Contrary to popular belief, free agents do sign with teams other than the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Mets. When it comes to throwing around big money the Orioles, for one, have been right up there with their large market brethren thanks to the deep pockets and even deeper ego of owner Peter Angelos. Albert Belle and Miguel Tejada, just to name a few, have been more than happy over the years to take the O’s owner’s money and run. And let us not forget the Toronto Blue Jays, who last off-season spent over $100 for two FA pitchers, B.J. Ryan and A.J. Burnett, both of whom it could be fairly said had less than long track records of success prior to their windfalls.
There have been good signings and bad ones over the years. To read one person’s opinion on them take a look at this fascinating article by The Baseball Analysts , who provide an excellent summary. (Note, this piece was written prior to the start of the 2006 season.) In several articles I’ve read one thread runs through nearly all of them: free agent pitchers rarely deliver the goods the way free agent position players do. The conclusion of many observers is that it’s best to spend money developing pitchers rather than trying to acquire them. The question I would ask has two parts: 1) Has this always been the case; and, 2) does this notion apply to trades as well as free agency?
Throughout the Phillies’ history developing pitchers has usually worked out better than acquiring them, but when there were exceptions they have been real doozies: Steve Carlton and Curt Schilling, both acquired via trades not free agency. I haven’t seen a study comparing trades and FA signings, but I suspect the former works out better in part because the dollars aren’t generally as high and thus the expectations aren’t either. Another factor may be the historical timing of trades vs. free agency acquisitions. In the past, teams might have been more inclined to trade for pitchers when they were very young in order to develop them within their own systems and only sign them as free agents when they were older and more established. Today the two approaches have converged more as virtually every pitcher with the required years of service under his belt will opt for free agency, often in his late twenties or early thirties, thus moving up the age at which teams will tender offers on the open market.
One things remains clear: when it comes to free agency, GM’s seem ever-willing to give untold millions to the Carl Pavano’s of the world on the off chance they will come through in a big way and lead their new team to the promised land. It’s a lottery and like all gambles, some pay off while most do not.
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By the way, if anyone out there has ever see a more “sure-handed and nimble fielder with a powerful and accurate throwing arm” than Ryan Howard I’d like to hear from them.