In their history the Mets have selected a pitcher with a first-round draft pick 18 times and have grabbed a hurler seven more times with a supplemental first-round pick. For every success story like Jon Matlack, you can name three failures (Les Rohr, Randy Sterling, Cliff Speck). If you counter with Dwight Gooden, I respond with Dave Proctor, Chris Roberts and Kirk Presley.
Viewed in this light, Mike Pelfrey, the team’s first-round pick in 2005, has been a huge success. Not only did Pelfrey make the majors, but he has 860.2 IP in the big leagues along with 50 Wins. That ranks 15th on the all-time victory list for the Mets, just a win behind Bobby Ojeda.
Pelfrey has been both durable and reliable for the Mets, as he’s made 30 or more starts in each of the past four seasons. On the surface that might not seem so impressive but heading into Tuesday, Pelfrey has pitched the 25th-most innings in the majors since the start of the 2008 season. When seemingly every player on the Mets has visited the disabled list multiple times since 2008, Pelfrey takes the ball every fifth day.
Let’s compare Pelfrey to another durable guy – Javier Vazquez. Since 2008, here’s how these two guys have produced in the majors:
MP – 766.2 IP, 45-43 (.511), 4.24 ERA
JV – 752.2 IP, 47-47 (.500), 4.16 ERA
On the surface, these two have been pretty similar the past four years. But there’s one respect where these two could not be more different. And that’s with how much money they’ve been paid since 2008. After the 2007 season, Vazquez inked a 3-year, $34.5 million deal and prior to this season he signed a 1-year, $7 million contract. Since 2008, Vazquez has made $41.5 million.
Meanwhile Pelfrey has the following salaries listed on his Baseball-Reference page:
2008 – $1,987,500
2009 – $2,237,500
2010 – $500,000
2011 – $3,925,000
Total – $8.65 million
Vazquez has made nearly five times as much as Pelfrey over the last four seasons for pretty similar output. Now there are reasons why – Vazquez was a proven commodity when he signed his big contract while Pelfrey had all of 94 IP in the majors prior to 2008, with a 5.55 ERA in that span. But the primary reason for the discrepancy is that Vazquez was a free agent while Pelfrey was still under team control.
Pelfrey signed a four-year contract after he was drafted with a relatively-hefty $3.55 million signing bonus, as negotiated by Scott Boras. That bonus was pro-rated over the life of the contract, explaining why Pelfrey made so much more in 2008 and 2009 than he did in 2010, when the Mets exercised their club option.
This year, Pelfrey saw a nice bump in his salary as he was arbitration-eligible for the first time. And as much of a percentage raise that Pelfrey saw, it was likely still well below what he would have commanded if he was a free agent. A ballpark figure is that a player will earn roughly 40 percent of his free-market value during his first arbitration year, 60 percent his second year and 80 percent his third year.
FanGraphs pegged Pelfrey’s 2010 season as being worth $11.5 million and he ended up getting $3.925 million in his first year of arbitration. If the $11.5 million was representative of his free-market value, Pelfrey received about 34 percent of his value in his first arbitration year.
Of course, the question is: How much could Pelfrey get in his second arbitration year and is it worth it for the Mets to sign him? FanGraphs shows Pelfrey being worth just $2.3 million so far this season. However, one of the rules of arbitration is that a team cannot offer a salary less than 80 percent of what the player made the previous season.
The least amount the Mets could offer Pelfrey would be $3.14 million. However, it is extremely unlikely that they would offer Pelfrey less than what he made in 2011. A 2005 Baseball Prospectus article indicated that the “last case where someone walked out of an arbitration hearing with less money than they made the previous year was Randy Milligan in 1994.”
If the $11.5 million referenced above is still Pelfrey’s free-market value, he should earn roughly $6.9 million in arbitration. It seems unlikely that his value is still that high, but let’s call that the upper end of what he might get in arbitration. So, Pelfrey’s contract floor is $3.14 million and his contract ceiling is $6.9 million. Can Sandy Alderson risk going to arbitration with Pelfrey and having to pay him somewhere around $5 million, the midpoint between his floor and ceiling?
As painful as it is to say when we have watched him disappoint on a regular basis in 2011, Pelfrey is probably still worthwhile to sign at $5 million. A 34-year old Vazquez commanded $7 million on the open market coming off a 157.1 IP season where he posted a 5.32 ERA. The only other option seems to be to roll the dice with a pitcher coming off injury, like Alderson did with Chris Capuano. That’s worked out okay, but Alderson did the same thing with Chris Young, and that one didn’t go quite so well.
I expect the Mets to retain Pelfrey for 2012. The past five years, he’s alternated bad years and good years, much like Howard Johnson and Bret Saberhagen did back in their day. Johnson and Saberhagen had their better seasons in odd years, while Pelfrey prefers the even ones. If you believe in that kind of thing, perhaps Pelfrey will be a bargain, even at $5 million.