The best of the best are still going to get paid (Mark Teixeira, Joe Mauer, Carl Crawford), but the collective baseball brain trust has realized that borderline All-Star production isn't worth much more than $8-$10 million a season. The Yankees, of all teams, are loaded with examples. Nick Swisher, Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner are all good-to-great players earning well below the kind of money Damon or Abreu were seeing as recently as three years ago. Teams don't have to pay Johnny Damon $15 million if they are confident they can get similar production from Nick Swisher for $7 million
Throughout this period of deflation in position player salaries, pitcher salaries have remained high. Are they about to come down as well? In the past two years four pitchers have gotten big contracts or extensions: CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, John Lackey and Josh Beckett. CC is the highest paid pitcher in baseball, with a contract worth up to $161 million if he decides to stay in New York after next season. The other three are not earning CC money, but they are getting paid at rates similar to one another. If you add this season to Beckett's extension, then he, Burnett and Lackey are all making about $85 million over five years. CC is earning his paycheck. The other three are falling short:
All the data in the table are taken from Baseball Reference, except for the FIP and Value data, which come from Fangraphs.
Burnett and Beckett haven't earned their money at all. Fangraphs feels that Lackey will come close, but, with all do respect to a great baseball website, that value estimate is hard to swallow for a pitcher who has been below average this season (I've included the Value estimates because it is important to provide a context for a salary critique). Regardless, even a generous estimate suggests Lackey owes the Red Sox money this year, and probably about $4 million.
These three pitchers are of a similar caliber to the kinds of players Bobby Abreu and Johnny Damon were a few seasons ago. All three are between 30 and 33, and were performing just below the best in the game at the time of their deals (yes, even A.J., before our readership tears me to pieces). If you were a general manager, would you want any one of these guys at those salaries three years from now, let alone next season?
Cliff Lee will get paid this offseason because he has proven to be one of baseball's best performers when he is healthy. For the next caliber of pitcher, a salary deflation may be in order. Not only have three name brand pitchers with big money contracts performed somewhere between replacement level (A.J. and Beckett are actually below replacement level) and average, but teams around baseball have shown that you don't need to pay $15 million a season for a 100 ERA+. From the Rays, to the Blue Jays, to the Athletics, or even the Yankees' very own Phil Hughes, baseball is filled with organizations and players who have demonstrated that while you may never have enough quality starting pitching, you don't have to pay a king's ransom for it. In the future aging pitchers may find that they are as difficult to employ as aging batters.