In free agency, it's better to balk at pitchers

Commentary

April 27, 2008|By DAN CONNOLLY

Observations, opinions and musings from the week in major league baseball:

When Orioles club president Andy MacPhail dealt two of his stars this offseason for 10 players, there were rumblings that he should have netted more hitters.

Of the bounty he received for Miguel Tejada (Houston Astros) and Erik Bedard (Seattle Mariners), seven were pitchers. Of the Orioles' top 20 prospects as ranked by Baseball America, 13 are pitchers.

MacPhail's philosophy is to collect as many good pitchers as possible, building a staff primarily through the farm system and eventually supplementing any offensive holes through free agency.

His belief is that free-agent hitters are more reliable than free-agent pitchers. And that point is certainly being made this April, when some of baseball's wealthiest starters are again struggling mightily.

The leader of that pack is the San Francisco Giants' Barry Zito, who in December 2006 signed the largest free-agent pitching deal in history - $126 million for seven years.

He was 11-13 with a 4.53 ERA last season and has lost all five of his 2008 starts. His velocity is down, and Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said the left-hander is going through a "transition period in his career." That's a pretty expensive mid-career crisis for San Francisco. Zito's not alone, though, in post-big-money malaise.

Pittsburgh's Matt Morris, whom the Giants signed for three years and $27 million only to trade him to the Pirates last year, is 0-3 with a 9.15 ERA in four starts. He's 20-29 since getting the deal.

Then there's the poster child for bad pitching contracts: New York Yankees right-hander Carl Pavano. He's in his fourth and final year of a $40 million contract and has pitched just 19 games, with a record of 5-6.

Clubs are listening to these cautionary tales. This offseason, 27 free agents signed multiyear deals, including 11 pitchers. But only one, Carlos Silva of the Mariners, starts.

That gives more credence to MacPhail's philosophy: Build the starting pitching and, if needed, buy the hitting.

Back in the bigs

Mount St. Joseph graduate Mike O'Connor has been easily dismissed in baseball circles. He's not big and doesn't throw hard. But he's just too competitive to go away, and now he is a major leaguer again.

In his first big league outing since 2006, O'Connor threw one scoreless inning and picked up the win for the Washington Nationals on Thursday night.

It was an impressive return considering the left-hander was released by the Nationals last winter after a lost season that included elbow surgery. O'Connor, 27, agreed to a minor league deal with the Nats and put up impressive numbers at Triple-A Columbus (2-0, 1.96 ERA in four starts) before getting called up Thursday.

Here's a guy who wasn't the best player at his high school (Mark Teixeira wins that one), went to a college known more for academics than athletics (George Washington) and spent four years at Single-A.

And now he's 1-0 in the majors in 2008. You've got to love stories like that.

Burrell's good timing

Two years ago, the Orioles wanted Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Pat Burrell, but they received feedback that the slugger wouldn't waive his no-trade clause to come here. (For the record, Burrell said he was never officially asked about going to Baltimore.)

They would have been buying low. Burrell, 31, played well in last season's second half and has been great so far this year. Last week, he drove in his 23rd run, setting the Phillies record for April RBIs.

Maybe it's finally clicking for the former No. 1 overall pick, though Philadelphia cynics will tell you it's not a coincidence that Burrell is living up to expectations now that his $50 million contract expires this season.

No one in Philly will care about the inspiration, though, if he keeps up this pace.

Ridiculous numbers

The San Diego Padres lost a 2-1, 22-inning game to the Colorado Rockies on April 17 at Petco Park, then left for a five-game road trip. They returned home Wednesday and lost a 3-2, 13-inning game to the Giants. So, in a two-game span at home, the Padres played 35 innings, allowed just five runs, and lost both after scoring only three runs.

Combined, the games lasted 10 hours, 7 minutes, which incidentally is the average game time between the Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.

Catching Aruba, mon

When Boston Red Sox rookie pitcher Justin Masterson made his debut Thursday, he became the fourth Jamaican-born player - and first pitcher - to play in the majors, joining Devon White, Chili Davis and Rolando Roomes.

If you're keeping score, Jamaica moves into a tie with Aruba in producing big leaguers. All four Arubans are ex-Orioles: pitchers Sidney Ponson, Calvin Maduro, Radhames Dykhoff and outfielder Eugene Kingsale.dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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