Red Sox Lock Up Rick Porcello

Beating the rest of the league to the punch with a large contract extension for Rick Porcello when much better players await in free agency is not going to garner excitement or plaudits, but the Red Sox are anticipating an expensive free agent market in 2016 and providing themselves a safety net. Boston resorted to Plan B before they knew if Plan A would work, but the Red Sox can still implement Plan A and sign a big-name free agent while simultaneously providing depth for their rotation. Five years and $95 million is a lot of money for a player without a world-beating track record, but Porcello has been good and reliable and he is still just 26 years old. This contract is not all that surprising as Mike Petriello predicted a similar contract in February.

Last year, three pitchers signed extensions just a year away from free agency and one of them is apt for Porcello. Clayton Kershaw’s seven-year, $215 million contract is way too big, Charlie Morton’s three-year, $21 million contract is too light, but Homer Bailey’s six-year, $105 million contract (with an option for a seventh year) is right in the same range as Porcello. Bailey was two years older and only twice pitched over 150 innings while Porcello has exceeded that mark in six straight seasons. Bailey was coming off the better season, with around four wins in 2013, but he also received more money with greater risk of injury. According to Jeff Zimmerman’s disabled list projections, Porcello is the second most likely starter to make it through the season without a stint on the disabled list.

Even if we treat Bailey as an outlier for an extension, last year’s free agent class has a pretty close contract to Porcello’s: James Shields, who signed for four years and $72 million with the Padres. Shields has the better track record, but he’s headed into his decline years while Porcello is headed into his mid-20s. While Shields’ deal ends when he’s 36, the Red Sox have only committed to Porcello up to age-30.

Porcello has been consistently above average, topping two wins in each of the last four seasons. His 2.7 WAR from last year ranked 28th in the American League, but his 5.5 WAR over the last two years is 17th, and his 8.1 fWAR over the past three seasons ranks 14th in the AL during that time. Through his Age-25 season, Porcello has pitched 1073 1/3 innings after debuting as a 20-year-old in 2009. If not for a rough period in 2010 when he was sent down to the minors for a few weeks, Porcello would have been eligible for free agency after last season. Over the past 20 years, only 11 pitchers have pitched more than 900 innings through their Age-25 season like Porcello and had a WAR above two in their Age-25 season. Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Felix Hernandez and Matt Cain have yet to play through their Age-30 seasons, leaving six players for future comparison.

The group has met with varying level of success since turning 26. Here are there WAR numbers through their Age-25 seasons as well as between 26-30 years of age.

pre-26 WAR 26-30 WAR Difference
CC Sabathia 21.3 31.3 10.0
Jon Garland 8.9 11.1 2.2
Javier Vazquez 18.3 20.3 2.0
Mark Buehrle 16.8 16.8 0.0
Carlos Zambrano 18.9 12.5 -6.4
Ismael Valdes 17.0 4.7 -12.3

Four of the six players either did just as well or improved during their late 20s, while Mark Buehrle managed to put up the exact same WAR through his Age-25 season as between the ages of 26 and 30 (from 31-35, he put up a 13.4 WAR). Zambrano was decent in his late 20s and only Ismael Valdes fell off a cliff. Six players is a small sample size, but it does nothing to change the expectations for Porcello to keep pitching as well as he has been. The new contract insulates Boston from a breakout, but given the pitchers available to Boston after the season ends, there are some questions whether Boston was better off waiting.

Including Porcello in this group, here are the statistics over the last three years of the potential free agents next winter.

David Price 646.0 24.3 % 4.8 % 3.05 2.94 15.7 29
Zack Greinke 592.1 23.1 % 5.9 % 2.96 3.10 12.7 31
Jordan Zimmermann 608.2 20.1% 4.5% 2.96 3.18 12.4 29
Johnny Cueto 521.1 22.1 % 6.3 % 2.54 3.35 10 29
Mat Latos 522.1 20.7 % 6.9 % 3.31 3.51 9.5 27
Doug Fister 534.1 17.8 % 4.7 % 3.22 3.51 8.8 31
Rick Porcello 558.0 16.0 % 5.4 % 4.08 3.70 8.1 26

Zimmermann, Greinke, Price, and Cueto all stand out above Porcello, and — depending on their seasons — Latos and Fister could find themselves more desirable free agents than Porcello as well. Signing Porcello does not foreclose Boston’s options next winter, but it does give them insurance if they miss out on any of the above players. Price, Zimmerman, and Greinke could all sign with their current teams at prices close to what Jon Lester and Max Scherzer received last summer, and a few of those players might not make it to free agency. Boston has incredible resources, but simply hoping to outbid the Los Angeles Dodgers is not a very good plan. Boston is no longer on an island with the Yankees in terms of payroll. In addition to the Dodgers, Tigers, and Nationals, the Cubs and Yankees figure to spend big again going forward. Right now, it looks like there are a lot of starting pitchers available in the offseason, but there is still scarcity given the number of potential suitors.

Boston is still searching for an ace, and paying more than $20 million per year after this season might feel like an overpay for a pitcher who has not shown the ability to anchor a rotation, but baseball is often a game with limited options. Boston cannot negotiate with other free agents right now, and letting Porcello get to free agency puts him in a pool with pitchers expected to receive guarantees over $100 million. Porcello might have been the low cost alternative in six months, but with his age and injury-free history that low-cost might have been six more years and $120 million as opposed to four more years and $83 million. With an option on Clay Buchholz for 2016 and Wade Miley already signed to an extension, the Red Sox can enter 2016 with a stable front three, but have the option of moving those three back one spot if they sign a major free agent after the season.

Boston is taking a risk, both on Porcello remaining the pitcher he is, and that the market does not fall flat next winter. With Boston’s resources, both of those risks are worth taking and can be easily mitigated in the future. While not likely, even if the market does fall this winter, that still benefits Boston because they can then sign one of the better pitchers available to stabilize the staff and add to the potent offense they already have. With Porcello’s young age and clean injury history, he is likely to remain productive throughout his contract. Ninety-five million dollars is a big number for Plan B when Plan A has yet to fail, but the numbers are only going to get bigger and going with Plan B early prevents the potential desperation of operating without that safety net in the offseason.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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snoop god
8 years ago

“Boston cannot negotiate with other free agents right now, and letting Porcello get to free agency puts him in a pool with pitchers expected to receive guarantees over $100 million. Porcello might have been the low cost alternative in six months, but with his age and injury-free history that low-cost might have been six more years and $120 million as opposed to four more years and $83 million.”

This could be the TLDR.