Making their pitch

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

No, the apocalypse is not upon us. Black is not white, pigs can't fly and Britney Spears has not discovered the novel concept of wearing undergarments in public.

It's just that … well, even the New York Yankees are taken aback by the cost of free agents in this marketplace. And when the Yankees are practicing financial restraint, it's fair to think the earth might be spinning off its axis in other places, too.

"Right now," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said, "we just don't like the prices."

Which is why this week the Yankees took a Brinksful of cash and landed the negotiating rights to Japanese left-hander Kei Igawa for $26 million. Cashman can envision the activity at the Swan and Dolphin Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where baseball's winter meetings begin Monday: The pitching market finally sorting itself out, and agents frothing for their clients to get a slice of the riches teams have lavished on hitters.

Four weeks ago, Igawa would not have cost $26 million, plus another $16 million to $20 million he's expected to get for a four-year contract. That was B.C. – before craziness. In the last month, the Boston Red Sox have offered $51.1 million to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka, and probably will pony up another $50 million to sign him. Alfonso Soriano got $136 million and Carlos Lee $100 million. And with teams starting to rain money on pitchers – Adam Eaton, a perennial underachiever, signed for three years and $24.5 million with the Philadelphia Phillies – New York went big on the posting fee, figuring it's not under the auspices of the luxury tax.

For the Yankees, a $40 million deal for Ted Lilly or Gil Meche or Jeff Suppan or Vicente Padilla – all No. 3 starters at best – would actually cost $56 million, since they pay a 40 percent penalty on every payroll dollar. While other teams don't have that problem, they do rake in far less revenue than the Yankees, and $40 million for four years for a middle-of-the-rotation starter is a hard-to-digest reality.

"I don't know what those guys will wind up getting," Cashman said, "but I get a sense of where the market appears to be heading, and that's what pushed us in the direction of Igawa and the non-taxable money. He's not dissimilar to those players. And we think there might be better value there."

Value contract is almost oxymoronic this offseason. Performance is no longer the lone avenue to long-term deals. One scout's assessment of the mid-level starters' best attributes: Lilly is left-handed, Meche has potential, Suppan is sturdy, Padilla has good stuff. And that's enough to interest at least a half-dozen teams.

Teams believe starting pitching is the foundation for championships, and whether that's true – it has been so most of this decade – the axiom alone means millions. In any market, Barry Zito, the top pitcher available, and Jason Schmidt, a close second, would rake in money. Teams with money to spend, such as the New York Mets, Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners, would ensure that.

Where the Lillys, Meches Suppans, Padillas and Jeff Weavers of the world cash in is with a free-agent class as deep as a kiddie pool and a market flush enough to cover an ocean in Benjamins. Starting pitching is that rarity: a luxury that happens to be a necessity.

As such, teams with a full complement of competent starters will be glad that room-to-room calls at the Swan and Dolphin are free. The Chicago White Sox have six starting pitchers and could unload Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland, Javier Vazquez or Mark Buehrle. With Randy Wolf on board, and with left-hander Scott Elbert rising quickly, the Los Angeles Dodgers have room to maneuver.

"We have five starters and feel fortunate to have five starters," said Cleveland Indians general manager Mark Shapiro, who regularly gets inquiries about Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee. "We're not looking to deal, and I don't view it as an area of depth. Because saying you have starting pitching depth is a dangerous term. You're always a moment away from going from a strength to a weakness."

Last season, Boston considered its starting pitching enough of a strength to trade Bronson Arroyo in spring training and move Jonathan Papelbon into the bullpen. Following a season in which Kyle Snyder, Lenny DiNardo, Jason Johnson, Kasson Gabbard, Kevin Jarvis, David Pauley and Devern Hansack started games for the Red Sox, they're primed to give Matsuzaka around nine figures and shift Papelbon back to the rotation.

Ever cognizant, the Yankees will add Igawa to a rotation of Chien-Ming Wang, Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina and, for now, Carl Pavano. If Andy Pettitte wants to return to New York for another season, a one-year deal could fit in the Yankees' plans.

"I don't think we need to do anything," Cashman said. "If we can, and it makes sense to us, we'll be aggressive. But we don't have to. If we get Igawa signed, we'll have five starters, and we have protection."

By that he means right-hander Philip Hughes, arguably the best pitching prospect in the game, and Humberto Sanchez, a right-hander acquired from the Detroit Tigers in the Gary Sheffield trade. And there's always Scott Proctor, the workhorse reliever who started in college and the minor leagues.

Of course, that would leave the Yankees with a gaping hole in the bullpen, and with the Baltimore Orioles giving Danys Baez $19 million for three years, relief pitching might be the only market more overpriced than starting pitching.

For the straightforwardness of free agents' current dictum – pay me, and pay me well – this is bound to be a complicated week. What is too much? Which team can best apply the ever-morphing definition of value? Who will save their money for next season, when the free-agent class of Ichiro Suzuki, Andruw Jones, Vernon Wells, Bobby Abreu, Carlos Guillen and Carlos Zambrano will classify a true bonanza?

"Some people are going to look very smart," Cashman said, "and some are going to have big regrets."

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