CHRIS PUMMER: With the Milwaukee Brewers deciding to punt Jeff Suppan to the curb, they’ve suffered a number of snarky comments calling into question the wisdom of signing the soft-tossing pitcher to a big-money four-year contract in the first place.
I won’t try to argue that it was a great decision. But it wasn’t an awful decision. And it was certainly one where the Brewers realized an upside that’s maybe hard to see through the billowing smoke coming from the pile of cash they’ve burned on Suppan’s uselessness this year and last.
For the first two years of the contract, Suppan gave Milwaukee exactly what it should have expected. He put in almost 400 innings of yeoman-like work (4.78 ERA). For a non-strikeout guy in that ball yard with some of those defenses behind him, that’s not awful. Those innings had a lot of value, especially for a team like the Brewers, who had legitimate postseason aims. Suppan’s work helped the team to it’s first winning season in forever, and then a playoff appearance.
Could the Brewers have gotten that work or better from some minor league veteran or even a legit prospect making the league minimum? Perhaps. But they were using those kind of solutions (Manny Parra, Carlos Villanueva, Seth McClung, Dave Bush, Claudio Vargas, etc…) in other spots in their rotation with mixed results. Mostly poor results. While sometimes one of those guys steps forward and gives you a great value for the bucks, it’s rare that you can ride one of those guys for more than 120 innings or so. That’s if they don’t blow up and post an ERA over 6 until you move the next guy up just to see him do the same thing.
So if this deal had been for only two years, it would have been terrific. Obviously two years wouldn’t have brought Suppan to Milwaukee or anyone nearly as good. And Suppan had been pretty good for a number of years, even if he wasn’t great. I think he has a case that he was as good or better than any number of guys who also signed similar deals.
It wasn’t because of a scarce market that Suppan cashed in. Ted Lilly, Gil Meche, Jason Marquis and Jason Schmidt all got richer that offseason. And that wasn’t an fluke. For years it had been three to five years at $10 million per to land a mid-tier starter. Guys like Carl Pavano, Carlos Silva, Jarrod Washburn, A.J. Burnett, Esteban Loaiza, and on, and on. All of those guy had thin track records or thick medical files.
The Brewers still needed one of those guys, so they went out and paid the market rate to fill what was a pretty serious hole. A hole that had to be filled if they were going to make a run at contention with a core of Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, and even Bill Hall before he blew out and became an overpaid utility man. But they had a good offensive team with a rotation set to be fronted by Ben Sheets (fingers crossed) and Yovani Gallardo.
To be sure, paying market rate just to plug a spot is a luxury not every team can afford. The Rays can’t do that. The Marlins won’t do that. And if you have three or four guys like that on your team, you’re getting yourself in big trouble.
But the Brewers had the dough to spend. They didn’t have a handful of other big sinkhole contracts already on the payroll. Paying for a starting pitcher was a calculated gamble. One that didn’t pay off the last two seasons. But since it worked out well the first two, on balance it’s probably just fine.
And as it is, the Brewers and other teams have since them come around to the idea that it’s not a great idea to get on the hook for big bucks. At least not for four years for a guy who is solid, but not spectacular. That’s how the Brewers snagged Braden Looper for one year and $5 million bucks last year. Looper came with the same expectations they had for Suppan almost four years ago. It’s just that the market has changed.
It should be noted that Suppan’s contract never stopped the Brewers from adding other pieces they’ve needed. It didn’t hold up a CC Sabathia trade. It didn’t keep them from dipping into the free agent pitching market again for Randy Wolf. Or from overpaying for Trevor Hoffman two years in a row. They’ve managed their payroll well enough to keep from being hamstrung by Suppan’s paychecks.
This Brewers season looks like it’s ready to head into the history books as another lost cause. But Suppan and his contract are a thing of the past. So will some other short-term commitments that will come off the books, and that leaves the team with plenty of payroll room if there’s a strong desire to lock up Fielder or Weeks.
And playoff appearance is nothing to sneeze at. Especially for a team trying to put more than a decade of losing seasons behind it.
So Milwaukee is out a few bucks, but probably still better off for having taken the plunge.
HOWARD MEGDAL: There are two critical points Chris makes that I think speak to the inherent flaw in a team like Milwaukee spending money on a guy like Jeff Suppan.
First, he mentions that the money on Suppan was pretty much the going rate. “Ted Lilly, Gil Meche, Jason Marquis and Jason Schmidt all got richer that offseason.” That is precisely the point. None of those guys have been remotely worth the money paid to them. Indeed, the number of pitchers signed at that rate who succeeded are very rare indeed.
Projecting pitchers going forward is remarkably chancy. So if you are going to commit long-term years and dollars, that pitcher better be fantastic, and relatively young, when you do it. Even then, it is no guarantee. But it gives you a fighting chance if the pitcher is a Sabathia, a Santana.
Chris also points out that the Suppan signing didn’t preclude Milwaukee from making the Sabathia trade. The Brewers didn’t, however, sign Sabathia. And notice that the difference between Milwaukee’s roughly $100 million deal and the one Sabathia signed with the Yankees ($161 million) is about what Suppan cost ($46 million).
In other words, Suppan was well above the price point that made sense for a pitcher like Suppan. And it is fair to wonder if Milwaukee, shorn of an awful contract like that, could have made a run at locking down CC Sabathia, a pitcher worth a huge contract, for years to come.