Time Machine: October 2006 – Mark Mulder

Continuing our series looking ahead to the next offseason and resulting major decisions facing the Cardinals.

This is the time of year when the major decisions for next season are mostly in place – a time when thoughts can be allowed to drift forward into the future just a bit without ignoring more pressing immediate matters.

 

No better way to accomplish this but to slide back into our time machine, but this time setting the dial forward to next October, following another Cardinals playoff run.

 

Let's get right into analysis of another of the many tough decisions facing Walt Jocketty over the next 12 months. Today's subject is…

 

Mark Mulder's contract

 

History lesson

 

While still a member of the Oakland A's, Mulder inked a deal that covered the years 2002-2005, with a 2006 option that has since been exercised. The interesting thing about this deal, with a maximum value of over $23 million, is that it was signed before Mulder had even two years of service time. Oakland's Billy Beane made a decision to cover all of Mulder's arbitration-eligible years prior to free agency in one fell swoop.

 

As a result, the A's enjoyed the benefit of Mulder's services for three more seasons. However, with two years remaining on the contract, at the height of Mulder's value, Beane dealt him to the Cardinals one year ago. Receiving rookie Dan Haren as part of the bounty, Beane was in the position to repeat the same thing as he did with Mulder – tie Haren up until he would be eligible for free agency.

 

And, that is exactly what Beane did. Take a look at the basic manner in which Mulder's and Haren's contracts are constructed. Not only are they a mirror image of each other, the dollar amounts are even similar. Each is for four years, plus an option year. Even the incentives, not listed here, are comparable. To top it off, both were signed in September. (Data from Cot's Baseball Contracts.)

 

Mulder: Signed extension 9/01

- $.2M signing bonus

- 02:$.75M, 03:$2.6M, 04:$4.4M, 05:$6M, 06:$7.25M club option ($.25M buyout)

 

Haren: Signed extension 9/05

- $.2M signing bonus

- 06:$.5M, 07:$2.2M, 08:$4M, 09:$5.5M, 10:$6.75M club option ($.25M buyout)

 

Is Mulder worth keeping?

 

I find it difficult to even pose such a question, but I feel it necessary given all the internet smack being tossed around about the man. Some Cardinals fans either don't care if Mulder remains or want to trade him off, either now or at mid-season.

 

Mulder has won 97 games and lost just 50, posting a 3.87 ERA in less than six seasons in the majors. The lefty is a former 20-game winner, finished second in the 2001 Cy Young Award balloting and is a two-time All-Star.

 

As a part of the 16 win-3.64 ERA season Mulder posted last season, he came on strong at the end. Mulder's second-half ERA was a stingy 2.77. To top it off, his ground ball to fly ball ratio of 2.74 was third-best among National League starters last season, superior to Chris Carpenter and everyone else not named Brandon Webb and Derek Lowe.

 

Some complain about Mulder in the post-season. He isn't a big game pitcher. He's soft. He can't win the big games, they say. Well, the facts say something else entirely. Over his career, Mulder has posted a 2.34 playoff ERA. His record of 3-4 is as much his teammates' responsibility as his.

 

For comparison, Mulder's former "Big Three" mates in Oakland each have career playoff ERAs inferior to Mulder. Barry Zito is 3-2, 2.76 while Tim Hudson is 1-3, 3.97.

 

Should Mulder be traded now?

 

Realistically, I cannot envision a scenario in which the Cardinals would be able to extract full value from Mulder given his contract situation, even if they wanted to, which I don't believe they do. The fact is that another club would not pay full value for a one-season rent-a-player.

 

On the other hand, if Mulder would be open to negotiating an extension, then the Cardinals are the ones who should be doing that to keep him in St. Louis, not to make him more attractive in trade, anyway.

 

Should Mulder be traded midseason?

 

In addition to the above reasons, does anyone think the Cardinals will be out of playoff contention come July? Does anyone really believe that the 2006 Cardinals won't have a much better chance in October with Mulder on the team than without him?

 

What if Mulder chooses to be a lame duck?

 

There is a decent chance that Mulder may want to test the market next offseason. First of all, he has never been a free agent before. This would be his first opportunity to be the center of attention for any number of clubs and achieve a huge payday.

 

Mulder is a single man and some have asserted that he might enjoy the off-field opportunities in another locale other than laid-back St. Louis. I have read the Illinois native now lives in Arizona.

 

Then, there is the issue of the marketplace. In this wacky offseason, we have seen lesser pitchers than Mulder being tossed between $10 and $12 million per year on deals of up to five years. Mulder, who will be just 29 in August, is also younger and is heading into the prime years of his career. And, don't forget he is left-handed.

 

Unless Mulder is truly in love with pitching in St. Louis, why would he be motivated to sign early?

 

Remember that unlike Matt Morris, who was drafted a Cardinal, Mulder has been in the uniform just one season so far. Does he have an allegiance?

 

Should Jocketty try to sign Mulder now?

 

Given the steep price the Cardinals had to pay to acquire Mulder via trade, his track record and relative youth, I cannot imagine that the team would not want to keep Mulder beyond his current contract.

 

However, will General Manager Walt Jocketty open negotiations with Mulder now?

 

Let's consider his recent track record. Generally, while Jocketty has been a failure in luring high-profile free agents to St. Louis, he has been successful in retaining key talent once they have played there. In fact, shortstop Edgar Renteria is the only recent example that comes to mind of a player the team wanted to keep but instead got away.

 

Just last year, Jocketty moved to keep pitchers Jason Isringhausen and Chris Carpenter in Cardinals uniforms, giving each contract extensions well before they reached free agency.

 

Another benefit in starting contract talks now is to better understand what it might take to sign Mulder. Is $10 million enough? Would $12 million do it?

 

Knowing these answers will help guide Jocketty as to where to put his priorities. After all, it is most probable that Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and Sidney Ponson could join Mulder as free agents following this coming season.

 

Jocketty may be unable to sign them all, but knowing where he stands with Mulder should affect how he deals with the others.

 

Comps

 

What is the market value of Mulder? As noted above, $12 million per year is Kevin Millwood's take from Texas, while we are all quite familiar with the $11 million yearly salary that A.J. Burnett extracted from Toronto. Both are five-year contracts.

 

Looking at Baseball-Reference.com, the top two players listed as similar to Mulder are Mark Buehrle and Roy Halladay.

 

Buehrle, like Mulder, would have enough service time to become a free agent after the 2006 season. However, his contract, signed in 2002, gives the White Sox an option for 2007 at $9.5 million – a deal they will surely and gladly take.

 

Halladay, a former Cy Young Award winner and new teammate of Burnett, will be making $12.7 million this season and will bring home $12.8 million more in 2007. This is more like what the market could be for Mulder if he has a good season and makes it to free agency.

 

To depress you even further, Baseball-Reference lists Houston's Andy Pettitte as the #1 comp to Mulder through the age of 27. Mr. Pettitte will be in the final year of his three-year, $31.5 million deal with Houston. But, don't feel sorry for Andy. His 2006 salary is $17.5 million.

 

In the Elias player rankings calculated by results over the past two seasons and used by MLB for player classifications, not surprisingly, Mulder is a Type A player. His score of 79.301 ranked #11 in the National League, ahead of Hudson, Pettitte and Burnett. Halladay's lower American League score of 71.389 was due to his injury-shortened 2005 campaign. Zito was ninth in the Junior Circuit, with a score of 79.722, very close to Mulder. Buehrle was third at 94.259.

 

What to do?

 

If I was Jocketty, I wouldn't mess around. We know what we have in Mulder. I would start the bidding with what Walt offered Burnett and move up to four years, $40 million relatively quickly. However, it might take $12 million per to eventually get Mulder.

 

Will the Cardinals go that high and if so, how soon? A point to consider carefully - does the price of poker ever go down?

 

Still, if the initial offers don't get Mulder's attention, it could be a strong signal as to his interest level in remaining a Cardinal beyond 2006.

 

Will external factors come into play?

 

Like I said above, there are other player negotiations coming up that could further be complicated if Mulder's contract is not addressed. I noted the other starting pitchers above, as well as Jim Edmonds' situation in the previous installment of this series.

 

Then, we have the "Carpenter scale", which came to light in the Burnett negotiations. As a by-product of inducing Carpenter to sign a below-market deal a year ago, Jocketty inadvertently created a ceiling on the price he can offer for pitching. Walt seems to want to avoid the risk of insulting Carpenter by paying another starter more than him. For the record, Carp's deal is for a base of $7 million in 2007 and $8 million in 2008, plus incentives.

 

This is another reason to offer Mulder a multi-year deal. By obscuring Mulder's bigger deal, they can more easily rationalize it in the context of Carpenter's contract. For example, a four-year, $40 million offer might be structured like this and still fit within the Carpenter scale: $2 million signing bonus, plus salaries of $7 million, $8 million, $11 million and $12 million for the years 2007 through 2010.

 

Where's the competition? Could be anywhere

 

Consider the wild spending this offseason around baseball. These additional revenue sources will continue to flow, likely enabling further escalation of salaries across the game. The teams who could be in contention for Mulder's services should be become a free agent would be strong competitors.

 

I already mentioned Arizona as a place that may align well with Mulder. Leftfielder Luis Gonzalez is making $11.5 million in 2006, but his $10 million team option for 2007 will surely not be picked up, freeing enough money to make a run at Mulder if the Diamondbacks so choose.

 

And, how about the perennially-leading spenders in the game, the New York Yankees? Starter Mike Mussina is in the decline phase of his career and has been making $17 million per season. His option for 2007 will likely not be picked up at that price, potentially creating an opening for Mulder in the Big Apple. Mulder would then rival Derek Jeter as the most eligible bachelor in the City!

 

There are plenty of other scenarios out there that I could paint, but I hope you get the idea. If Mulder hits the open market, consider him gone.

 

The replacement?

 

Then, there is the issue of replacing Mulder that the Cardinals would need to consider. Granted, they don't have to have a left-hander in the rotation, but it sure would be nice. There is no one in the farm system who projects to help anytime soon.

 

Even if there was to be another lefty as good as Mulder in the free agent market next offseason, I think we'd all agree that Walt probably couldn't get him. That leaves the unpredictable trade market as the only viable option to secure another lefty if Mulder walks. That would put Walt right back where he was before acquiring Mulder two years prior.

 

The bottom line

 

$10 - $12 million is a lot of money, but waiting to do anything with Mulder until the 2006 season is underway or even later will only likely lead to his asking price going up. If Mulder wants to remain a Cardinal, now is the time to find out how badly. Otherwise, we could see another A.J. Burnett-like circus conducted around Mulder next offseason.

 

Our next trip into the Time Machine will be to look into three other starting pitchers' situations for 2007 and beyond – Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan and Sidney Ponson.

 

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

 

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