Pudge, Maddux not exactly bargains

With all due respect to Albert Belle and Rickey Henderson, at this writing there are only two marquee free agents still available: Greg Maddux and Ivan Rodriguez.

It's strange to see a couple of future Hall of Famers still looking for work in late January, considering that both remain fine (or better) players. They'll both find a team eventually, of course? But rather than answer the question, "Which team?" (I don't have any idea), I'd rather address the question, "How much do they 'deserve,' and for how long?"

Looking at Maddux, it seems to me that he's established a particular level of ability, a level that's best seen by looking at his last four seasons ...

Hits/9 W/9 K/9
2000 8.1 1.1 6.9
2001 8.5 0.7 6.7
2002 8.8 1.7 5.3
2003 9.3 1.1 5.1

If you'll indulge me for a moment, here's the same stuff, but condensed:

Hits/9 W/9 K/9
2000-2001 8.3 0.9 6.8
2002-2003 9.0 1.4 5.2

What does all this tell us that we didn't already know? Look at Maddux's ERA's in those same four seasons:


That 2.62 in 2002 was Maddux's best ERA since 1998. That 3.96 in 2003 was Maddux's worst since 1987 (when he was a rookie). From this, we might guess that as recently as 2002 Maddux was at the height of his powers (or very close), only to fall off a cliff (for him) in 2003.

Except that's not what happened. ERA aside, Maddux was essentially the same pitcher in 2003 that he'd been in 2002 ... and that pitcher isn't as good as the pitcher who struck out nearly seven batters per nine innings in 2001 and 2002. Considering that hitting stats have generally been trending downward over the last few years, it's pretty clear that Maddux is no longer a great pitcher.

Let me stress, though, what I am not saying. I am not saying that Maddux isn't still a fine and valuable pitcher. He is. Maddux is still perfectly capable of posting an ERA in the neighborhood of 3.50, which last season would have placed him 12th in the National League (right behind Kip Wells, believe it or not). I've heard people compare this winter's Greg Maddux to last winter's Tom Glavine, with Glavine serving as a warning to any team interested in signing Maddux.

But they're not the same. In 2002, Glavine's ERA (2.97) wasn't indicative of how well he actually pitched, and anybody who believes in objective analysis had to think his numbers would take a tumble in 2003 (they did). Maddux's ERA in 2003 wasn't particularly representative, either ... but in the other direction. He's established a level performance that, while no longer Cy Young-worthy, is still quite valuable. What we don't know is how long he can maintain this new level. Paying $10 million for 15 wins and a 3.50 ERA is fine, but $10 million for 12 wins and a 4.25 ERA is not. My guess is that Maddux is still available because while a number of teams would be happy to pony up for one or two seasons of 3.50, those third (and perhaps fourth) seasons are worrisome. As they should be.

Of course, Maddux turns 38 shortly after Opening Day of 2004. Ivan Rodriguez is barely 32, yet until the Tigers' recent offer, nobody had been willing to give him the big money and the big years that his (and, coincidentally enough, Maddux's) agent wants.

Why? Because the history of catchers' careers is so consistent, so clear, that even the most ignorant of baseball executives can't ignore what will probably happen to Rodriguez within the next two or three seasons.

Statistically, the three most similar players to Rodriguez through age 31 were Ted Simmons, Yogi Berra, and Gary Carter. Throw Johnny Bench and Bill Dickey into the mix, and the forecast is inescapable: great-hitting catchers generally don't remain great hitters once they're into their middle 30s.

Why? The reason seems obvious. Squatting for 18,000 pitches every year is tough on a fellow's legs, and without legs you can't hit much. Maybe the old rules don't apply. Maybe with modern medicine, conditioning and pharmaceuticals, what Gary Carter and Johnny Bench did doesn't mean anything. And maybe Rodriguez is more committed to staying in tip-top shape than his historical peers.

It's a risky bet, though. And more now than ever. Because -- as Bill Madden reported in Sunday's New York Daily News -- insurance companies are significantly more conservative these days than they used to be, when insuring the contracts of baseball players. Before 2002, the sky was the limit and you could insure just about anything. That terrible Mo Vaughn contract? Insured, and so it wound up costing the Mets relatively little (which is something, by the way, that we almost always fail to consider when we're talking about a team that's wasted a great deal of money on a player who got hurt).

Anyway, no more. According to Madden, the insurers won't cover any contract that runs more than three seasons, and even when they will insure a contract, it's "only for injuries unrelated to any previous injuries."

For Pudge Rodriguez, those are problems. His agent is looking for a four-year deal and he has, in the past, suffered from knee injuries. Tigers owner Mike Illitch has been forthcoming about his willingness to pay higher than market value for free agents, if that's what it takes. But $40 million for four years of Ivan Rodriguez? If history's any guide -- and again, we can't be sure that it is -- that's probably about $20 million and two years too much.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.