Pitchers and catchers, at least most of them, officially reported for work on Saturday. That means a deluge of “best shape of their life” and “contract talks are not progressing” stories are going to be filling up everyone’s twitter feeds in the coming days. Brewers’ fans have already been treated to some of both with pitcher Shaun Marcum. First, earlier this month Marcum mentioned to Todd Rosiak that he was working this off-season on strengthening his core and legs in an effort to imitate his college delivery. Then on Saturday, he revealed (again to Rosiak) that he is interested in talking about a long-term extension with the Brewers, but discussions have not yet taken place. Marcum recently came to terms on a 1 year contract buying out his final year of salary arbitration before he becomes eligible to test free agency following the upcoming season. Given that Marcum was last seen getting torched by both the Cardinals and Diamondbacks lineups in the playoffs, the Brewers appear perfectly happy to wait and see what Marcum does, at least for now. If and when the Brewers do decide to start talking with Marcum about being a Brewer past 2012, just what sort of numbers are going to be discussed?
It’s always hard to know exactly what a player might be looking for in a contract, unless their agent is Scott Boras, of course. Though there are obvious differences, perhaps the best place to start looking for a number is Mark Buerhle and his 4 year, 58 million dollar contract this off season. Buerhle obviously gets a big value boost due to his 11 straight seasons of 200 innings pitched, something Marcum can claim to have done only once, in 2011. Mitigating that advantage a bit is the fact that Marcum is almost 3 years younger. Beyond those differences, though, there are a lot of similarities. Both lack big time fastballs and thus rely on outstanding change ups and command to get outs. Over the past two years, Marcum accrued 6.3 wins above replacement while Buerhle accounted for 7.1. That’s close enough that an agent can compare them in talks and not get totally laughed out of the room. If Marcum hits the open market following a season similar to Buerhle’s last, it’s not hard to see his agent shooting for a 4 year deal somewhere in the 50 million dollar range. If the right team is desperate for pitching and is willing to ignore the health issues to a large degree, he might just get something in that neighborhood.
If those are indeed the sort of terms that Marcum and his agent will look for after a successful season, it’s quite possible a sort of catch-22 will emerge. Since the Brewers aren’t willing to sign him now, when his value is as low as it’s been since he demonstrated he was recovered from Tommy John surgery in 2010, the cost will only go up with productive play. On the other hand, if he struggles, there is little chance the team will be interested in any sort of a long-term deal anyway. In other words, the more interested the Brewers will become, the more his salary will escalate past the limits of what the team is likely willing to pay.
Further complicating matters is the fact that the Brewers are also in a holding pattern right now with the other pitcher they traded for last off-season, Zack Greinke. He’s likewise open to the idea of talking to the Brewers about his contract situation, but he doesn’t have an agent at the moment and it’s not at all clear just how and when discussions are going to take place. Given the contracts already on the books for Corey Hart, Aramis Ramirez, Rickie Weeks, Yovani Gallardo, and Ryan Braun over the next two years and beyond, it’s questionable whether the team has the flexibility to lock up one, let alone both. That means that any extension for one basically precludes the team from signing the other. So if the Brewers want to sign Greinke, they can’t really do much of anything with Marcum until that issue is first resolved. That makes it even more unlikely that the Brewers can make Marcum the sort of “buy low” offer before that could actually yield a bargain if he plays well in the coming months.
So what would be an acceptable Marcum extension if the team can’t sign Greinke? I posed the question Saturday on Twitter and the answers were mostly between 2-3 years at 7-10 million dollars annually, including 2012. Many also noted that they didn’t think that sort of offer would get a deal done, which is probably true. Early decline seems quite possible with his already limited fastball velocity 86.8 MPH average in 2011. Losing a few ticks on a 95 MPH fastball is one thing, but how many guys with an 84 or 85 MPH fastball have sustained success? He’s very productive when healthy, but has missed a lot of time and that’s just impossible to ignore when talking about a long-term contract extension. Ultimately, the Brewers are almost certainly better off doing everything in their power to lock up Greinke long term to a contract similar to the 5 year, 85 million dollar deal that Angels pitcher Jered Weaver inked last year. Of course, Greinke might have more in mind than that and could easily price himself out of Milwaukee with a stellar season if a deal isn’t done ahead of time. In that case, the Brewers will have to be very careful to avoid “settling” for Marcum at whatever price it takes just so they have something to show for their December 2010 trades going forward. The worst mistakes are often made when a team feels it simply has to do something, regardless of the merits and long term consequences.
(H/T to @BrewerNation)