complain about the idea of Perez making $3 million more a season than Carlos Silva.
Assuming Perez can pitch his way to the top of the market with another solid season, the only players of comparable youth and skill are C.C. Sabathia, who will command Johan money, and Ben Sheets, who hasn’t pitched 200 innings since 2004. Perez could easily find himself with a 5-year, $75 million deal or better on the open market. Would such a deal be a good fit for the Mets?
There will be quite a few quality pitchers on the market, but most of them will be aging. Aside from Sheets and Sabathia, a plurality of the aging pitchers I listed earlier will be around, along with Derek Lowe, possibly Burnett if he opts out of his option, Mike Hampton, and Mark Prior. Putting wet dreams of a Santana/Sabathia combo on the backburner for now, Perez is probably as good as anyone else on the market, both short-term and long-term. One other name that I’d like to namedrop as an outside-the-box option would be Nippon Ham Fighter Yu Darvish, who would command a Matsuzaka-like payoff if he were posted.
It’s way too early to write anything in stone, but should Perez perform well enough in 2008 to get a big contract, the Mets would be wise to give it to him. Not only have the starting pitcher free agent markets been weak the last few years, but the cost to acquire a similar or weaker replacement starter through other means would probably be just as prohibitive. Trading for another starter, with the Mets system as depleted as it is from acquiring Santana, would prove difficult.
Perez is far from a perfect starting pitcher; he still walks too many hitters, he’s only had two good seasons so far, and he is somewhat homer-prone. But as long as he’s been around, it’s hard to believe that he’ll be just 26 this season. He was a very solid pitcher for the Mets last season, and outside of Sabathia and possibly Darvish, there aren’t any better long-term bets that the Mets could bring in next offseason. What say you, fellow Geeks? Is Perez worth it?