When is an $8.5 million option not an $8.5 million option? When there is a $2 million buyout. The initial buyout on Brandon Webb's contract was $500,000, but it increased by $500,000 every time he finished among the top five in NL Cy Young Award balloting. The Diamondbacks need to pay Webb $2 million whether he pitches for them or not. For all intensive purposes, Webb's 2010 option is for $6.5 million.
That 2006 Cy Young Award and two subsequent runner-up finishes gives a pretty good indication of Webb's value, but even they underestimate it. Between 2005-2008, Webb has the third-best ERA among all major league starters who threw at least 500 innings. He leads all pitchers with 70 wins and 927 innings pitched, plus has allowed fewer homers than any pitcher with over 700 innings in that span.
So we are talking about $6.5 million for a 31-year old pitcher who was arguably the best pitcher in baseball over a recent four-year span, particularly considering that he plays half of his games in Chase Field, the second-best hitter's park in the majors. What's the catch?
The catch is that Webb's throwing shoulder is as mysterious as Dan Haren's perennial second-half slides. No insurance carrier would underwrite the $52 million contract extension the D-backs offered Webb last summer due to an irregularity in his shoulder. When Webb had the shoulder examined by independent physicians, they all laughed it off, incredulous that the D-backs pulled their extension offer based on such a minor thing.
But no one was laughing after Webb got hammered on opening day, was placed on the DL, and could not even play pain-free catch months later. Finally, in early August, Webb went under the knife to remove debris from his pitching shoulder. After pitching over 225 innings for four straight seasons, Webb will finish 2009 with just four innings pitched.
The effect on the 2009 Diamondbacks has been obvious. The team's #5 starters have combined to go 5-20 with a 6.52 ERA over 168.1 innings and 30 starts. Given Webb's .654 winning percentage between 2005-2008, we could expect him to go 16-9 in their place, or 17-8 given his .691 winning percentage from 2006-2008. Considering that he would have saved the bullpen more than 50 innings of work as well, his impact on the team's won-loss record would have been even more extreme. But conservatively saying that Webb would have been worth a dozen wins to the 2009 D-backs puts their record at 76-71. Add in the fact that the D-backs might have added rather than subtracted at the deadline had they been playing over .500, and you could legitimately see how a typical Brandon Webb season would have turned a cellar-dweller into a playoff contender.
Unfortunately, the question is not how valuable a healthy Webb would have been to the 2009 D-backs, but rather, how healthy and valuable Webb will be for the 2010 D-backs. Frankly, we don't know, and watching Webb play catch a couple of times in October isn't going to enlighten us much. If there is even a slim chance that Webb could be the pitcher who is worth a dozen or more wins to his team, isn't $6.5 million worth the gamble?
This is an organization that recently gave Eric Byrnes $30 million dollars based on one good season. Webb isn't worth $6.5 million based on four outstanding seasons? This is the organization that ate $22 million when it released Russ Ortiz and eventually paid the man to pitch against the Diamondbacks. This is an organization that amassed $353 million in debt after their 2001 World Series Championship and still must pay Bernard Gilkey $500,000 per year for the next 25 years even though Gilkey last played for the team in 2000. If he D-backs spent $6.5 million on Brandon Webb and he did not pitch a single inning in 2009, the decision would still not even register among the top 10 financial blunders in the young history of the Arizona Diamondbacks franchise.
The Boston Red Sox signed 42-year old John Smoltz for $5.5 million plus another $5.5 million in bonuses this winter. Smoltz had thrown just 28 innings in the previous season and was coming off shoulder surgery, just like Webb. Isn't $6.5 million for the 31-year old Webb therefore even below fair market value? And hasn't Webb already pitched well below his market value for years with this organization? The man made about $14 million between 2005-2008 before finally not living up to his $6.5 million contract this season. It would be quite a slap in the face for the D-backs to turn their backs on Webb now.
The Diamondbacks have recently made amends with Luis Gonzalez, honoring him with a retirement ceremony and giving him a front office job after fending him off with a sharpened stick in 2006. Why estrange another Diamondbacks legend and Phoenix favorite on the heels of that redemption? What free agent is going to want to sign with an organization that treats its players in that manner?
No need to wait until October. Do the right thing, Josh Byrnes. Exercise your option on Webb now. It is a way to repay the second-best pitcher in Diamondbacks history for all he has done and the right baseball move as well.
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