Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Percival's Woes Not Uncommon When It Comes To Free Agent Pitchers

From the moment pitcher Dave McNally became baseball's first honest-to-goodness free agent, in 1975, there has been one constant: signing pitchers can be hazardous to your mental and financial health.

Tigers closer Troy Percival might have, just might have, thrown the final pitch of his career. We'll know more as time wears on, and we see how Percival's arm concerns are treated. If surgery is needed, Percival has strongly suggested that retirement might be the most attractive option he has. Surgery could push him 12 months back as far as timetables are concerned. Percival has gone on record saying that he would have to seriously consider quitting if surgery was in the offing.

This is nothing new when it comes to free agent pitchers signing with new teams. The finger of fate has been extra fickle whenever moundsmen have been involved. Baseball History, 1975-Present, is littered with stories of pitchers who have, for one reason or another, ended up being busts for their new teams. In fact, I can't think of one category of pro athlete that is more tenuous and unstable than that which is free agent pitchers. They are like microwave popcorn; when it's done right, it smells soooo good. But if it's cooked just a tad too long, you've got a smelly, unappetizing disaster on your hands -- no in between.

In fact, Dave McNally himself was an example of how free agent pitchers can be a rather unreliable investment. He had nowhere near the success with the Montreal Expos, his new team, that he enjoyed with the Baltimore Orioles.

I'm not sure why all this is, except that pitchers, as a rule, are more delicate then position players due to the great unpredictability of the human arm, when it's used as a slingshot. Regardless, any team owner who decides to throw millions of dollars at the next hotshot free agent pitcher ought to be furnished with a rabbit's foot, a Bible, a horseshoe, and a string of garlic -- all designed to bring as much good luck and repel as much bad luck as possible.

It hasn't always been injuries that have made these rich pitchers busts. Sometimes, plain old bad performances have been the reasons why, for every hurler who makes his new owner proud, there are countless others who have gone directly into the proverbial tank.

Wayne Garland, if you say the name in Cleveland, is likely to get you tossed out into the streets on your ear. Garland parlayed an impressive 1976 season (20-7, 2.68 ERA) with the Orioles into a rich contract with the Indians, but in the next two seasons Garland went 15-22 with an ERA of over 4.00. Soon after, he was out of baseball. Garland was probably the first true pitching bust of the free agent era.

Ed Whitson. Mike Moore. Andy Messersmith. Kevin Brown. These are but a few arms who have turned into Venus de Milo after signing fat contracts with new teams. Believe me, if given enough time and research resources, I could compile a list of busts that would far exceed that in length of any list you could come up with of those who have actually bettered themselves after signing for the big bucks.

That's why I wasn't all that jazzed about the Tigers and their pursuit of Carl Pavano. The free agent from the Marlins signed with the Yankees -- what else is new? -- after the Bronx Bombers barely edged out the Tigers in Pavano's heart. I certainly wouldn't have cried in my milk had the Tigers landed Pavano, but knowing the history of free agent pitchers as I do, I always thought our team would be better off without him. And how is Carl doing in New York? Well, in 100 innings, he's 4-6 with a 4.77 ERA. He has given up 17 home runs and 129 hits in those 100 innings. You don't think the Tigers have kids on the farm who could be called up and produce those kinds of numbers?

But returning to Percival, his case is more substantial because this is the possible end of a man's career we're talking about, and it's not at all his doing. The Tigers knew that Percival, at age 36, had his best years behind him, yet they thought he still had enough in the tank to warrant taking a flyer on him. That belief may not have been warranted, as we now see, but I hate to use the word "bust" about a warrior like Percival who is only succumbing because the doctors say so. But at the same time, the Percival signing certainly can't be considered a success, can it?

Yep, throw the serious money at the sluggers, I tell you. They are more reliable and don't break down as easily.

Right, Magglio?

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