Tossing around the pitching market

Baseball allows itself one week off a year, the time between Christmas and New Year's when husbands and wives reintroduce themselves to spouses and children, and so the days leading up to this self-imposed vacation tend to be hectic. Take Monday, for example, when an attempt to sort out this wacky starting pitching market made it all the more complicated.

There was the New York Yankees' late-night endeavor to trade for a starter, a deal that will bring them right-hander Javier Vazquez(notes) and reliever Boone Logan(notes) for outfielder Melky Cabrera(notes), lefty Mike Dunn and pitching prospect Arodys Vizcaino.

The Dodgers could add Aaron Harang to their starting rotation if they fork over reliever George Sherrill and a prospect to the Reds.
(AP Photo)

And word from sources that the Los Angeles Dodgers' pursuit of Aaron Harang(notes) is not, in fact, dead, and that a trade sending reliever George Sherrill(notes) to the Cincinnati Reds remains possible. The holdup: The Reds want a prospect of some merit from Los Angeles in addition to Sherrill – especially since Cincinnati is willing to eat nearly $10 million of Harang's $14 million salary and thus keep the deal a financial wash for the skid-row Dodgers – and also need to find a taker for Sherrill. The former closer, who should earn about $4.3 million in arbitration, would serve as trade bait for the Reds, who want to hoard prospects.

Plus the Washington Nationals' signing of Jason Marquis(notes) to a two-year, $15 million deal. That's right. Jason Marquis. He of 140 baserunners in 92 2/3 second-half innings. It comes with Joel Pineiro(notes) and Jarrod Washburn(notes) and Justin Duchscherer(notes) and Pedro Martinez(notes) and Doug Davis(notes) and Jon Garland(notes) and Brett Myers(notes) and Vicente Padilla(notes) and Braden Looper(notes) – all in Marquis' talent ZIP code – still trolling for contracts. Not to mention Aroldis Chapman and Ben Sheets(notes) and Erik Bedard(notes), the three most talented free agents remaining, bugaboos – inexperience for the former, injuries for the latter two – be damned. And lest we forget Lowe, Arroyo, Zach Duke(notes), Paul Maholm(notes), Kevin Correia(notes), Jonathan Sanchez(notes), Jeff Suppan(notes) and any number of Detroit Tigers available via trade.

That makes a dozen serviceable free agents, another half dozen eminently gettable for minor leaguers or salary relief, and a market for starting pitching that simply doesn't seem prepared to support what is a relative glut. Relative being a necessary descriptor because Padilla and Looper aren't exactly to pitching what Ben & Jerry are to ice cream.

Look at the baseball landscape. The Yankees needed another starter so they didn't have to choose two from the Joba Chamberlain(notes)-Phil Hughes-Chad Gaudin(notes) grab bag. The Los Angeles Angels could use a starter after John Lackey's(notes) defection to Boston. And with Seattle sending Brandon Morrow(notes) to Toronto on Monday night, as reported, the Mariners will pursue a No. 3.

Beyond that are the New York Mets, who underbid on Marquis while devoting their resources to a lineup that could use a facelift, tummy tuck and Botox. And Philadelphia, which understands that championships are not made with 47-year-olds in the rotation. As far as sure things to grab a pitcher, that's about it.

Yes, Milwaukee could use a complement to recent acquisition Randy Wolf(notes) and St. Louis one to Brad Penny(notes). Arizona is a good signing away from a scary rotation. Colorado would like another pitcher, as would Houston and Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and San Diego, only there is the same issue that the Dodgers have: Funds, in this $6 billion game, are somehow limited.

Which provides this offseason's conundrum: If that is the case, how does the market for starting pitchers remain so healthy? How can a pitcher such as Wolf, who prior to the previous two seasons struggled the four injury-riddled years, get $29.75 million over three seasons? And how do six solid starts with San Francisco mostly against mediocre competition earn Penny $7.5 million in 2010?

Most curious of all is the Nationals overpaying Marquis to … show their young pitchers mediocrity incarnate? No. To confirm to the nation that Washington is serious about stimulating the economy? Please. To prove the Nationals really, truly want to improve? That is the intent, yes, the thrust of this exercise that preys on teams year after year and lures them in. No bottom-of-the-division team should ever luxuriate itself with an average pitcher who commands market-level dollars. That's not commitment. It's bad decision-making.

It all returns to the simple axiom: Pitching wins games, and even if the market seems skewed toward the clubs, they will find a way to offer top dollar. It gives hope to the dozen free agents looking for a job, though they know better than to find comfort in it. Martinez last year wanted a guaranteed $5 million. He sat out the first four months and ended up getting $1.5 million. Now he's asking for $8 million, according to a source, because if Penny and Marquis are getting almost that much, well, he's Pedro, and he deserves that, too.

There could come a point at which the market turns, when the teams realize the supply-demand scale is indeed tipped in their favor, and then the money will dry up. Teams will go hard after bargains such as Chien-Ming Wang(notes) – who started throwing Dec. 1 and, agent Alan Nero said, "we believe will be ready to start a big league game in the first week of May" – because the other free agents won't accept anything less than their perceived value.

For now, the reality holds that lots of pitchers need jobs, not as many teams need pitchers and the cost remains high nonetheless. The wacky pitching market is in full force, and not even a holiday break may be enough to stop it.