MLB Free Agents 2007: Mark Mulder

After reading Joe Strauss’s article today in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I got to thinking about impending free agent Mark Mulder.  The standout quote:

"Mulder is certain to seek a package with higher average annual value than the five-year, $55 million contract A.J. Burnett received last December from the Toronto Blue Jays."

I don’t doubt that he’ll want and expect this kind of money, based on his career totals of 98 victories, a 3.87 ERA, and a 1.30 WHIP before age 29.  The problem with his contract (and most free agent contracts) is that he’ll be paid largely on what he’s done and not what he will do.  Burnett at least has upside.

I’m not here to bash Mulder; I know he’s still a solid innings guy and that he’s become one of the more extreme groundball pitchers in the game as his strikeout rate has declined.  He’s a decent five-win pitcher, akin to the current version of Brad Radke.

I don’t know why teams continue to overpay for this kind of production, but they do.  If you look at Mulder’s projected Marginal Value Over Replacement Player, his next five-year contract could have an annual average close to his value for the entire length of the contract.  In other words, he might make $12MM in 2007 despite being worth less than $16MM over the entire period of 2007-2011.

It’s understood that that’s the way free agency works and you have to pay a premium to get decent starting pitching.  But Mulder’s next contract looks like it will be one of the most egregious examples of a free agent mistake.  If the market overvalues starters, shouldn’t teams find other ways to acquire them or else just build a dominant offense at the expense of pitching? 

Guys like Brad Radke, Mike Mussina, Kerry Wood, Andy Pettitte, and Jason Schmidt should also hit the market after the 2006 season.  The Schmidt Derby should be a wild one, especially if he returns to form in 2006 as I’ve projected.

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