Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Jason Schmidt

Last offseason, the Dodgers signed Jason Schmidt to a three-year, $47 million contract. LA took the same approach they did with Rafael Furcal, trading a higher average annual value for a shorter deal.

The deal was generally praised by statheads, who were impressed that a marquee starting pitcher was locked up for only three years. I liked the deal as well, rating it just below Greg Maddux as the best starting pitcher signing of the winter. Of course, I also thought that the acquisition of Luis Gonzalez made sense. Hindsight...

Now, Schmidt is having serious arm issues, including a possible rotator cuff injury, and there is talk that his career may be over. If so, this will quickly descend from being one of the better signings of the winter to one of the worst contracts of all time. In light of this new information, should we re-evaluate the decision to sign Schmidt?

Probably not.

I didn't consider Schmidt a huge injury risk for a pitcher; he had made at least 29 starts for five straight years, and only once in the past ten years had he failed to take the mound 25 times. His mechanics and statistics didn't point to any major issues.

Of course, the Dodgers and Giants have access to far more information than I do. Though the Dodgers didn't know at the time what kind of contract Barry Zito would sign, it is telling that the Giants were willing to sign such an enormous deal for a durable pitcher rather than bring Schmidt back for far less money and years.

Perhaps the Dodgers' team doctors should have found something wrong with Schmidt's right arm, but it's more likely this is just another data point in the case for not signing marquee free-agent pitchers to big contracts.

With his move to the DL, Schmidt re-joins the rich list of Mike Hampton, A.J. Burnett, Chris Carpenter, B.J. Ryan, Pedro Martinez, et al, although he did miss Kevin Millwood, who recently returned to his job pitching terribly for the Rangers. If you look at a list of the biggest contracts ever given to pitchers, it's really stunning how little value is returned on the dollar.

As a Cubs fan, I have long lamented management's 1992 decision to sign Ryne Sandberg to a big contract and let Greg Maddux walk. Obviously this turned out to be the wrong move, but it's not hard at all to envision a parallel universe where Sandberg--who had been the more valuable player in the years leading up to 1992--ages gracefully, while Maddux develops chronic injury problems and never wins another Cy Young. Indeed, Maddux's superhuman ability to stay healthy (and his good luck in avoiding freak accidents) may be the most important reason he will someday be in the Hall Of Fame and the Jason Schmidts of the world will not.

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