The Toronto Blue Jays have faith in Dustin McGowan. Even though he’s only pitched 21 innings in the majors since 2008, the Jays this week rewarded the 30-year-old with a three-year, $4.1 million contract. With his new deal, McGowan will still make $600,000 this season before receiving $1.5 million in 2013 and an additional $1.5 million in 2014. If all goes well, Toronto can exercise a $4 million option in 2015, or buy out the right-hander for $500,000. While the financial commitment to McGowan is minimal, the Blue Jays’ decision to extend a pitcher with such a lengthy injury history is puzzling.
Multiple arm injuries may have ruined McGowan’s once-promising career. Since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2004, McGowan has dealt with a number of serious shoulder issues for the past several years. Between 2008 and 2011, he had two shoulder surgeries — plus a knee surgery. He didn’t pitch a single inning during that period.
While the odds weren’t in his favor, McGowan returned to the majors last season. Predictably, he struggled. Though McGowan still managed a 20.8 K% in his 21 innings, he walked 13.5% of his batters. His posted a ghastly 6.43 ERA, and his 5.60 FIP and 4.38 xFIP weren’t much better. You have to figure that a full, healthy off-season will give McGowan a good chance to improve his 2011 stats. But the problem is that there’s no way to know (yet) if his previous injuries sapped him of his effectiveness.
Shoulder problems are the most devastating injury a pitcher can sustain. Some pitchers — like Brien Taylor — never fully recover from shoulder surgeries. Others — like Rich Harden — never regain their velocity or their effectiveness. While McGowan made it back from his injuries, his velocity dropped last season. After consistently averaging 94 mph with his fastball in 2007 and 2008, McGowan’s average fastball velocity fell to 92.9 mph last season. That’s still decent, but it’s unclear if the difference will limit him.
And even if McGowan returns to form, there’s no telling how long he’ll stay healthy. That’s why — despite the low cost — this deal is a risky one for Toronto. Guaranteeing an injury prone pitcher $4.1 million isn’t typically a good idea — especially considering McGowan’s already dealt with a foot injury this spring. It’s not a serious injury, but it’s not encouraging when you consider his past.
If McGowan can remain a starter — and if he stays healthy — there’s a chance he’ll live up to this new contract. If he fails to make the major-league rotation out of Spring Training, the Blue Jays might be better off putting him in the AAA rotation. While McGowan’s stuff would probably play well out of the bullpen, it’s hard to imagine him pitching back-to-back days consistently. It would also be tougher for McGowan to live up to his contract since he would be pitching less often.
It’s tough to imagine McGowan returning to full strength or staying healthy for the length of his new extension. In all fairness, the Blue Jays have the most information about his health and have watched him closely this spring. If McGowan is healthy — and he can remain that way — this contract will be an easy win for Toronto.
Still, there’s no telling whether McGowan can pitch a full season. Sure, if he falters, the Blue Jays won’t be out a whole lot of money. But there was really no reason for Toronto to hand out this kind of extension to such a risky player.