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Friday, November 9, 2012
For FA starters, it's buyer beware

By Jeremy Lundblad
ESPNBoston.com

The Boston Red Sox need to add a starting pitcher.

You'll have to forgive those who don't want it to come via free agency.

Over the past 25 years, Boston has made repeated attempts to address the rotation with free agents.

With a few exceptions, it has proved disastrous.

It started with Matt Young and Danny Darwin, who were both vastly overpaid following the 1990 season. At 35, Darwin got a four-year deal during which he'd average fewer than 10 wins. Young only lasted for two of his three years before getting released.

In the next offseason, the big splash was Frank Viola, who was solid for two years, but missed the final season of his deal after elbow surgery.

The ensuing decade brought Steve Avery, Bret Saberhagen and Ramon Martinez -- a who's who of washed-up former stars.

The biggest free-agent signings of the past 10 years have been Matt Clement, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and, of course, John Lackey.

Those three represent the largest free-agent contracts Boston has ever inked with a starting pitcher.

All three proved to be massive disappointments.

Lackey and Clement each missed a full season due to injury, while Matsuzaka managed only 18 starts in his final two seasons combined. All three had seasons in which they finished with ERAs over 6.00.

Indeed, Boston's best pitchers over the past quarter century have come via trade (Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Derek Lowe, Josh Beckett), the draft (Roger Clemens, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz) or the scrap heap (Tim Wakefield).

In other words, everywhere but offseason free agency.

So why should this offseason be any different?

From the start, it was clear Boston overpaid by giving Lackey $82.5 million. It matched A.J. Burnett's deal from the previous year as the most money given to a free agent who had never finished in the top two of the Cy Young voting.

However, coming off five straight sub-4.00 ERA seasons, Lackey seemed destined to be a solid, albeit overpaid, starter. Few forecasted his subsequent implosion.

Indeed, there's only one current free agent who is more of a "sure thing" than Lackey was three years ago: Zack Greinke.

Rarely is an elite starter on the open market before turning 30. A former Cy Young winner, Greinke figures to attract nine-figure offers.

Yet, as Boston learned with Lackey, even the most consistent pitchers can be sidetracked during a long-term deal.

Prior to last year, 20 five-year deals were handed to free-agent pitchers since 1990. Eight of those pitchers, including Lackey, missed at least one full season. That doesn't even include pitchers like Matsuzaka or Chan Ho Park, who missed significant portions of seasons.

After Greinke, there's a steep drop in talent.

At 28, Anibal Sanchez's best seasons could still be in front of him. However, he's missed significant portions of three seasons with injuries to his throwing shoulder.

Would you hand $50 million to a pitcher who has never won 15 games and has already had surgeries on his elbow ligament and labrum?

Someone will. History shows that would likely be a mistake. Six pitchers have received free agent contracts of at least $35 million without a 15-win season on their resumes.

Of those six, only one (Ted Lilly) arguably performed to the level of his contract.

Darren Dreifort, Gil Meche, Carlos Silva, Oliver Perez and Wilson Alvarez round out the list. Those five contracts brought 73 wins while earning $229 million.

The lesson? Don't pay for mediocrity hoping it will be something more than that.

If a pitcher has reached free agency, he's had a significant enough sample size to measure his value. Granted, wins are a team stat, which makes them an imperfect measure of pitcher's success. However, if a free agent hasn't managed 15 wins in any single season, it points to a lack of sustained success.

 Edwin Jackson
Is Edwin Jackson the next Matt Clement? Let's hope the Red Sox don't pay to find out.

For the Red Sox, the best example of this is Clement. In 2004, he was signed to a three-year, $22.5 million contract. At the time, it was the richest deal the Red Sox had ever handed a free-agent pitcher.

What had he done to deserve it? Posted a sub-.500 career record (69-75), while never winning 15 games or making an All-Star team.

For the next three seasons, Clement would be the second-highest paid pitcher on the Red Sox. He managed 18 wins in that span, ultimately making just 44 starts.

Sanchez isn't the only starter seemingly destined to cash in on sustained decent pitching before the age of 30.

Edwin Jackson helped guide the Washington Nationals, his seventh team in eight years, to the postseason. He's never had 15 wins, and only twice managed a sub-4.00 ERA.

Jackson is durable (six straight seasons of 30 or more starts) and solid. Some team will look at his age (29) and convince themselves they aren't paying him for past performance.

In other words, Jackson is Clement. But he'll likely get even more money than Clement got eight years ago.

So how can Boston avoid its mistakes of the past?

Outside of Greinke, Sanchez, Jackson and possibly Dan Haren, there isn't a free agent starter worthy of a contract longer than two years.

Unless Ben Cherington decides to make the plunge on Greinke, he'd be better served looking at short-term options.

Boston has the financial flexibility to overpay aging starters like Hiroki Kuroda or Ryan Dempster, though there will be plenty of competition for their services.

The best strategy might be to buy low on pitchers coming off of injuries.

Haren, Brandon McCarthy and Shaun Marcum have all pitched at a high level in recent years, but should come at a steep discount due to injury concerns.

While they do come with risks, each could be a rarity for Boston: a free-agent bargain.