We begin with a Shaun Marcum timeline. Marcum debuted in the majors in 2005, and he got progressively better through 2008. He missed all of 2009 due to Tommy John surgery. In 2010, as a Blue Jay, he started on opening day. Following 2010, he was traded to the Brewers for top prospect Brett Lawrie straight up. In 2011, he posted a sub-4 ERA over 33 starts. In 2012, he posted a sub-4 ERA over 21 starts, having missed time with elbow discomfort. But he pitched before the discomfort, and then he came back to pitch after it. Marcum’s a not-unreliable 31 years old. As a free agent, you’d think Marcum would be able to get himself a reasonably hefty contract. Instead, he’s signed with the Mets for a year and $4 million. He could earn an additional $2 million, but only if he hits his incentives.
As always, that counts as a hefty contract by our non-baseballing standards. Marcum will out-earn many CEOs! Such luxury! But for the sake of comparison, Mike Pelfrey signed for a year and $4 million, with $1.5 million in possible incentives. Scott Baker signed for a year and $5.5 million, with $1.5 million in possible incentives, and last season he didn’t throw a pitch. Kevin flipping Correia signed for two years and $10 million, and he’s Kevin Correia. On that basis alone, it seems like the Mets got themselves a pretty good deal. On that basis alone, it seems like Marcum should’ve had more of a market.
The fear, presumably, concerns Marcum’s health. He has an injury history, and this is an excerpt from a blog post from when Marcum was on the disabled list last summer:
Marcum has been on the disabled list since June 23, retroactive to June 15, with right elbow tightness. He threw 15 pitches on Friday, but pitching coach Rick Kranitz said Marcum’s arm “wasn’t quite getting loose.” Kranitz indicated that Marcum’s shoulder was the issue, not his elbow.
Marcum went on the DL with an elbow problem, then he started having some issues with his shoulder. Understandably, these were seen as red flags. But Marcum returned to pitch down the stretch. A simple statistical breakdown:
We’re splitting into groups of just 13 starts and eight starts, so, you know, whatever, but there’s evidence Marcum wasn’t the same guy. His ERA went up, his FIP went up, and his strikeouts went down. His velocity went down across the board by just under a full tick. Yet you look at the contact column and it’s not like Marcum became easier to hit after returning from the disabled list. His post-DL contact rate was about the same as his pre-DL contact rate, and it was right in line with his previously established track record. He did, though, see his strike rate drop, from 65% to 61%. In short, Marcum was worse when he came back from his injury.
But the sample is small. And now Marcum has had a full offseason to rest up and get better conditioned. He passed the Mets’ physical, so if there were real concerns about his health, the Mets didn’t find anything sufficiently worrisome to void the contract. Where we’re left, I think, is here: there are legitimate reasons to worry about Shaun Marcum going forward, but there’s enough to like that it still seems like New York got a good deal. The commitment is small — Marcum’s base salary is about that of a one-win player — and the upside is 200 above-average innings. Or a decently valuable midseason trade chip. If Marcum could get moved for a Brett Lawrie a couple years ago, a similarly effective Marcum could still generate real attention.
It’s true that Marcum is a soft thrower. He’s one of the softest throwers, and that doesn’t do wonders for his perception. He’s a righty who throws like a lefty. But here are things Shaun Marcum can do:
He has a great changeup, and he throws a wide enough assortment of pitches that his pedestrian fastball doesn’t often get exploded. Marcum’s no stranger to dingers, because he’s an extreme fly baller, but just last year he posted about the same strikeout rate as Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez. Marcum’s a soft thrower who doesn’t necessarily generate a soft thrower’s expected results. With more than 900 innings under his belt, he’s proven by now that his stuff works.
For the Mets, Marcum will fill the void left by the departed R.A. Dickey. The rotation is now some assortment of Marcum, Johan Santana, Jon Niese, Dillon Gee, and Matt Harvey. Marcum has health questions. Santana has health questions. Niese has dealt with some heart complications. Gee has health questions. Harvey’s young enough to have stamina questions. On paper, this doesn’t look like the most durable rotation, but there’s a lot of upside in it, giving the Mets some of that desired dark-horse volatility. They could surprise, and then, of course, Zack Wheeler could get himself ready. The Mets could end up in a decent position this season, is the point.
Marcum could help them get there. In the best-case scenario, Marcum pitches well and the Mets over-achieve. Failing that, Marcum could pitch well and get traded. The worst-case scenario is that Marcum sucks or gets hurt, but then the Mets are out just $4 million. At this point in this offseason, I’m not sure $4 million could be better spent. Even for an unlikely contender, it makes sense to spend this sort of money on this sort of player, as the Cubs have actively demonstrated.
Shaun Marcum wasn’t great in 2012, and he was also hurt for a part of it, too. He was never going to cash in for a mega-deal this winter. But he wasn’t sufficiently different from previous versions of himself to look like a low-upside acquisition, and for $4 million, he makes a great deal of sense, even for a team with a slim chance of seeing the playoffs. Value is value — every team wants to accumulate it, and it looks like the Mets just added to their accumulation.
Update: Marcum’s contract actually has $4 million in possible incentives, not $2 million, according to Ken Rosenthal. That changes the math, but not enough to make this not look good for New York.
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