Carl Pavano is a fascinating example of the relationship between expectations and performance.
The 12-year major league veteran has pitched for 5 teams and earned over $47 million throughout the course of his career. There have been seasons in which he looked poised to become an ace (like in 2004 when he went 18-8 with a 3.00 ERA and made his first All-Star team with the Florida Marlins), and there have been seasons in which he looked like he might have to retire from baseball (like in 2008 when he only managed to pitch 34.1 innings with a 5.77 ERA while with the New York Yankees).
It's like watching Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Is he an ace, or is he garbage?
The answer, it seems, is that Pavano's performance largely depends upon which team he is pitching for. Take a look at his career ERA at his last three extended stops (ignoring the 125 innings he threw for Cleveland in 2009).
Florida (2002-2004): 3.64, 485.0 innings
New York (2005-2008): 5.00, 145.2 innings
Minnesota (2009-2010): 3.97, 294.2 innings
That seems like a rather unusual career path. Even in his five years as a young, up-and-coming pitcher for the Montreal Expos, Pavano's ERA was still a respectable 4.83 over 452.2 innings. Why would a player who seemed on the cusp of stardom suddenly forget how to pitch once he got to New York?
The truth is that some players simply can't handle the limelight and constant media attention that comes with playing in a big market city like New York, Boston, Chicago, or Los Angeles. There's an intense amount of pressure to live up to expectations, which in Pavano's case included a four-year, $38 million contract. Yankees' fans expected Pavano to pitch like an ace and he crumbled, suffering countless injuries and setbacks (including missing the entire 2006 season) and managing only a meager nine wins in his four seasons in pinstripes.
Yet, once Pavano relocated to the small market haven of Minnesota, he reestablished himself as a major league pitcher. Now he's a free agent again and on the look out for the last multi-year contract of his career.
Big market clubs better beware, though. Pavano doesn't pitch so well when he's sweating under the heat of all the cameras and lights focused on him.
What other players struggle to perform underneath the spotlight? Here's a list of the top 10 riskiest free agents for big market teams.
You might be surprised to see Dunn, one of the most consistent sluggers in the game, atop this list.
But here are a few things to consider:
- Dunn has played for three teams in his career (Cincinnati, Arizona, Washington) and on each team he was expected to carry the offense, though he's only made the All-Star team once.
- Dunn has struck out 1632 times in his career, ninth on the active list (and counting).
- Dunn is 30 years old and does not have a natural position.
Those eight consecutive seasons of at least 38 home runs and a .902 career OPS look mighty appetizing for a team desperate to add some thump to its lineup. Indeed, Dunn is one of the few prizes on the free agent market. But at what cost?
He made $12 million for the Nationals last season and figures to demand at least that much annually in a four or five-year deal. There are only a handful of teams that can afford that contract and almost all of them are big market clubs.
On top of that, Dunn reportedly wants to stay in the National League because he doesn't want to become a designated hitter. He's durable enough to play the field, having appeared in at least 152 games every season since 2004, but he's still one of the worst defensive players in baseball.
So if you're a GM with money to spend, do you give potentially as much as $60 million to a strikeout-prone hitter on the wrong side of 30 who doesn't belong on the field and hasn't so much as sniffed the playoffs? Does that sound like the kind of player who is capable of being the cornerstone for your offense?
Yeah, I didn't think so.
Sports Illustrated did an amazing feature story on Werth earlier in the season, one of the few interviews the grizzly ballplayer has ever given.
"A lot of ballplayers invite sportswriters into their homes or out to dinner," he said. "I'm not one of them. I don't even want to be written about. I'm happy to be ignored."
Werth is finding it difficult to be ignored, however, after a season in which he batted .296 with 27 home runs, a league-leading 46 doubles, and 13 steals. He has emerged as a stellar baseball player at the age of 31 and is undoubtedly one of the best free agents available.
Phillies GM Ruben Amaro has all but guaranteed that Werth will be playing elsewhere next season, and early reports have the Boston Red Sox as the top bidders.
But if Werth values his privacy, he's going to have an incredibly difficult time finding any in Boston. The question here is if it will effect his on-field performance?
Red Sox fans might remember courting another reserved right fielder by the name of J.D. Drew. Drew, who spent the earlier parts of his career with the Dodgers and Cardinals, came to Boston and for the most part maintained his level of production. But he's certainly not worth the $14 million he's making each year.
Werth is likely to perform wherever he signs. He's still a professional baseball player, after all. But the chances of him living up to his contract are much greater in a small market city than they are in Boston.
There is a legitimate chance of Werth going through a slump, becoming frustrated at the negative media attention, and then demanding a trade. Unfortunately for teams like the Red Sox, there is a shortage of elite available talent. So although Werth is a risk, he's still more of a sure thing than pretty much everyone else on the market.
Vazquez has pitched two of his 13 major league seasons for the New York Yankees. In 2004 he was 14-10 with a 4.91 ERA and an improbable All-Star appearance. In 2010 he was 10-10 with a 5.32 ERA and nearly a career low 121 strikeouts. His career ERA? 4.26. His average strikeouts in a season? 195.
Call it the 'Yankee Corollary'.
Vazquez was brilliant for the Atlanta Braves in 2009, pitching 219.1 innings with a career best 2.87 ERA and 238 strikeouts. He even received Cy Young consideration.
Then in the offseason he was traded to New York in a package for Melky Cabrera and proceeded to have his worst season since 1999. It's not just a coincidence.
Vazquez clearly prefers to pitch in a place like Atlanta. But with such a lack of established starting pitchers available via free agency, he will likely go to the highest bidder.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers may want to negotiate carefully with the 34-year-old Vazquez.
There are a lot of question marks surrounding the former Arizona sinker-baller.
Has he recovered from the shoulder surgery that sidelined him from the entire 2010 season and all but four innings of the 2009 season? Can he regain the velocity on his sinker? Can he pitch outside of Arizona?
Nobody really knows the answer to any of these questions. But considering how good Webb was prior to his injury, one team is definitely going to find out.
In seven seasons with the Diamondbacks, Webb had a 3.27 career ERA and 1065 students over 1219.2 innings. He won a Cy Young in 2006 and finished second in voting in both 2007 and 2008. He's still only 30 years old and is worthy of an extended look.
Arizona has one of the lowest attendance figures in baseball, ranking 21st last season. So wherever Webb signs, he's almost guaranteed to have to adjust to a bigger spotlight. Can he do it?
The Dodgers and Rockies have been rumored as possible bidders.
Raise your hand if you knew that Westbrook made his debut with the New York Yankees.
Well, it's true. And the reason nobody pictures Westbrook as a former Yankee is because his New York experience was quite a forgettable one. He appeared in three games and surrendered 10 runs before being traded to the Cleveland Indians as part of the David Justice deal in 2000.
Westbrook was only 22 years old at the time and has since put together a reasonably successful major league career. He was an All-Star with the Indians in 2004 and owns a 4.29 career ERA.
Last season Westbrook split time between Cleveland and St. Louis and was a very serviceable starter, making 33 starts and pitching over 200 innings with a 4.22 ERA. He's an attractive option for big market teams looking for a consistent back-of-the-rotation starter.
A return to New York (either the Yankees or Mets) could be possible, as could a move to Los Angeles to pitch for the Dodgers. Will he struggle playing in a big city or will he continue to pitch like a capable starter?
Bedard is another intriguing reclamation project for big market teams.
In 2006 while with the Baltimore Orioles, Bedard set career highs in wins (15), ERA (3.76), innings (196.1), and strikeouts (171). Then in 2007 he set new career highs as he became one of baseball's most dominant young pitchers.
He was traded to the Seattle Mariners the following offseason and continued to pitch well. The problem for Bedard, however, has been staying on the field.
He made 15 starts in 2008 and another 15 in 2009 before suffering a torn labrum in his shoulder and requiring surgery. He missed the entire 2010 season trying to rehabilitate his shoulder and is now finally ready to return to the mound.
Expect the usual suspects to be in negotiations for the services of the 30-year-old lefty. Bedard will have to prove that he's still an elite pitcher.
Same story. Different player.
Sheets had elbow surgery after the 2008 season to repair a tear in his right elbow, an injury that derailed his entire 2009 season and resurfaced mid-way through the 2010 season.
But before that, Sheets was among the best of the best.
In 2004 Sheets had his coming out year as a 25-year-old for the Milwaukee Brewers. He had a 2.40 ERA and struck out 264 batters in 237 innings. He was named an All-Star for the second time and finished eighth in Cy Young voting.
He was still good after 2004, but injuries limited him to 22 starts in 2005, 17 starts in 2006, and 24 starts in 2007. The problem for the 31-year-old Sheets has always been his ability to stay on the field.
He's never pitched for a big market team, spending last season with the Oakland Athletics. But if he can prove that he's finally healthy, a team with money to burn will take a long look at him.
Last on the list of this year's major reclamation projects is everybody's favorite funky-throwing lefty: Dontrelle Willis!
In Willis' case, however, his catastrophic fall from glory has more to do with control issues than it does with injuries.
The 2003 NL Rookie of the Year was a thrilling pitcher for the Florida Marlins. In 2005 at the age of 23 he had the best season of his career. He was 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA, surrendering only 11 home runs in over 235 innings and earned an All-Star selection and both Cy Young and MVP consideration.
But by 2007 the flair was gone and batters began figuring out how to hit Willis. He was traded later that year to the Tigers as part of the Miguel Cabera mega-deal, but he struggled with the Tigers as well. He even spent time on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder. Several minor league assignments later and Willis, now 28, finds himself without a job.
If he can prove to scouts that he can still pitch then GM's will come calling. It's not often that a player as accomplished as Willis is available for cheap.
Can Willis resurface with a big league club or will his anxiety get the better of him?
Last season Pavano surprised everyone by pitching like one of baseball's best starters. In 32 starts for the Minnesota Twins he went 17-11 with a 3.75 ERA in 221 innings.
It was the lowest ERA he'd recorded since 2004, when he was pitching as a 28-year-old for the Florida Marlins. It's unusual to see a pitcher have a career revival at the age of 34, but maybe Pavano's just finally found a comfortable place to call home.
He likely won't be back in Minnesota next season, but could catch on with another big market team like the Rangers or Dodgers. Odds are Pavano overachieved while with the Twins and will struggle pitching in a big city again.
Lilly has bounced around the big leagues for 12 seasons now as teams seem to undervalue and then overvalue the pitcher on a biannual basis.
He was a promising prospect in 1999 with the Montreal Expos before being traded to the Yankees for Hideki Irabu. While in New York, however, Lilly struggled mightily, making 32 starts over parts of three seasons with a mediocre 4.65 ERA.
Then in 2004 he made his way to the Toronto Blue Jays and immediately became an All-Star. He was 12-10 with a 4.06 ERA in his first season across the border. He stayed in Toronto until 2006 but his ERA while there (4.52) was hardly better than his ERA in New York.
Naturally, Lilly leaves Toronto as a free agent and signs with the Chicago Cubs, where he emerges as a capable top-of-the-rotation starter. In almost four whole seasons in Chicago, Lilly went 47-34 with a 3.70 ERA.
He was traded to the LA Dodgers at the deadline this past season and pitched even better there, going 7-4 with a 3.52 ERA in 12 starts. So what to make of the 34-year-old lefty is anyone's guess.
He seems to pitch better in weak-hitting divisions (logically), but his numbers suggest that he's a better pitcher than his performance indicates. Does the thought of pitching in a strong division make him uncomfortable and incapable of pitching up to his potential?
There are several teams that could use a serviceable, veteran lefty in their rotation. It will be interesting to see if Lilly, who would be well advised to stay in the NL, decides he's up for the challenge of pitching in a division like the AL East.