Seven-year deals for pitchers ... big trouble

Breaking: Washington Nationals announce they've signed Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract.

You can't measure seven years in baseball with a yardstick, a ruler or even Altuves. So we're here to measure it in a different way. (You're welcome.)

Seven seasons ago -- that would be in 2008, if you’re not calculating along at home -- 13 pitchers showed up on at least one ballot in the Cy Young voting. Six of them are retired now (Mike Mussina, Roy Halladay, Mariano Rivera, Brad Lidge, Ryan Dempster and Brandon Webb).

Of the other seven, Daisuke Matsuzaka is headed back to Japan, Johan Santana hasn't won a big league game since June of 2012, CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee spent a combined 200 days on the disabled list last year and, while his team was winning the World Series, Tim Lincecum was starting as many games last October as Juan Marichal.

And that leaves two others, Ervin Santana and Francisco Rodriguez, who are, amazingly, still alive and well. But they also have changed teams a combined seven times since then.

So … would you give a seven-year contract to any pitcher?

That's a decision the Washington Nationals had to make this week. We know now what they concluded. What we don't know is how these next seven years, for their newest ace, Max Scherzer, will turn out. But we can sure guess.

And we can sum up that guess in four words: Good luck on that.

"We've gone through this a lot," said one executive whose team has pursued big-ticket free-agent starters. "And there's just a massive risk in these kinds of deals. Massive."

And that's just a general assessment -- of any deal like that, for any pitcher -- coming from a team that will admit to making offers of five years and up for other aces, despite that risk.

We'll get into the factors that make Scherzer in particular a gamble later. But first, let's see what history tells us about contracts this long.

According to ESPN's trusty Stats & Info gurus, Scherzer is the seventh free-agent pitcher in history to agree to a deal of seven years or longer. Here's a look at the other six, ranked from best to worst:

Kevin Brown

Contract details: 7 years, $105 million. Years: 1999-2005. Age in first season: 34. Total wins above replacement (WAR): 22.9.

The Dodgers got two fabulous seasons from Brown right out of the chute (31-15, 2.80 ERA, 68 starts, 154 ERA-Plus). But then came those final five seasons, in which he made more than 22 starts just once and spent the final two years of both his contract and career with the Yankees. And we'd still rank this as the best of all of these deals.

CC Sabathia

Contract details: 7 years, $161 million*. Years: 2009-2015. Age in first season: 28. Total WAR: 21.6. (*Opted out of contract after 2011 and signed five-year extension with Yankees.)

We actually should use multiple asterisks to assess this contract. For one thing, Sabathia opted out of it. For another, it would still be a work in progress even if he hadn't. If he contributes anything at all this year, he'd move up to first on this list in total WAR. And regardless, you could still argue he should rank above Brown, because CC's first three seasons as a Yankee were so dazzling (59-23, 3.18, zero missed starts, one World Series parade, 138 ERA-Plus).

But obviously, those seven years in total are not ending well. Sabathia is 32-23, 4.21, over the past three seasons, with four trips to the disabled list and a bunch of question marks heading into this year.

Barry Zito

Contract details: 7 years, $126 million. Years: 2007-2013. Age in first season: 29. Total WAR: 3.0.

One thing you can say for Zito: He kept showing up for work. Other than 2011, when a foot issue sent him to the disabled list twice, he didn't miss a turn (not voluntarily, anyway) in any of his other six seasons. That -- and his save-the-season masterpiece in Game 5 of the 2012 NLCS -- would be the good news. The bad news is, his ERA was north of 4.00 in every one of his seven seasons. And his ERA-Plus of 87 tied Edinson Volquez for second worst (ahead of just Livan Hernandez, at 85) among all pitchers who made at least 140 starts in those seven years. Which could have something to do with why Zito often shows up in those Worst Contract Ever debates.

Mike Hampton

Contract details: 8 years, $121 million. Years: 2001-2008. Age in first season: 28. Total WAR: 2.9.

At least Zito will always have Hampton to keep him company on those Worst Contract Ever lists. Let the record show Hampton did make the All-Star team in Year 1 in Colorado (despite a 5.41 ERA). And he was a definite offensive upgrade, over just about any pitcher on earth. (He hit .315/.329/.552/.881, with 10 homers, in his two seasons as a Rockie. Really.) But his day job? That didn't go too well. He had a 5.36 ERA in his time in Colorado. It took one of the wildest, we'll-pay-you-zillions-to-take-the-guy-off-our-hands, three-team trades in history to get him out of town. And while Hampton had his moments in Atlanta in 2003-04, he also missed over 100 starts (including two full seasons) over the final four years of this deal. And his kids never did fall in love with that Colorado school system, either, by the way.

Wayne Garland

Contract details: 10 years, $23 million. Years: 1977-1986. Age in first season: 26. Total WAR: 0.7.

Granted, Garland signed this deal in a very different time and a very different place, for very different moolah. (Just so you know, if you adjust for inflation, his contract would have been worth $89.85 million in current dollars.) But it was still quite the disaster. Garland went 28-48 for the Indians, with a 4.50 ERA and an 89 ERA-Plus. And the highlight of his career in Cleveland was losing 19 games in Year 1. After that, he made a total of 50 starts, never made more than 20 starts in any other season and pitched zero innings over the final five years of his deal. So, um, that went well.

Masahiro Tanaka

Contract details: 7 years, $155 million, plus $20 million posting fee*. Years: 2014-2020. Age in first season: 25. Total WAR: 3.3. (*Can opt out of contract after fourth season.)

If you were assigning a grade to this deal, it would have to be incomplete. Wouldn't it? Tanaka is only heading into Year 2. But he missed almost half a season in Year 1. And he's still pitching with a partially torn ligament in his elbow. So as awesome as he was before he got hurt, he's the living definition of "massive risk." If all goes well, Tanaka will opt out in just three years (which means the Yankees will have been on the hook for $27 million a year, counting the posting fee, even if he winds up missing 12 to 18 months with Tommy John surgery). And if all doesn't go so well? Uh-oh. There's another six years and $133 million left on the books, no matter what.

OK, so what have we learned from reviewing those six deals? Well, "buyer beware" would pretty much cover it. And that goes not just for these contracts, but for the seven-year extensions for Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw which are currently in progress.

"Hey, at least Kershaw is the best pitcher on the planet," said one NL exec. "And the planet is a big place."

But that doesn't make him any less risky, on this or any other planet. And Scherzer is no exception, no matter how Scott Boras wants to spin it.

Executives of three different teams reminded us that the reason the Diamondbacks traded Scherzer -- five years ago -- was specifically because they were convinced he was going to break down. And even though they've turned out to be wrong, obviously, over the past five years, are they going to be wrong over a period that now has to span 12 years? History says that's highly unlikely.

We've also had front-office men from a number of clubs tell us this winter that they believed Jon Lester (who got six years, $155 million from the Cubs) was a better bet to hold up physically, and adjust as his stuff changes, than Scherzer is.

"I actually think Lester is a pretty unique case," said another NL executive. "His delivery is awesome. He's got great pitchability. And he's exactly the kind of guy who could lose a tick [in velocity] and reinvent himself if he has to will himself to do that."

"What makes Scherzer great now is that his fastball is so intimidating," said an AL exec. "But he's going to start losing some of that velocity. So does he have the gift to have that second career that all the great pitchers have, to win without the same velocity? Honestly, I have more of a problem saying that he does than I do with Lester. Even though he's developed more pitchability over the last couple of years, Verlander and CC both had pitchability beyond their power, too. And they're still having troubles."

This same exec then asked the question that actually planted the idea for this opus: What's the last contract of even six years that worked out -- for any pitcher? Well, we looked. And the correct answer is: Mike Mussina.

Mussina signed a six-year, $88.5 million deal with the Yankees before the 2001 season. He averaged 31 starts and 200 innings a year over those six seasons, making only one trip to the disabled list because of an arm issue, and the Yankees went 114-72 in games he started. So even all these years later, he still looms as the poster boy for "what you hope you find when you do these types of deals," said one GM.

"Look, these contracts are dumb to begin with," said another GM. "Really, only a three- or four-year deal makes sense. Seven or eight is what the players want. So they should come down to five or six, as opposed to seven. But here's the thing: It's all market-based, so you do it. But rationally, from a baseball point of view, it doesn't make sense. And we all know that."

But incredibly, they do it anyhow. They hand out these contracts. They hold their breath. They pray for a parade in the first couple of years. And then they hope they don't have to spend the next five years hearing anyone invoke the name, "Mike Hampton."