Thursday, October 12, 2006

Good Pitching Wins Championships

I was contemplating not writing anything about baseball for a few days in the wake of Cory Lidle's tragic death. However, after thinking about it, I decided that the best way to show respect to a great lover of the game is to continue the vibrant and colorful debate which makes up a fan's love for the game. Cory Lidle was a great man who worked his ass off every second of the day to get to and stay in the major leagues. It was a long road for him, but he realised his dream. It is a shame that he died so young. As a fellow lover of flying, I feel for him.

I said in an earlier post that

"Great rotations are developed from within. The Braves did it. The dynasty Yankees did it. The 2002 Angels, 2003 Marlins, 2005 White Sox, and now the 2006 Athletics and Tigers are doing it. Pitchers are at their best before they reach the free agent market. "

Several have commented on the merits of that statement, and I find myself needing to change it. My real intent was to say "Good pitching wins championships, and pitchers are at their best before they reach free agency". There are exceptions of course, for example Curt Schilling, but the general rule is that pitchers decline much more rapidly than do hitters.

The dynasty Yankees developed only two key pitchers from within: Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. The rest of the rotation was made up of Roger Clemens, Hideki Irabu, Orlando Hernandez, David Cone, and David Wells. A lot of these guys violated the "good pitchers are young" rule, but all of them required young pitching to acquire.

A lot of great teams are built via the trade. Paul O'Neill, David Cone, Roger Clemens, and Chuck Knoblauch came to the dynasty team via trade. We got lucky with a lot of these players, as O'Neill came for virtually nothing while Roger Clemens cost us only David Wells, Homer Bush, and Graeme Lloyd. But Chuck Knoblauch cost us 1st round pick Eric Milton (then thought to be an excellent prospect) and Christian Guzman. Cone cost young pitching in the form of Marty Jarzen (who flopped, but was a top 22 year old prospect when traded).

The market is a lot tougher now. Teams got smarter, signing their arbitration eligible players to long term deals (Santana, Halladay), decreasing the number of players on the free agent market. The result? Very few top level pitchers will ever be available for just a check and a draft pick. To acquire a pitcher in the prime of one's career, the Yankees must do one of two things. They can build from within or trade value for value. Essentially, the two are linked.

Look at a guy like Steve White. Steve White is 24 year old and on the brink of the major leagues. He will probably never start significant games for the Yankees. He shows signs of being a decent major league pitcher, considering how thoroughly he dominated AA this season. However, he is 5th on the Yankee depth charts behind Hughes, Karstens, Rasner, and Clippard. White will probably be traded.

And that is a good thing. The second that White is traded, you'll hear a bunch of idiots from the New York Post or wherever whining about how the Yankees trade away all of their young pitching. But remember, trading away Cassey Fossum for Curt Schilling helped the Red Sox win a championship.

The trick is having enough depth to be able to trade Steve White away. If this was November 2004, there is no way that the Yankees can trade away a Steve White. He'd be needed to pitch for Jon Lieber or Kevin Brown. But the Yankees are in a position right now where they have the depth to both bring up promising young pitchers (Hughes, Clippard), and dangle some other prospects as bait to help build a championship team (Karstens, Rasner, White).

But also remember that it took Brad Halsey and Dionner Navarro to acquire Randy Johnson. Although Randy was the best pitcher in baseball in 2004, the lesson that is apparent is this: get a pitcher in the prime of his career, not the back end of it.

Good pitching is tough to come by. It takes good decisions by the front office, good scouting by those in the field, and good luck overall. The next aces of the new Yankee dynasty may come from free agency (Wells), trade (Clemens, Cone), or the farm system (Pettitte). But I do know that we will not win any championships until the overall pitching situation improves.