Minaya's Masterstroke

12.14.2004 | Tim Marchman | Sports

tim hed.jpgFrom The New York Sun

Assuming the deal goes through, the Mets’ signing of Pedro Martinez will prove to be a masterstroke.

Don’t confuse this signing with uninspired deals that brought the washed-up likes of Tom Glavine and Mo Vaughn to Flushing. Martinez is an inner-circle Hall of Famer, and there is good reason to think he’ll remain one of the best pitchers in baseball through the life of this contract. The reported four-year, $56 million price is apparently quite a lot more than anyone else was willing to pay; this is their loss. Players of Martinez’s caliber usually - not always, mind you - prove to be bargains.

The case against Pedro can be made on two points. The first is that he is in a continuing pattern of decline - his 2004 ERA was 3.90, the highest of his career. The second, related point, alleges that he is fragile, and a great health risk. Neither point is as strong as it seems.

While it’s true that Pedro isn’t the pitcher he was in 1999 and 2000, that’s a silly standard to hold him to. In those years he was better than Lefty Grove, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Roger Clemens, Tom Seaver, and Greg Maddux were in their best seasons. To point out that he is no longer pitching at the highest level in the recorded history of professional baseball is true, but it obscures the far more important fact that he is still one of the best in the game.

That 3.90 ERA was the ninth best in the American League this year, and follows a five-year span in which he won four ERA titles. It was partially a result of the fact that he was handled less carefully than he had been in past years. He pitched on four days’ rest more often than usual, and was more prone than usual to being utterly shelled.

If you’re so inclined, you can view this as evidence that he’s about to become Mike Morgan. You can also give some weight to the rest of his brilliant career and view this as evidence that at his absolute worst, in an off year in which he was not always given the rest he needs to perform at his best, Pedro was about as valuable as Houston’s Roy Oswalt.

As to Martinez’s supposed fragility, I just don’t see that as being an issue. In 2001 he missed a bit less than half the season with a shoulder problem; in the three years since then, he has averaged 200 innings pitched per year. There is a risk of traumatic or career ending injury, but there is such a risk with every pitcher. In any terms we can measure, the limitations Pedro’s injury puts on him don’t appear significant. They cost him speed on his fastball, but they didn’t affect his performance all that much. In 2002 and 2003, given extra rest, he had ERAs of 2.26 and 2.22; this year, with a more normal schedule, his ERA rose.

The concern over his shoulder is overstated to an almost hysterical degree. Before his injury, he was a great pitcher in his prime who needed careful handling; that’s exactly what he is now. Respect the fact that he needs extra rest and can’t throw more than 100 pitches in a game and you have a pitcher about as valuable as any in the game. Try to get some more work out of him and his per-inning effectiveness will drop, nonetheless leaving his overall value equal to that of pitchers like Oswalt and Mark Mulder.

Given these concerns, the Mets are nearly an ideal situation for Martinez. With four other reliable, innings-eating starters, his limitations shouldn’t pose an undue strain on the rest of the rotation or on the bullpen. Throwing in a pitcher’s park in the DH-free league, his 100 pitches will go farther than they would with just about any other team.

For Mets fans, the issue of where Pedro fits into a rebuilding plan is a legitimate one, and it’s too early for anyone to give an answer. It’s quite possible that Omar Minaya has made a great move for bad reasons, that he coveted Pedro for the same reasons he wanted to acquire Sammy Sosa - to make a splash and obtain a famous player, regardless of his relevance.

It’s also possible that Minaya made this move for the right reasons, realizing that the chance to sign a player of this caliber is so rare that it doesn’t really matter where the Mets are in their rebuilding plan. Martinez won’t be around when David Wright and Jose Reyes hit their primes, but the presence of a legitimate superstar, something the Mets haven’t had since Mike Piazza’s last great season in 2000, makes it much likelier that the Mets will contend in the meantime.

Whatever the reasons, they don’t alter the fact that this is a great signing and a great way for Minaya to make his first splash in New York, a city that understands you can’t pay too much for quality.

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