"We added a horse. His leadership in the clubhouse will be very important for us in the next eight years."
Some lucky general manager will be saying something along these lines in the very near future after signing prized free agent pitcher CC Sabathia to a contract. It will likely be a record-breaking deal that could approach – or even surpass – the $150 million mark.
Sabathia will, indeed, be a horse. He'll be a leader. And he'll probably be pretty darned studly on the mound. But if your team is the lucky one to land the portly left-hander, you had better hope he doesn't follow the pattern of previous pitchers to become $100-million men.
The quote above? That's what Colorado Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said after he signed left-hander Mike Hampton to an eight-year $121 million deal in 2000.
We all know what happened after that. Hampton was ineffective (like most pitchers) at Coors Field. His contract was a burden on the team's payroll, and his frequent injury problems didn't make things any better.
And Hampton was not alone. The other pitchers to sign deals for at least $100 million are Kevin Brown (seven years, $105 million from Dodgers in 1998), Barry Zito (seven years, $126 million in 2006) and Johan Santana (six-year, $137.5 million extension in 2007).
In the long run, were all of these guys overpaid? Certainly in the case of Hampton, the answer is yes.
What about Kevin Brown?
"I don't know how you put a price on everything that he brings in addition to the talent he has," Dodgers manager Davey Johnson said at the time.
But after starting his contract with a couple of strong seasons, Brown, who at 33 was the oldest of this group at the time of signing, broke down physically. He did manage one more All-Star season in 2003, but contrary to Johnson's optimism, Brown never had a reputation as a great clubhouse guy.
As for Zito, he's been plenty durable, just not very good. And anyone who was paying attention (obviously, Billy Beane was), could see that Zito's career was on a steady downward trend.
And here's a quote to make Giants fans shudder, uttered at the time of signing in 2006.
"I think Barry Zito will be the face of the Giants franchise for a long time," one sources close to the deal said.
For Sabathia and his new team, the hopeful model for success is Santana. The Mets left-hander has only finished the first year of his deal, but he was brilliant in 2008, and his numbers would've been even better with a halfway decent bullpen behind him.
Like Santana, Sabathia has thrived despite shouldering a heavy workload. Santana averaged 228 innings over the three seasons before his big deal, while Sabathia has averaged 230. Like Santana, Sabathia will be 28 when signing his mega-contract.
Sabathia is clearly the best pitcher on the free agent market. He has proven to be as durable and tough as he is talented. But is he worth the risk, and worth the money?
Time will tell, but the overall history of these deals has not been kind to pitchers, or the teams who sign them.
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