After breaking out in 2010, Trevor Cahill(notes) and Clay Buchholz(notes) have just agreed to long-term extensions with the Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox, respectively. The money both will receive is virtually identical — they're guaranteed $30.5 million from 2011 to 2015 with additional club option years in 2016 and 2017 at $13 million and $13.5 million.
And yet they're far from identical pitchers, despite how similar their deals are.
Cahill is 23 years old and an extreme groundball pitcher with a sinking fastball that sits around 90. Though he struck out a lot of men in the minors, he hasn't gotten many strikeouts or swinging strikes in the big show. (He's doing much better in that department so far in 2011, though.)
On the other hand, Buchholz is 26. He gets fewer groundballs but strikes out more batters with a significantly zippier fastball.
Despite their differences, their teams have valued their services almost identically.
But despite their performances last year, they certainly didn't get paid like perennial Cy Young candidates — the blueprint for that kind of deal would be Felix Hernandez's(notes) $78 million over five years or Justin Verlander's(notes) $80 million over the same length.
Cahill and Buchholz instead got paid like just-below superstar young pitchers who are unlikely to repeat last year's performance over an extended period of time. Which is exactly correct. As I wrote a month and a half ago, "Pretty much everyone from optimist to pessimist, fan to foe, has Cahill projected for a step backward this year... I'm projecting major dropoffs in wins and ERA."
And as Lucas Apostoleris wrote of Buchholz, "If he maintains his peripherals from last year, one would expect his ERA to rise by about one and a half runs per nine innings."
Despite Oakland's great pedigree of developing pitchers, I believe it's Buchholz. Don't get me wrong: Cahill is a fine pitcher who could be great, particularly if his sinker is legit. His 56 percent groundball rate was fifth in baseball last year, and if he keeps that up he could be one of the best pitchers in the game. Since 2000, only four pitchers have maintained a groundball rate above 56 percent: Brandon Webb(notes), Derek Lowe(notes), Tim Hudson(notes),and Felix Hernandez. Roy Halladay(notes) is fifth on the list with a 55.6 percent groundball rate.
But Cahill also gets a worryingly low number of strikeouts, and in 2009 his groundball rate was a very pedestrian 47.8 percent.
Meanwhile, Buchholz gets more strikeouts, has a better fastball, and at nearly every point in the last five years he has been more highly regarded than Cahill, from the moment that they were drafted, Buchholz in the first round of the 2005 draft, Cahill in the second round of the 2006 draft. Throughout their time in the minors and majors, Buchholz has always had slightly better numbers than Cahill:
Cahill is three years younger, but their service time is virtually identical, and while hitters tend to peak at age 27 and begin to decline after that, it doesn't work that way for pitchers — mileage on the arm often matters more than age.
However, while Buchholz is likely to provide more value on the deal, Cahill is still a good deal for the A's. As Fangraphs' Chris Cwik points out, the deal is "shockingly similar to that of Jon Lester(notes), Ricky Romero(notes) ... and Yovani Gallardo(notes)," all of whom signed five-year deals for around $30 million. All are very good pitchers, and though Cahill appears to be the least well-regarded at the moment, he is a good pitcher right now with a chance to be great, if he can either improve his strikeouts or maintain his groundball rate. If he can manage both, he could be one of the best pitchers in the league.
Buchholz is a better pitcher now, though, and the Red Sox did well to sign him for the same money they paid Lester two years ago.