Thursday, December 06, 2007

Option B

"Beeeeeware the Pavano!"

A ghostly voice woke me in the night. The radiator in the bedroom was going full-blast, and I woke up in a sweat, as if I had a fever. Carl Pavano? Where?

After looking around and making sure that Can't Pitch Carl wasn't in the bedroom, threatening myself and La Chiquita with grievous bodily harm. I settled back down for some rest. What the heck was that about?

"Beware the Paavaaaaanoooooo!"

I woke back up, peeved. What Pavano? And why did the ghostly voice think that moaning out a different word in the sentence would make me more likely to heed its call? I mean, for the first time in three years, I was finally over my Pavano issues--Carl had his Tommy John surgery in June, and it seemed like the timing of that was so that the Yankees could ensure he'd never again pitch in a Yankee uniform (since even people with normal healing times usually take more than 15 months to come back from ligament replacement). The Yanks would keep him on the roster, get back whatever they could in insurance money, and then we could put one of the worst free agent signings ever behind us, forever.

"Beware the..."

I swear, if I found that ghostly voice I was gonna bust him upside the head. What damn...

Oh! And then I got it: this was about the Johan Santana non-deal.

The Yankees now swear up and down that they won't pursue Santana. After Hank Steinbrenner's ultimatum--the kind of peevish complaint guaranteed to inspire rebellion, if not veiled accusations of tampering--the Yankees and Twins were unable to settle on a third prospect in the great Santana hunt of 2007. The Bronx Bombers' main rivals (in this and seemingly everything else), the Red Sox, seem to have also struck out in the short term. The Yanks are saying all the right thing about sticking with their youth movement on the mound. But even if the Melky and Hughes for Santana deal is off the table, there's still danger lurking in the weeds.

It's Option B, better known as Oakland A's pitcher Danny Haren. Or as my mind has been thinking about him since the ghostly visitation...the Pavano.

I know that's not quite a fair comparison. Haren's a really good pitcher, who's been extraordinarily resilient over the last three years:

2005 Dan Haren 24 14 12 217 6.76 1.13 5.2
2006 Dan Haren 25 14 13 223 7.1 1.11 5.3
2007 Dan Haren 26 15 9 222.7 7.76 1.30 6.3

(Yes, I've written this blog for four years, and I still can't figure out how to make a table look good. Sorry.)

But then again, Pavano was also a pretty good pitcher in the couple of years before he choked us under a veil of tears joined the Yankees:

2003 Carl Pavano 27 12 13 201 5.96 1.02 5.2
2004 Carl Pavano 28 18 8 222.3 5.63 1.42 7

He was really good. He just wasn't the best available. That year, the offseason after the 2004 ALCS disaster, the best starter available was Pedro Martinez, late of the Red Sox. The Mets picked him up, and the Yankees settled for the next best thing, Pavano. There were things to commend Pavano over Martinez. Martinez had known health issues, and was older. If you'd asked who was the safer bet to receive a four-year deal, Pavano from ages 29-32 or Pedro from ages 33-36, you'd probably answer, the young guy without arm trouble. Still, even if Pedro doesn't pitch another inning at Shea, you'd have to say that the Mets got more mileage out of the $53 million they gave Martinez than the Yanks got out of the $40 million they gave Pavano.

Back to Haren. Billy Beane is a smart guy. He has a very good young pitcher, Haren, signed to a nice, below-market contract ($9.5 MM over the next two years, $6.75 MM club option for 2010). Why would he want to trade away a guy like this?

It's because of the market that Johan Santana has created. Santana isn't just a good pitcher, he's the best pitcher. A lot of people have supposedly been scared off by Santana's reported contract demands, but there's a hunger for what he brings to the table. He's not just a #1 pitcher, he's the #1 pitcher. The ace of aces. Only a handful of hurlers can claim to be in his company--Josh Beckett, Jake Peavy, Brandon Webb, Roy Oswalt, C.C. Sabathia, maybe Justin Verlander--and none of those guys have his performance record. Haren isn't part of that group, he's in the next group, which includes young guys like Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard, Chien Ming Wang, Cole Hamels, Scott Kazmir, and a few others,* who are close to that elite level but just fall short, or haven't yet proven they can do it consistently enough to be one of those "once in a generation" type pitchers. Like Martinez, Clemens, and Randy Johnson were in their respective primes. Like Santana is now.

When a pitcher like Santana is available, guys you've long considered untouchable become...touchable. If you have to surrender a Phil Hughes, or Jon Lester, or Clay Buchholz, or Clayton Kershaw, you grit your teeth and do it. Those guys may have the potential to become the next Santana or Peavy or Beckett, but there's value in knowing that you have someone who's already made it to that level, who's survived grind of operating at as an ace year in and year out.

So if Beane is making Haren available, it's because he hopes to let the Twins do the hard work, loosening GM's fingers off their best prospects as everyone vies to get the best pitcher in baseball. And then, once everyone's gotten used to the idea that Hughes isn't untouchable, that Lester or Jacoby Ellsbury can be had, then Beane can sweep in and market Haren, as the best pitcher available not named Santana. And it's not that hard to talk yourself into this idea: Haren's pretty good, and his contract is small-market friendly, and for all I know he's super-kind to children and animals. But he's not Johan Santana--he's just the next best thing.

Forget Pavano, which is pretty much a fighting word in any Yankee fan's vocabulary. Last year, the best pitcher available was Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Yanks were outbid, handily, on the posting fee for the best talent out there, but they settled for Option B--Kei Igawa. Last year, the Yanks paid about $30 million (the posting fee plus Igawa-san's salary) for Dr. Kei to pitch more innings in the minors (77 1/3) than in the majors (67 2/3). Sometimes the best move is not to make a move at all.

[* NOTE: Before anyone complains about that list of second-tier #1 pitchers, I'm not counting guys who are on the wrong side of 30. Many of them--John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, A.J. Burnett, Roy Halladay--can be just as good as any of the guys I've listed, but likely wouldn't have the same trade value.]

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