Price of Pitching Just Went Up

If you haven’t yet heard, the San Francisco Giants have signed pitcher Matt Cain to a 5-year, $112M extension — which averages out to over $20M per season.

This news comes about a week after the Dodgers were purchased for over two billion dollars in cash, and leads me to ask, has the world gone mad?

There’s no doubt: Matt Cain is a very good pitcher. But is he worth over $20M per year? Isn’t that figure reserved only for the extreme elite, the very best handful of pitchers in baseball?

Johan Santana was given a $20M-per-year contract after winning the Cy Young multiple times and being generally considered as among the top five pitchers in MLB. Cain’s teammate Tim Lincecum makes $20M per year. Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee are in that $20M club, as is C.C. Sabathia. I think that’s about it. Does Cain belong in that class? I’m not so sure.

For one, there is the career won-loss record, which is under .500. OK, we’ll throw that out, because if Cain had better run support, he most assuredly would be over .500, and likely would have won more than 14 games in a season at some point. But two other factors make me scratch my head about this deal. First, on how many contending teams would Cain be the “ace” or #1 starter? Second, and perhaps most importantly, how much would Cain garner on the free-agent market — in particular, one that would also potentially include Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke, and one that would likely not include the Yankees in the bidding (the theory being that the Bombers would not be able to fit him into their self-imposed $189M budget)?

Maybe the Giants were spooked by the sale of the Dodgers, fearing that they’d buy away Cain next winter. I don’t know who else would have the interest and the wherewithal to pay Cain that much money over that many years. Not the Yankees, Phillies, nor Mets. I don’t think the Red Sox would have the flexibility, after signing Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to massive deals, and having Josh Beckett and John Lackey on the books through 2014, though I could be wrong. The Angels would seem to be out, after signing C.J. Wilson, Albert Pujols, and Jered Weaver. Who else has the kind of money to afford $20M+ over five years for a 28-year-old pitcher? Would the Cubs suddenly start spending, despite the rebuilding phase?

Cain’s age (27) and stretch of five consecutive 200+ inning seasons would make me wary of locking up at that price. It’s a deal that’s eerily similar to those handed to Santana and Barry Zito at similar ages, and with similar wear and tear. I’m not saying Cain will break down in the next five years, but it would seem to be a concern.

What say you? Is Cain worth it? Why or why not? Or have we transitioned into a new phase of free spending by MLB, who appears to be completely impervious to economic struggles that affect the rest of us? And what does this deal mean for Hamels, Greinke, and others who may be on the open market next winter? Make your case in the comments.


Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. MikeT April 3, 2012 at 9:58 am
    Sometimes we forget that these negotiations are held in a bubble. Cain was not a free agent. The Giants are built on pitching and knew that to remain competitive they need to continue to be the best pitching team in the National League West. Simply, he is worth more to the Giants than he would be to another team where pitching is less of a premium. The Giants cannot win without Cain, simply put, thus they needed to overpay to prevent him from becoming a free agent in the future.

    Honestly, if he was a free agent I wonder if he would have received less money overall. If other, possibly better, pitching was on the market, Cain’s value might have been suppressed a bit. Normally you would assume that extensions would cost the team less than a free agent, but in this case it did not.

    • Mike B April 3, 2012 at 1:40 pm
      Mike I agree with you that Cain is responsable for a great deal of the Giants success, but 20 Million. Today I am glad to be a Mets fan and not a Giants fan.

      The Giants needed alot of things to fall into place to in that championship, I doubt that will happen again without building some offense. Thats just way too much money to give to guy with a 69-73 record with his best win total at 14.

      • Bill April 3, 2012 at 2:11 pm
        Is that serious? You can say what you want about the deal, but as a life long diehard Mets fan, I’d swap places with a Giants fan in a heartbeat.
        In the next two years we will likely finish last at least once, certainly not make the playoffs, and lose our franchise player. Meanwhile, the Giants have the pieces in place to contend for a championship both years.
        • Bill April 3, 2012 at 2:19 pm
          And further, whatever your opinion is about “advanced” stats, it is inarguable that pitcher wins are the most worthless and least informative statistic out there.
          There are definite reasons why Cain should not have gotten the deal he did. His W/L record is not one of them.
  2. NormE April 3, 2012 at 10:46 am
    The Giants knew that when Cain became eligible for free-agency they would lose him to the Mets. That’s after the Mets
    lock-up Hamels and Greinke.
  3. JYD April 3, 2012 at 2:25 pm
    Wow. Mike B, I am so glad you are not a GM. Wins are one of the least useful statistics in baseball. With offense and bullpens having as much or more to do with that outcome than the pitcher himself, it still amazes me that it is given as much importance as it is. Truth be told it is amateur observers, such as yourself, that pay that much attention to that category. People who know better will look at ERA, WHIP, K/BB ratio, K/9 ratio and fly ball ratio. Cain’s numbers in all of these except fly ball ratio are among the elite. When you factor in the size of his home park, even that stat isn’t as critical.

    All you are really saying is that you should leave the analysis to people who understand what they are looking at.

  4. JJD April 4, 2012 at 12:31 am
    The Giants had to sign Cain. After dumping Neukom fans here were pretty sure the Giants were no willing to spend any money – witness the off-season. They were going to be hammered locally if they didn’t sign him before the start of the season. Cain is a horse and I can see him being a stud pitcher well past the expiration of this contract. The second reason that they had to sign Cain was that I think that Lincecum is determined to test the free agent market in 2 years and, unless he falters, will be out of their price range.
  5. argonbunnies April 4, 2012 at 4:13 am
    Cain’s K numbers have always been respectable, but not actually the impressive results you’d expect from his velocity. In my opinion, he’s a pretty good pitcher whose ERA benefits from his park. I don’t see him as an injury risk, but I don’t think he’s the best use of $22 mil per season. I’d take Gallardo over Cain any day; probably Garza as well, and Latos if he stays healthy a little longer. Do you see those guys all being handed $100+ mil?

    I’ve never understood buying high when you could opt to wait. The Reds’ decision with Votto is moronic. What, is his value going to go UP in the next 2 years they already have him for? Is someone else going to pay MORE than $225 mil for him? The only possible reason you give ten years to a guy you’ve already got for 2 more is if you’re getting a discount. You don’t pay top dollar pre-emptively.

    I’ll judge the Niese deal accordingly. If we’re buying low, I love it. I see improvement in his future, and paying based on his track record can only be a good deal. On the other hand, if we pay him the max he could have earned in arbitration plus a solid starter salary thereafter, that’d just be stupid. He ain’t gonna suddenly morph into a Cy Young contender and turn that into a bargain, so it’d be better to wait the 3 arbitration years in case he blows out his arm or something.

  6. DaveSchneck April 4, 2012 at 9:04 am
    Jeffy might have to sell the stamp collection now in order to sign Niese.