The Yankees are trying to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold by 2014 and are therefore fixated on signing free agents to one-year contracts this offseason. Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte will have to be replaced next winter, and so will Phil Hughes. The 26-year-old right-hander is due to hit free agency next offseason, when he’ll be the only starting pitcher on the market on the right side of 30. If he has a good (not even great) walk year, Hughes will get paid handsomely on the open market.
As you know, team policy is to not negotiate a new contract until the current one expires. The Yankees broke that policy to sign Robinson Cano long-term back in 2008, and they were willing to break it again last offseason by offering Russell Martin a three-year pact. Hughes, who has been inconsistent and hurt and homer-prone during his time as a big league starter, doesn’t jump out as someone the club could look to extend before he hits the open market. Given the uncertain futures of Michael Pineda (shoulder) and Ivan Nova (terrible 2012) and Phil’s relative youth, perhaps they should.
Most starting pitchers who get to within one year of free agency do not sign contract extensions. The most notable exceptions are high-end pitchers like Cole Hamels (six years, $144M) and Jered Weaver (five years, $85M) or older guys who just had their first taste of success like Ryan Vogelsong (two years, $8.3M) and R.A. Dickey (two years, $7.5M). Hughes is somewhere in the middle, which leaves us short on contract comparables. With some help from MLBTR’s Extension Tracker, here are the only two starters remotely comparable to Hughes who have recently signed extensions one year prior to qualifying for free agency.
|Joe Blanton||Wandy Rodriguez||Hughes|
|Previous Three Years fWAR||9.7||10.3||5.0|
|Previous Three Years bWAR||2.5||8.5||3.1|
|Previous Three Years RA9||10.6||10||5.3|
|Platform Year fWAR||2.0||3.7||1.9|
|Platform Year bWAR||2.4||2.3||1.5|
|Platform Year RA9||3.5||2.1||2.2|
WAR is far from perfect but I’m going to use it here just as quick tool for comparison. I prefer bWAR and RA9 (more on that here) myself because they are runs allowed-based and not peripheral-based like fWAR. Ultimately I think a pitcher should be judged by how well he keeps runs off the board regardless of how he does it. We can then use things like strikeout and ground ball rates to look at how sustainable a performance is in a separate analysis. A pitcher is only as valuable as the runs he prevents. Anyway, all three WAR versions are presented here.
The current version of Hughes lags behind Blanton and Wandy at the time of their extensions mostly because of his lost season in 2011. Had he managed a full healthy season, his numbers would be much more comparable but probably still a little short. The necessary adjustments for ballpark and league and all that are built into the stats, so Phil shouldn’t get any extra credit for pitching in the AL East. He doesn’t have any 200+ inning seasons to his credit, but he is younger than those two at the time of their contracts (several years younger than Wandy).
Blanton signed his deal prior to 2010 while Wandy signed his prior to 2011, so we do have to consider inflation. The spending caps applied to the draft and international markets basically force teams to put money into the big league roster, and as a result free agent prices have climbed this winter. Not necessarily salaries, but everyone seems to be getting that one extra year. Hughes is in a unique spot given his age in that he probably wouldn’t want a long-term contract. A shorter term deal, like the three years Blanton and Wandy received, would still allow him to still hit free agency before his 30th birthday.
My concern about signing Hughes long-term is the homers. He pitched to a 1.6 HR/9 this year and 1.3 HR/9 over the last three years, which is astronomical in these offense-suppressed times. Since we’re talking about locking him up for another three years, here’s the list of pitchers to post both a 1.3 HR/9 and an above-average ERA during their age 27-29 seasons over the last 25 years.
There are a handful of pitchers within five percentage points of a league average ERA (Sterling Hitchcock and Javy Vazquez being the most notable), but that’s the list. Obviously we should ignore Wakefield because he’s a knuckleballer, but the rest of those guys were nondescript mid-rotation arms who were more about bulk innings than high-quality innings. They were all considered top pitching prospects once upon a time as well (all made at least one Baseball America Top 100 Prospects List), so Hughes isn’t unique in that regard.
Can Hughes improve his homer-prone ways? Of course, but it would be a very risky assumption. The Blanton and Wandy contracts suggest he would be in line for a three-year deal worth $24-30M if he signed an extension this offseason, an $8-10M average annual value for luxury tax purposes. Hughes is projected to earn $5.7M through arbitration this winter, so he’d be signing away two free agent years for a guaranteed $18.3-24.3M. Assuming Phil repeats his 2012 season in 2013, I don’t think an AL East proven 27-year-old starter would have much trouble fetching $9M+ annually on the open market. Shouldn’t have much trouble at all.
The Yankees are projected to have something like $80-90M coming off the books next offseason, but only $50-60M of that will be reinvested in the team given the 2014 payroll plan. A big chunk of that money is going to Robinson Cano, so it’s really like $30M or so address the rest of the team, including potentially three rotation spots. Pineda recovering well from shoulder surgery and Nova putting together a strong season would make life a lot easier, but those are far from guarantees. Committing $8-10M in 2014 dollars to Hughes right now isn’t the smartest move with regards to the payroll plan, but the Yankees would always have the option of trading him down the line.