In a previous post on this blog, I challenged commenters to identify some of the worst free agent signings in baseball history. The purpose was to gain some context to a free agent market that has gone balls-out gorilla cookies. I cited the signing of Gil "The Mess" Meche as the poster child for this insanity. Our friend Bronxtale met the challenge, confessed to being NY-centric, and offered up the pathetic, execrable Carl "Ow, My Tucches" Pavano as a nominee for all-time bust.
I've done a little number-crunching since we discussed it in the comments, and decided to blow the analysis up into a full post. Now be mindful, this is something of a fool's errand. Pavano has been a complete bust in retrospect, and of course, it's remotely conceivable that Meche could don his new Royals uniform and suddenly channel a young Bret Saberhagen. I'm merely endeavoring to analyze how stoopid (with two "o's") the Meche signing looks when compared to the Pavano signing at the same time, just two short years before (and by extension, this analysis can be applied to other fine fellas like Miguel Batista, Ted Lilly, and somebody who, since my previous post, may have zoomed past Meche ... Jason Marquis). I think you'll see that, by comparison, the Pavano signing was from an innocent, bygone era when owners behaved in a fiscally sound way.
When Carl Pavano was signed, he was simply one of the best pitchers in the world. He had a history of arm trouble, yes, but in the previous two seasons -- including his excellent post-season in '03 (for which he justifiably received extra credit in Yankeeland) -- Pavano had logged an average of 220 innings. In '03, he won 14 games with a 4.04 ERA, and in '04, he won 18 games with a 3.00 ERA, finishing 6th in the Cy Young voting. Manipulating his stats a little, from the end of the regular season in '03 to the end of the regular season in '04, Pavano chucked over 240 innings, was 20-8, with a 2.87 ERA, a 1.13 WHIP, and almost a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Also, FWIW, his last healthy stint before '03, in half a season in '00, he rolled up 8 wins with a 3.06 ERA. In sum, Pavano came to the free agent market entering the prime of his career, coming off a Cy Young caliber season, with a history of arm trouble but two consecutive years injury-free. He was pretty well proven to be an outstanding pitcher when healthy, and it was reasonable to speculate that his arm problems were finally behind him. There were questions about his "make up" and coming to New York, but surely his performance in the '03 post-season, including an 8-inning 1-run performance against the Yankees in Game 4 of the WS, offered some empirical evidence that he could pitch effectively in a pressure cooker. For this, he received 4 years at $10 million per year (actually, slightly less -- $39.95 million -- a dereliction for which he fired his agent for not securing the $40 mil that had been promised). It was a risk, to be sure, but an eminently reasonable one, especially in retrospect. It is worth adding that in '05, in his first 10 starts Pavano was 4-2 with a 3.69 ERA before the wing starting smarting -- again, proving to be a very good pitcher when healthy. And I haven't even mentioned Alyssa Milano.
Now compare this to The Mess. Gil Meche, frankly, has never had a good year. He's coming off two years in which he logged an average of only 165 innings, with a collective ERA of 4.75, a WHIP of 1.49 (yikes), and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of about 1.5-to-1 (double yikes). His only semi-good part-year was back in '00, when in 85 innings he managed to keep his ERA down to 3.78, but even then had a WHIP of 1.34 and the same wretched 1.5-to-1 K-to-BB ratio. Of course, he's had a history of arm woes similar to that of Pavano. In sum, Meche entered this year's free agent market with a history of ... wait for it ... being a freakin' bad pitcher. All he seemed to offer was a common understanding that he has "good stuff," and thus, perhaps in some world where numbers don't mean anything, he retains some residual perception as having upside (which he is surely less likely to realize on a bad team with a bad bullpen). Meche is also a year older than Pavano was when the contracts were signed (and to my knowledge does not have a celebrity girlfriend). For this package, The Mess received one more year and $1 more million per year than Pavano did just two short years before. That's a huge investment to be grounded on fantasies of people like Chris Carpenter and Jason Schmidt, who overcame arm woes and rank mediocrity to emerge as stars at similar points in their careers.
I don't think this analysis is offering any great revelation. That what is going on now is insane is news to nobody, but I think it puts the degree into a little perspective. The market was literally a much different world only two years ago. The Pavano signing looks horrible now. But if he was a free agent with the same track record this year, anybody care to venture a guess as to what his contract would be?
End note: I just read Mark McCloskey's recent post about free agent pitchers, and he conjured a name that surely now leapfrogs to the top of the list of all-time free agent busts: Chan Ho Park. Of course, you could write a similar post as to why, at the time, the signing of Ho made more sense than the signing of Meche. Pavano was at least good for 10 starts and then got hurt. Ho was ... er, a freakin' Ho from the first day he stepped on the field for the Rangers. Overnight, from good pitcher to somebody you wouldn't trust to get out a little leaguer.