For the second time in their careers, Kevin Millwood and Bartolo Colon have hit free agency at the same time. Last time was in the winter of 2003, when they were the two of the three best pitchers in a middling free agent class. This time around it’s quite a bit different: Millwood recently turned 36 and is coming off a poor season, the third time in the last four years that his ERA eclipsed 5.00. Colon, who will turn 38 in May, hasn’t pitched since July of 2009 and has thrown just 257 innings during his last four seasons on the mound. Despite this, he has landed a minor league contract with the Yankees, which will pay him $900,000 if he makes the team out of spring training. Millwood, meanwhile, sits and waits for a suitable offer.
Back in 2003, Colon was considered the superior option. ESPN ranked him No. 2 on their top 50 free agents, while slotting Millwood at No. 6. Colon did have the stronger history, with ERAs that checked in at or under 4.00 in each of the previous six seasons. He also had a monster 2002 season when, despite striking out a career-low 5.75 per nine, he finished with a 2.93 ERA. Millwood, whom the Braves traded to the Phillies the previous off-season, experienced and up-and-down 2003, with the up coming in the first half and the down coming in the second. He still finished with a 4.01 ERA and 3.59 FIP, though, and with Scott Boras as his agent he appeared poised to land a deal similar to Colon’s.
What was supposed to inflate the prices for both pitchers never came to fruition. Both the Yankees and the Red Sox, owners of the Nos. 1 and 6 payrolls in baseball, needed some pitching help. The Yankees specifically needed arms. Roger Clemens was set for retirement, David Wells was no longer welcome back, and Andy Pettitte was headed for Houston. That’s three fifths of their 2003 AL Champion rotation that needed replacing, and how better to repair the rotation than with Yankee dollars? But they decided to go in a different direction, trading for Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez while leaving the free agent pitchers untouched. The Red Sox, too, opted for the trade route, acquiring Curt Schilling.
While that dampened the market a bit, it didn’t kill it. In early December Colon signed a four-year, $51 million deal with the Angels. Millwood, though, was seemingly left out of the multi-year party. Unsatisfied with the contract offers he received, Millwood signed a one-year, $11 million deal with the Phillies. Colon might have been the more highly regarded pitcher at the time, but Millwood’s deal was far superior, at least for the team.
The Phillies ended up the beneficiaries of that deal. Millwood ended up pitching horribly, a 4.85 ERA in 141 innings, though, as was the case in the previous season, his peripherals suggested something of a better performance. His season was cut short in August by an elbow strain, leaving the Phillies with little value for their $11 million. Still, they were able to part ways after the season with only that $11 million spent. The Angels, meanwhile, got an even worse performance out of Colon, a 5.01 ERA and 4.97 FIP in 208 innings. But unlike the Phils they couldn’t walk away; they were on the hook for another $34 million over the next three years.
In the winter of 2004 Millwood again took a one-year, prove-yourself-deal, this time moving to the American League with the Indians. Again, he and Colon experienced parallels that year. Millwood threw 192 innings to a 2.86 ERA and 3.73 FIP, while Colon threw 222.2 innings to a 3.48 ERA and 3.75 FIP. Despite Millwood’s far superior ERA, he received just one vote, third place, on the Cy Young ballots. Colon, apparently because he threw 30 more innings, received 17 first place votes and the award. (We’ll ignore for a second that Johan Santana deserved it.) Millwood, of course, benefited more from the redemption, as he signed a five-year, $60 million deal with the Rangers. Two years later, he had trumped Colon’s deal.
The story turns sour for both after this point. Colon never again topped 100 innings, while Millwood had just one year where his ERA dropped below 4.50. For its $51 million the Angels got 7.7 WAR out of Colon, or $6.6 million per win, while the Rangers got 13.5 wins for its $51 million (the Orioles paid the other $9 million), or $3.8 million per win. Millwood might have had to wait an extra two years for his contract, but he got more guaranteed money and he provided more value to his team.
And yet he still sits home while Colon has an invite to spring training. If he’s holding out for a guaranteed deal he might have to keep waiting. And if he does end up signing another deal, it will be another instance of Colon beating him to the punch, despite the two players’ similarities. Yet, in the end, it seems that Millwood has come out ahead. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the trend will continue in 2011.