It has been reported that Brewers GM Doug Melvin is interested in signing two of his front-line pitchers, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, to contract extensions before they become free agents next off-season. This would be a big morale boost for a fanbase that will likely be going through Prince Fielder withdrawal this winter. If Fielder does leave, his $15.5 million salary coming off the books would certainly help create the flexibility to re-sign these two important parts of the organization. However, as with any long-term extension, there are plenty of risks to this plan, especially with Marcum.
Marcum was acquired from the Blue Jays in December 2010 as part of the Brewers’ “go all in for 2011” plan. He had a solid first season in Milwaukee, pitching 200.2 innings with a 3.73 FIP, both career bests. These numbers earned him 2.7 WAR, which due to the league switch and the decline in offense in 2011, was actually 0.9 WAR worse than his 2010 campaign with the Jays.
The bad news is after a dynamite first two months of the season, he was pedestrian the rest of the year and experienced some struggles with the long ball in September as he eclipsed the 160 inning mark for just the second time in his career. As our own Jack Moore pointed out last month, Marcum moved away from his go-to pitch, the change-up, down the stretch. As Jack concludes, we can’t know for certain what the reason is behind this, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worrisome.
What makes this blip especially troublesome is that Marcum has never been the perfect picture of health – his first season with over 160 innings pitched was at age 28 – and he is only two seasons removed from Tommy John surgery. Additionally, one of the knocks on him in Toronto was that he wasn’t the most dedicated to conditioning and keeping his arm in shape.
This information paints a troubling picture, and although his 6.3 WAR over the last two seasons warrants a multi-year extension, my palms would be sweating if I were the person putting my stamp of approval on that contract.
Let’s take a quick look at what a hypothetical extension might look like based on performance. Marcum is turning 30 next month, and despite limited MLB mileage on his arm, is likely on the downward sloping portion of his career. Bill James projections has his 2012 production at 207 innings with a 4.01 FIP. I am a little more bearish due to his post-TJ results, so let’s peg him at 2.5 WAR for next season, and go from there. I project a standard 0.5 WAR decline each season, with 5% inflation. One thing to note is that since an extension would buy out his last year of arbitration, I multiplied his 2012 salary buy 0.8 in accordance with the 40/60/80 hypothesis. The ensuing $10 million figure is probably still high, as he is more or less a two-year arbitration player after re-signing for $0.85 million in his first year of eligibility due to injury.
According to this simple projection, which I believe is a better-case scenario, the best fit would be a three-year deal in the $30 million range, and is actually quite in line with what the market dictated last off-season. Ted Lilly received a three-year, $33 million pact from the Dodgers. While Marcum will be four years younger, Lilly has a much longer track record of health and consistency. They are both soft-tossers who have seriously out-performed their fielding independent numbers due to low BABIPs – .270 career for Lilly and .269 for Marcum. In his two years prior to free agency, Lilly accumulated 5.8 WAR to Marcum’s 6.3.
Jorge de la Rosa is another guy in that range, as he signed for $1 million less than Lilly. He was coming off an injury-shortened 2010 campaign at age 30, but still managed to accumulate 5.7 WAR in 2009 and 2010. When accounting for the arbitration discount, the above Marcum contract would be in line with what these two pitchers received, and more than Carl Pavano and Jake Westbrook, who both received 2 year/$16.5 million deals. It sounds like we are in the right ballpark.
I’m not 100% writing off a Fielder return, but it essentially boils down to if Melvin believes the Brewers can still compete for a championship with a core consisting of Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, Yovani Gallardo, Greinke and Marcum. It may be in their best interest to go with a one-year deal, as it allows them to cut bait if Marcum gets hurt, or trade him at the deadline if the Brewers aren’t serious contenders – which would provide a much needed boost to the farm system.
While a $30 million contract isn’t the end of the world, it is still a lot of money for a mid-market team to guarantee a 30-year-old pitcher with an injury history whose average fastball velocity was sitting under 86 MPH in 6-7 starts last season. While the extension of a currently solid pitcher like Marcum would dampen the blow of a potential Fielder defection, there is a lot of downside. The Brewers would probably be better off isolating themselves from that risk with a one-year deal. It’s also unlikely that his price tag will go up over the course of the season, especially with guys like Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Anibal Sanchez, John Danks and Greinke looming as fellow 2013 free agents.