Back in the winter that followed the 2004 season, the New York Mets made the decision to sign Kris Benson for three years and $22.5 million. At the time, the contract was considered very generous for someone that many saw as a mid-rotation starter. In fact, pitchers like Matt Clement and, ahem, Russ Ortiz were able to land even more lucrative deals as a result. Fast forward two years and a spiraling pitching market has made Benson's $7.5 million salary for the 2007 season seems very reasonable for a pitcher that is still largely regarded as a mid-rotation starter.
As the beneficiary of a multi-year contract who was traded in the middle of the contract, Benson has the right to demand a trade from the Orioles after this season. Should he choose to do so, the Orioles would be given the off-season to comply or Benson would again become a free agent. In this market, it's likely that he would get more guaranteed money than remains on his current contract, so it's entirely possible that he will do so.
Many Orioles fans would be distraught at the proposition of losing the most accomplished pitcher on an already troubled staff. Benson's 4.54 ERA is very close to the league average and his ability to throw around 200 innings per season takes some pressure off a thin bullpen. Unfortunately, while ERA is an accurate measure of past effectiveness, it is not necessarily an accurate predictor of a pitcher's ERA in future seasons. Let's take a look at a few trends in Benson's performance over the past three seasons:
Certainly, the fact that Benson has switched leagues has had some impact on his diminishing numbers. Nevertheless, it is never a good sign when a 31 year old establishes a new career low strikeout rate for the second season in a row. In fact, let's put Benson's line up against a much less popular pitcher's:
While Lopez's ERA is well over a run higher than Benson's, all indicators point to Lopez being the more effective pitcher in 2007. If Benson does in fact demand a trade this off-season, it could present a great opportunity for the Orioles to take advantage of the disparity in their perceived values. While the Orioles could probably avoid arbitration with Lopez by offering him a figure significantly less than his current $3.75 million salary, Benson could be the key piece in a trade that helps the Orioles fill a void in left field or at first base while also freeing up additional payroll. At $7.5 million for 2007 and a club option for the same salary in 2008, Benson is now a very attractive commodity to club's seeking pitching help in a market recently buoyed by Roy Oswalt's five year mega-deal for $73 million. Rodrigo Lopez, on the other hand, will command significantly less salary and could end up as the more effective pitcher in 2007.
Michael Hollman is the Senior Writer for Inside The Warehouse and can be reached via email at Publisher@InsideTheWarehouse.com