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Taking a Risk on Carl Pavano

Teams in search of a mid-rotation starter will find that their options have dwindled, not that there were abundant options to begin with as most mid-tier starters have found homes. What remains is a recognizable list of players that all come with some sort of risk. It feels odd to type this, but the best bet among them might be Carl Pavano.

Pavano’s injury history is well documented and has been roundly mocked. This is a guy who turned a strained buttocks into a five-month absence and then, on the verge of a return, crashed his car and broke a couple of ribs. During the course of his four years with the Yankees he spent 630 days on the disabled list while facing just 642 batters. How, then, can he have changed the sentiment about his durability in the span of just two years?

By pitching 200 innings in each of those two years. Pavano spent the 2009 season polishing the rust that had accumulated from 2005 through 2008, and it showed. He wasn’t inducing many ground balls, and he was allowing a few too many homers. He impressed the Twins enough that they traded for him mid-season, and he showed marked improvement with them. After accepting their offer of arbitration he returned in 2010 and had a fine season, a 3.75 ERA and 4.02 FIP. But, most importantly, he did it in 221 innings.

This is apparently enough to land him a multi-year contract. The Twins again offered Pavano arbitration, but this time he turned it down. He’s a Type A — which is a bit of a head scratcher, considering his 5.10 ERA in 2009 — so he’ll cost any signing team a first or second round pick. Even with that burden, Pavano will still likely get a multi-year deal. The market for starting pitching is that thin. The only question that remains is of a team’s sanity in signing him.

When Dave crowdsourced Pavano’s next contract, the median deal would have been three years, $27 million, perhaps with the third year being an option — Dave thinks vesting, I think high-buyout if anything. Remember, Pavano turns 35 before spring training starts, so a three-year deal carries him through his age-37 season. It’s not so much his injury history that causes the biggest deterrent, though that certainly plays a part. Rather, it’s the type of pitcher Pavano has become.

In 2010 Pavano saw his strikeout rate dip quite a bit. He’d never been a strikeout pitcher, but 4.76 K/9 fell considerably below his career average. He did see a spike in his groundball rate, which suggests he adapted a bit, but that low strikeout rate is certainly concerning. There are only 86 player seasons since 1970 wherein a pitcher has struck out fewer than 5 per nine and has pitched more than 150 innings in his age 35 through 37 seasons. Only about half had a league average or better ERA.

Still, there’s a good chance Pavano turns in another quality season next year, as both his xFIP, 4.01, and his SIERA, 4.15, point to some sustainability. But once pitchers, especially ones with an injury history as deep as Pavano’s, hit that age-35 mark, the situation becomes a bit murkier. If it takes a two-year commitment to land Pavano, that seems reasonable. But to add that third year, effectively giving a team a low-strikeout 37-year-old, is a bit too much. There’s a good chance it will become a freebie year, in which the team receives little to no production, meaning they’re paying more for those first two years.

This is why it makes sense to have a high-buyout third year option, rather than a vesting one. Should Pavano become ineffective during his second year, a team can mitigate the risk by handing him a buyout rather than having him come back for the third year. A two-year, $21 million contract, with each of the two years paid at $9 million and a $3 million buyout of a $9 million option, might help a team save money and mitigate risk. The problem, of course, comes when a desperate team is ready to add that third guaranteed year. Given what we’ve seen so far this winter, I would think that likely.