The starting pitching market isn't hurting

Someday in the future when I have kids I’m going to focus on teaching them one thing: the art of pitching.  Forget riding bikes, homework, and how to mow the yard (well, maybe not that last part, I’m fine with them taking over those duties), they need to become pitchers.  I’ll stress that because it seems like the starting pitching market is recession proof.

Coming in to the off-season we heard a lot of talk about how the free agent market would be down due to the economy.  So far that hasn’t held true for the starting pitching market.  Three pitchers have signed deals for more money than they received in 2009, and all three pitchers were on the market in 2009.  That means that, despite the economic issues, the price of pitching looks to be going up.

Last year Brad Penny received a one year, $5 M deal, with $6 M in possible incentives, although the incentives were split between starting pitching incentives and relief pitching incentives, so it was only possible to earn $3 M.  Penny ended up making $6 M after incentives.  This year Penny received a one year, $7.5 M deal, with a $1.5 M bonus from the St. Louis Cardinals.

Randy Wolf received a $5 M deal in 2009, with $3 M in possible incentives, based on innings pitched.  Wolf pitched 214.1 innings, so he received the full $8 M.  This year Wolf signed a three year deal with the Milwaukee Brewers for $29.75 M, a raise in both money and years.

Andy Pettitte signed a one year, $5.5 M deal with the New York Yankees in 2009.  Pettitte had $4.5 M in possible performance bonuses for innings pitched, and $2 M in possible roster bonuses for time spent on the roster, making his contract worth as much as $12 M.  Pettitte earned the full $2 M in roster bonuses, and $3 M in performance bonuses for pitching 194.2 innings, giving him $10.5 M in 2009.  Pettitte just re-signed with the Yankees for $11.75 M guaranteed.  Not only did he receive more than he received in 2009, but his salary was guaranteed this year, and not based on innings pitched or time spent on the active roster.

Rich Harden signed with Texas today for $6.5 M with an option for 2011 that has a $1 M buyout.  That’s $7.5 M guaranteed for one season, a year after Harden made $7 M.  However, Harden also has $3.5 M in possible incentives based on innings pitched (up to 195), which is smart considering Harden’s injury history.  His option is also for $11 M.  In the end, Harden could make up to $21 M over two seasons.

In fairness, Wolf and Pettitte had a preference for the teams they ended up signing with in 2009.  Pettitte was 36 and coming off a year where he posted a 4.54 ERA, his worst offering since 1999.  Wolf struggled with the Padres in 2009 with a 4.74 ERA in 21 starts, but turned things around in Houston in the final two months of the season, with a 3.57 ERA in 12 starts.  As for Penny, he was coming off a year in which he experienced shoulder issues, limiting him to 94.2 innings in 2008.  All of that being said, the fact that these pitchers are getting raises, with two of them making over $10 M a year, shows that the starting pitching market isn’t down at all.

So what does that mean for the Pirates?  The bad news is that it may put certain pitching options out of the Pirates’ price range, as Rob Biertemfel suggested the other day.  The Pirates have shown interest in a lot of pitching options, most notably Justin Duchscherer.  Duchscherer missed the entire 2009 season, but based on his past success (2.54 ERA in 141.2 innings in 2008) and the market for starting pitchers, Duchscherer could be in line to get a Brad Penny 2009 contract, with $4-5 M guaranteed, plus incentives for innings pitched.  Would the Pirates be willing to spend that for a 32 year old starter who hasn’t pitched since 2008?

The good news is that the high price of starters makes Zach Duke and Paul Maholm much more valuable.  So far we’ve only seen two trades, and it’s hard to determine how those deals reflect the value of pitchers on the trade market.  The Detroit Tigers traded Edwin Jackson, but they also traded Curtis Granderson in the same deal, making it impossible to dissect the return for Jackson.  Texas traded Kevin Millwood for relief pitcher Chris Ray, although Millwood is much older than Duke and Maholm at 35, has one year remaining on his contract, and his deal is a little too high, even for the current starting market.  In fact, Texas picked up $3 M, and most likely they traded Millwood so they could afford to sign Harden with the money saved.

Duke is coming off a year in which he posted a 4.06 ERA in 213 innings.  He would be a strong number three starter for any team, as he’s made at least 31 starts, with at least 185 innings in three of the last four seasons, and might have put things together finally in 2009.  He is also under control for two seasons, and could make $9-10 M in arbitration over that time span.  If Brad Penny can receive $7.5 M for one season following a 4.88 ERA in 173.1 innings, then Duke is a steal at two years, $10 M.

This all raises the question: why don’t the Pirates just keep Duke if he’s such a value?  So far there is no indication that they’re looking to trade him, or Maholm, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a trade went down before Spring Training.  Short term a deal may hurt the Pirates a bit.  Without Duke they’d have a rotation of Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton, Kevin Hart, and Daniel McCutchen.  Basically the same rotation, with Hart and McCutchen both winning jobs, rather than both players battling it out for the fifth spot.

Brad Lincoln will likely be up by June, which could lessen the effect of a Duke trade this season (and if Duke isn’t dealt in the off-season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Nate McLouth-like trade in June when Lincoln gets the call).  By 2011, a trade of Duke might not matter, as the Pirates could have guys like Tim Alderson, Jeff Locke, and Rudy Owens ready to step in to the major league rotation.

Meanwhile, with the market for starting pitchers currently strong, and Duke coming off a strong year with a valued price tag, the long term benefits of a Duke trade could easily outweigh the short term downside to the deal.

The Winter Meetings haven’t been very active, but on the starting pitching market we may have seen just enough activity to not only remove the Pirates from the bidding for any free agent starting pitching options, but we may also have seen the wheels set in motion for an inevitable Zach Duke trade this off-season.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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