Anibal Sanchez has a career record of 48-51, a 3.75 ERA, has never pitched 200 innings in a season, and had Tommy John surgery in the minor leagues and surgery on a torn labrum after the 2007 season. Now he's worth an $80 millon contract to the Detroit Tigers, who reportedly outbid the Cubs for Sanchez's services.
It's a very good time to be a baseball player.
OK, Sanchez has been a quality starter the past three seasons with the Marlins and then after 2012's midseason trade to the Tigers. His stock was undoubtedly helped by three excellent postseason starts, in which he allowed four runs and 14 hits in 20.1 innings. Of course, teams shouldn't allow three starts to overshadow a larger body of work -- and the Tigers are certainly smart enough not to do that -- but I would suspect Sanchez earned at least a few extra million because of some perceived notion of his clutchness or whatever.
The biggest strides Sanchez has made in recent seasons have been with improved control, cutting his walk rate by one walk per nine innings from 2010 to 2012. He has done this by throwing more first-pitch strikes, from 58 percent to 66 percent, ranking 10th among starting pitchers in first-pitch strike percentage in 2012. His changeup has improved in recent seasons, and was a key weapon for him in the postseason.
If we estimate that teams have been paying about $5 million for each Win Above Replacement on the free-agent market this offseason, Sanchez would have to be a 3-WAR pitcher per season to "earn" the contract. And guess what: He has averaged 3.0 WAR the past three seasons per Baseball-Reference.com. There's another part of that equation, however: Is he likely to do that moving forward? Over the past five seasons, 20 starters have earned 15 or more WAR. So the Tigers are essentially betting that Sanchez will be one of baseball's best 20 starters over the next five seasons.
Reasonable? If he stays healthy, perhaps, but you can say that about a lot pitchers. It's a tough position; by the end of the deal, you would be talking about Sanchez completing his eighth consecutive healthy season. But the Tigers are worried about 2013, not 2017, and Sanchez will help to once again make them the favorite in the AL Central, slotting into an excellent rotation alongside Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer. That leaves Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello battling for the fifth spot and Adam Wilk is around as insurance, a finesse lefty who has put up good numbers in Triple-A. (It wouldn't surprise me to see Porcello traded.)
In 2012, the Tigers finished with the second-best rotation ERA in the American League, behind Tampa Bay. But the staff dominated in the second half, lowering its ERA from 4.21 to 3.28 -- Fister, Scherzer and Verlander ranked third, fourth and fifth in the AL in second-half ERA. Throw in a full season of Sanchez and it wouldn't surprise me if the Tigers end up with the best rotation in the AL in 2013, especially because Tampa Bay will have to replace James Shields.
If anything, this deal highlights the differences between operating a franchise that will spend money and one that either won't or is limited by its market size. The Royals had to trade a premium prospect to acquire two years of Shields. The Tigers can just dip into owner Mike Ilitch's wallet and sign a free agent -- this offseason, Torii Hunter and now Sanchez. The Royals might think of themselves as playoff contenders, but this signing makes it a little less likely that will be the case.