In the heat of the chase, it's easy to lose your head. Auctioneers know that the trick is to just get people in the door. Once that happens, the investment, the competition, the excitement and above all the urgency, take care of the price all by themselves.
And free agency is an auction. And Twins fans are feeling the urgency. And so, apparently, are the Twins.
In his latest story on the Twins offseason, Mike Berardino reports that the Twins have showed a willingness to at least consider offering a 3-year contract to 36-year-old right-hander Bronson Arroyo. If you’re an American League snob like me, you might remember Arroyo from his tumultuous years with the Red Sox through 2005 (or possibly from Bill Simmons description of the “Bronson Arroyo face”). He left for the National League, specifically Cincinnati, and has averaged 210 innings with a 4.05 ERA in the eight years since.
It ain’t because of his stuff. For the last five years, his averaged just 5.3 K/9, which (cheap shot alert) undoubtedly is what makes him irresistible to the Twins. He succeeds by keeping the ball on the ground and indeed his ERA has been closely linked to how many home runs he gives up each year. That bodes well for playing in Target Field, which is far friendlier to pitchers than the Reds’ Great American Ballpark. It doesn’t bode as well for a return to the American League.
Arroyo and his agent are fishing for a 3-year deal, and the team that offers it is likely to win his services, provided you define “win” as guaranteeing 36+ million dollars to a 37-year-old pitch-to-contact starter. Is that wise?
Of course not – but free agency rarely is. That’s the thing that can be so repulsive about signing a free agent: by definition the winning team is overpaying. When 29 teams won’t pay the price that the winning team is willing to pay, the odds are stacked against them from the start. So let’s ask another question – is Arroyo likely to be productive through his 39th season?
Historically, no. First, there is the type: low strikeout pitchers far too often end up like Carlos Silva, Joe Mays or more recently, Scott Diamond. When their stuff dips just a bit, or their control slips a little, or the ground balls turn to fly balls, or the fly balls turn to home runs, things can go south in a hurry. Strikeouts are a safety net that they don't have.
Second, there is just the issue of health. Pitchers get hurt, especially when they've been used a lot. 36-year-olds get hurt too. And 36-year-old pitchers who have been used a lot? You know the answer to that, don’t you Joe Nathan?
Finally, looking at Arroyo's closest comparable pitchers from baseball-reference.com, you find a lot of guys whose careers ended right about now. His top 5 are John Burkett, Todd Stottlemyre, Tim Belcher, Esteban Loaiza and John Lieber. None of them has success past his age.
Twins fans know numbers six and seven on that list: Kevin Tapani and Scott Erickson. Tap had a 4.49 ERA when he was 37 and then his career was over. Erickson only pitched 66 more innings over two years after he turned 37, and had a 6.35 ERA. But to be fair, all of these guys showed serious signs of decline well before this point, unlike Arroyo.
Regardless, Arroyo is not a good bet to age well - but he hasn’t been a good bet to age well for five years running. And the Twins can certainly afford to overpay right now – but they might wish they had that money for a more reliable starter in 2016.
Ultimately, I can’t believe Arroyo is so much of an outlier from historical precedence. I wouldn’t totally rule out the third year. Perhaps, like Berardino says of the Twins, I might give “indications they might be willing to go that far.” But I think we're getting caught up in the heat of the auction, and there are still lots of items on which to bid. I’d look long and hard at the other pitchers first, opting to pay that 2016 money up front to someone who is a little safer bet.
There's a lot of offseason talk in the TwinsDaily forums this week. My favorite? Would you have traded Joe Mauer for Prince Fielder, now that Mauer is moving to first base?