In a move that would shock even Marvin Miller and probably makes Pablo Sandoval feel disrespected yet again, the Boston Red Sox this week announced a four-year, $82.5 million contract for their number two by default starter Rick Porcello. Reigning AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber recently signed an extension that will pay him only $38 million over five years. Kluber and his agent are no doubt now wishing they had not yet put pen to paper with the Indians.
In 2016, there will be 13 more pitchers who join Porcello in making more than $20 million per year. He is by far the worst, and unless the final threads holding together Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow disintegrate sometime this season, Porcello will probably generate the least value for his team over the life of his contract. Of the 39 pitchers on MLB rosters who have thrown 1,000 innings since 2009, Porcello ranks near the bottom in career ERA and cumulative WAR. His 10.6 career WAR puts him in the company of such names as Jason Vargas, Trevor Cahill, and Ian Kennedy, who will all earn about $10 million this season.
No matter how you slice and dice the numbers, the Red Sox overpaid massively for a mediocre sinker-baller who allowed more than a hit an inning in a 2014 season that was considered a breakout year. To each their own, I suppose. The Red Sox play ball in a different financial bracket than most of the league, and are able to pay nearly as much for a semi-replacement level pitcher as their former ace Jon Lester now makes with the Cubs on an annual basis.
This contract does, however, have some implications for the Baltimore Orioles and their efforts to sign their best pitcher (notice I refrain from using the word ace), Chris Tillman to an extension. The Orioles and Tillman talked about an extension over the winter, but did not reach an agreement before the Opening Day deadline set by the pitcher and his agents. Tillman is not eligible for free agency until after the 2017 season, so the Orioles have some time to continue working towards a deal.
After struggling to stick in the Majors and posting a 5.58 ERA and 7-15 record the first three seasons of his career, Tillman has turned himself into a reliable innings eater and All-Star for the Orioles. Since 2012, he is 39-16 with a 3.40 ERA. Tillman’s peripheral numbers do not exactly back up the strong results and beg the question whether or not a serious regression is coming. The right-hander’s career strikeout rate of 6.7 K/9 is good, not great. He is a fly-ball pitcher, who last year allowed a career-low 6.7% HR/FB ratio. Fielding Independent Pitching is also not so kind to Tillman, and he has not posted a full season with a FIP below 4.00 in his career.
At what point do the analysts have to accept the fact that Chris Tillman has found a way to pitch effectively in the Major Leagues despite what the numbers tell you? I do not believe that three years can be considered a blip on the radar like Chris Johnson’s .321 BA in 2013. No, Tillman is not a Clayton Kershaw or David Price type ace, but he is good enough to lead a staff on a team like the Orioles. The results (not the statistics!) he has delivered the past three seasons point to him being a much better pitcher than Rick Porcello.
The free agent and extension markets are inherently different, especially for a pitcher who is three seasons away from hitting the open market. The early career ups-and-downs have delayed Tillman’s free agency to the point that he will not be able to test the waters before his thirties. Porcello, on the other hand, reached the Majors extremely quickly, and was above average enough to stick with the Tigers since his age 20 season. He would have been entering free agency at only 27, much younger than most. However, given the fact that he has already thrown over 1,000 Major League innings, should his age really be seen as a means of predicting future value?
Tillman was arbitration eligible for the first time following the 2014 season, and received the second highest amount for a pitcher in their first year of arbitration eligibility, $4,315,000. That number is only going to get bigger as Tillman nears arbitration. There is no danger of Tillman getting close to the record $19.75 million that Price will earn in his final go-round of arbitration, or even the previous record of $15.25 million set by Max Scherzer, but his arbitration salary could easily approach eight figures.
The market for starting pitchers is only going to go higher, especially as the amount of TV money lining the coffers of MLB franchises increases. If Chris Tillman continues pitching as he has the past three seasons into his free agency, and does not sign an extension prior, he will no doubt command upwards of $20 million per season. The talks for an extension are reportedly tabled for now, but one would assume will begin in even greater earnest following the 2015 season. The Porcello deal will not influence the value of Tillman’s contract extension. Where it should have influence is in the Orioles sense of urgency in getting an extension done.
Failing to get an extension done before the start of this season is not necessarily a bad thing. It gives the Orioles one more season to fully evaluate whether or not the numbers lie when it comes to Tillman, and makes it easier to buy out free agent years down the road. A five-year extension signed this winter buys out one less valuable free agent year than a similar extension signed next year.
One thing, however, is set in stone; the Orioles will not be the team to set the market like the Red Sox did with Porcello. When an extension with Tillman gets done — and I fully expect it will after this season — look for the Orioles to align themselves with recent contracts like Matt Harrison’s five-year, $55 million extension with the Rangers or Phil Hughes’ five-year $58 million deal with the Twins. Tillman will not be in line for a sweetheart deal like the one the White Sox got with Chris Sale for five years, $32 million guaranteed thanks to his service time. They may even be forced to use the four-year, $50 million deal handed to Ubaldo Jimenez as a starting point.
The Orioles can afford Tillman at $12-13 million per season. They cannot afford him at what will probably be $23-24 open market value by the time he hits free agency. The pitching market is in a crazy place right now, and there is no way to predict where it will stand by the 2018 season. Tillman has proven himself to be a valuable big league pitcher — more valuable than Porcello — and the Orioles should not feel the need to go year-to-year with him as he nears free agency. An extension rewards both sides, giving the pitcher a raise during his arbitration eligible seasons, while giving the club savings in the first would-be years of free agency.