Commentary

Welcome to the free-agent graveyard

As Yanks consider what to offer Sabathia, here are some cautionary tales

Updated: October 24, 2011, 4:02 PM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

CC Sabathia & A.J. BurnettAP Photo/Kathy WillensWhen it comes to fat free-agent contracts for pitchers, you have to take the bad with the good.

Of the 10 biggest free-agent pitching contracts of all time, you can make a compelling argument that so far A.J. Burnett's is one of the five best. That's how poorly these investments have turned out.

And that is the knowledge the New York Yankees have to consider as they assemble a new offer for 31-year-old CC Sabathia, who is expected to opt out of the final four years of his seven-year, $161 million deal.

The only free-agent contract among the Top 10 that worked out for the full term was Mike Mussina's. Starting with a six-year, $88.5 million deal, Mussina finished 134-87 with a 3.87 ERA in eight seasons in pinstripes. The Yankees never won a title, but that wasn't Mussina's fault.

Sabathia has made $64 million over three seasons, and he's been worth every penny -- and that's saying something. Sabathia led the Yankees to a championship his first year and has averaged 20 wins a season. It has been a tremendous contract for everyone involved. But does that mean he'll be worth the same rate for another seven years, or more?

[+] EnlargeMike Mussina
M. David Leeds/Getty ImagesHere's a guy who was worth the money.

For our examination here we are focusing on free-agent deals, so that leaves out the now-questionable contracts of Johan Santana (six years and $137 million) and Carlos Zambrano (five years and $91 million), among others.

Also, we have intentionally excluded Cliff Lee's $120 million contract from last year, because he is only one season in and it is too early to judge. So Mussina's was a good deal, Sabathia's is expected to be cut short and Lee's is to be determined, leaving us with a not-so-elite eight and some illuminating reminders as the Yankees decide how aggressive to be with Sabathia.

Barry Zito, San Francisco Giants, 2006
The Damage:
7 years, $126 million
The Output: The Giants won the 2010 World Series. OK, Zito didn't pitch in last year's playoffs, but still, they won.

Zito led the NL in losses his second season with the Giants and generally has been a nonfactor. Overall, he is 43-61 with a 4.55 ERA in his five seasons. He still has two more years on his deal, but after posting a 5.87 ERA in just 53 2/3 innings this season, who thinks he is going to turn it around?

He actually has a team option for 2014, but the Giants will likely cut their losses and give him his $7 million buyout instead of the $18 million he would earn. Zito was 29 when he signed his contract.

Mike Hampton, Colorado Rockies, 2000
The Damage: 8 years, $121 million
The Output: After fleeing the New York Mets following the 2000 Subway Series, a then-28-year-old Hampton lasted just two years in Colorado. He went 21-28 with a 5.75 ERA. The Rockies shipped him to Atlanta, where he was mostly a journeyman-level pitcher. Worst of all for Hampton, his kids never got to fully take advantage of the wonderful Colorado schools.

Kevin Brown, Los Angeles Dodgers, 1998
The Damage: 7 years, $105 million
The Output: Brown signed his deal at 34 years old. He lasted five seasons with the Dodgers before being shipped to the Yankees. When he pitched for L.A., he wasn't bad at all. He was actually pretty good. His overall record was 58-23 with a 2.83 ERA. However, in two of his seasons, he made only 30 starts combined. According to the Mitchell report, the Dodgers suspected he used steroids.

Personality-wise, the cranky Brown was no CC, which everyone in New York got to see when he came to the Bronx for his final two seasons.

John Lackey, Boston Red Sox, 2009
The Damage: 5 years, $82.5 million
The Output: Lackey is 26-23 with a 5.26 ERA in his two years with the Red Sox. He just turned 33 and it doesn't seem as if things are going to improve in Boston for him.

He seems destined to be remembered more for beer and fried chicken, among other things, than pitching.

A.J. Burnett, New York Yankees, 2008
The Damage: 5 years, $82.5 million
The Output: You know much of this story. Burnett has become the first Yankees starter with 150 innings and a plus-5.00 ERA in consecutive seasons in the club's history. He is 39-40 with a 4.79 ERA.

Burnett, though, did win Game 2 of the World Series in 2009 and he pitched OK in Game 4 of the ALDS this season. Still, the Yankees need Sabathia so badly in large part because Burnett is so bad.

Chan Ho Park, Texas Rangers, 2001
The Damage: 5 years, $65 million
The Output: Park pitched for only three seasons in Texas. He was 14-18 with a 5.85 ERA.

Derek Lowe, Atlanta Braves, 2008
The Damage: 4 years, $60 million
The Output: Scott Boras convinced Atlanta to give Lowe this deal even though Lowe will be 39 in the final year. Thus far, Lowe is 40-39 with a 4.57 ERA. It may be better than Burnett's contract, but if it is, it is not by much. This season, Lowe had a league-worst 17 losses.

Kevin Millwood, Texas Rangers, 2005
The Damage: 5 years, $60 million
The Output: Millwood was 48-46 with a 4.57 ERA and lasted four of the five years in Texas. He also may have been better than Burnett, but he didn't have the opportunity for the couple of big moments that Burnett has had. Boras got Millwood this contract, as well.

You can argue that Sabathia has nothing in common with the names on this list. That may be true. He does seem to be a cut above. But Hampton, for example, had just led the Mets to the World Series and looked as if he were in his prime, not about to go south.

Sabathia has been the complete opposite of Hampton so far. His three years have been magnificent. But if you add another six or seven years, then even the big man could end up on a short list like this one day.

Ultimately, it is hard to see how the Yankees can let Sabathia leave. He has been too good and there is no easy replacement. But we may look back six or seven years from now and say that would have been the right move.

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

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