On the pitching market

I’m going to put aside Dan Haren for the purpose of this post. I figure he will — and should — cost a ton in prospects if the D-backs decide to deal him, and his contract is reasonable enough that teams with more premium prospects than the Mets can make a pitch for him if he becomes available. Plus I’m not certain why the D-backs would be eager to trade a great pitcher signed to a reasonable contract through 2012 with an option for 2013. Rebuilding processes don’t take that long; Haren should be part of Arizona’s long-term plans, not part of a firesale.

Instead I’d like to look at Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt, the two top-flight pitchers most frequently rumored to be available this season. Initially, I figured there was no way the Mississippi-born Oswalt would waive his no-trade clause to join the Mets, but he has since suggested he would. So dehumanizing this as much as possible, I want to compare Lee and Oswalt as commodities.

Lee is a better pitcher than Oswalt. By WAR, he has been worth 1.5 wins more than Oswalt in 2010. And Oswalt is enjoying his best season in three, so he’s more likely to regress in the second half of the season (though it’s hard to imagine Lee maintaining his historically good peripherals).

Frankly, I have no idea what either will cost. The Mariners traded three prospects for Lee in the offseason, only one of whom cracked Baseball America‘s Top 100 prospects list — Phillippe Aumont, who was No. 93.

But then teams don’t necessarily measure prospects the same way Baseball America does, plus that deal now looks like a complete fleecing. The Mariners were paying for a full year of Lee (plus the draft picks he’ll bring when he flees for free agency) and a team acquiring him now would be trading for a half season (plus the picks). But again, players seem to be worth more at the trade deadline than in the offseason, and it appears unlikely the Mariners will receive less value in young players than what they traded for Lee.

So in short, no clue. If I had to guess, I’d say it takes at least one high-end young player or prospect and 1-2 promising midrange guys for Lee, but that’s pure speculation.

But because Lee is signed to a reasonable deal that ends after this season and Oswalt is signed to an expensive deal that runs through 2011, there may be a disproportionate difference in their costs. Every competitive team could reasonably make a play for Lee, since none will be hamstrung by his contract. Only the teams that can afford to take on the $18 million guaranteed to Oswalt after 2010 can bid for his services.

That means there should be significantly more teams in the mix for Lee than for Oswalt. More competition means the Mariners can ask for more in return, driving Lee’s price higher.

So though Lee is inarguably better and would do more to help the Mets contend in 2010, it strikes me that the Mets might actually be better-served pursuing Oswalt. Granted, that assumes the Mets have — and will continue to have — some payroll flexibility, and I don’t know anything about their budget. But theoretically, the high salary should mean less to the Mets than most MLB clubs and the prospects — since they don’t have a whole lot of them — should mean more.

Of course, there’s that whole human element to consider. Oswalt has been the Astros’ ace for a long time now and certainly means a lot to that franchise. They may not be motivated to deal him — even with his big contract — without receiving top-flight talent in return. So again, who the hell knows? Consider this post useless.

8 thoughts on “On the pitching market

  1. Ted, what about reports that Oswalt insists on having that option guaranteed before he agrees on any trade. That drives a possible 18 mil after ’10 to 32 mil after ’10. Still do the trade? I’d be very hesitant.

    • Interesting, but if that’s true, it should drive his price in prospects down even further, no? Oswalt almost certainly won’t be worth $16 million in 2012, but he has been among the most consistently healthy starting pitchers in the Majors since he came up. He’ll be 34 in 2012 so the injury risk is greater, but it’s still reasonable to assume he’ll make 30 not-terrible starts. That’s not worth $16 million, but it’s worth something.

      • I suppose it depends on the prospects. BTW, I’d recommend reconsidering the white text on grey/white “reply” button

      • Interesting to say “30 not-terrible starts” not worth $16 mil. what’s the per-cost of not-terrible Ollie starts?

        also, considering the market for pitchers this past off-season-which seemed inflated, what is the value to the franchise of playing deep into October. I’ve been reading that ticket sales are off 20% at Citi. granted, this was before they were in contention for the division lead.

        I’m still confused about the Wilpons’ financial philosophy; with a new stadium and television network in the largest market in the country, why not spend more (wisely) to create buzz and excitement?

  2. I use the Sabathia-to-the-Brewers trade in ’07 as a guide for what the Mets should offer to the M’s for Lee. If you recall, in that trade the Brewers sent four players to the Tribe: 1B/OF Matt LaPorta, P’s Zack Jackson and Rob Bryson, and a player to be named later (who turned out to be OF Michael Brantley). At the time, LaPorta was considered a top 100/four star prospect and the other guys were filler/three star-or-so prospects.

    Thus, in constructing a similar trade proposal for Lee, I would trade the following players: either F-Mart or Flores, Thole (the M’s are said to want a catcher, after all), and any two live arms from our system that they want NOT named Mejia (I’m thinking Holt and Familia here). Seem like a fair trade?

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