The most valuable pitchers in baseball

J. Meric

In which "valuable" is inversely proportional to "rich."

Tuesday night, Yu Darvish and Madison Bumgarner both pitched magnificently, but they're dissimilar pitchers. Darvish is right-handed; Bumgarner is left-handed. Darvish has a plethora of pitches that he can use in any count; Bumgarner relies on two pitches. Darvish was born in Japan; Bumgarner grew up in a North Carolinian version of Multiplicity, with Bumgarners running around all over the place.

They're similar in two important ways, though: They're both good, and neither is going anywhere else soon.

They're not going anywhere soon because they're good, but also because they're under contract for a while. Darvish is locked up for the next five years at $51 million, and Bumgarner is locked up for at least the next five years at $34 million, with two different options at $12 million per season after that.

Consider that Edwin Jackson signed for more total money than either of those two. Except Jackson's contract is for a year less, and he's about as old at the start of his contract as Bumgarner and Darvish will be at the end of theirs. That contract was still considered a pretty good one for the Cubs, so you can see how Darvish and Bumgarner would be on the short list of pitchers a team would pick first if there were some sort of anarchic, Mad Max-themed expansion draft. But would they be Nos. 1 and 2? Heck, let's make the hypothetical question its own paragraph:

Considering contract status and talent, which pitcher would you pick to start your team?

First off, pretend you're a normal team because pretending you're the Dodgers and saying, "Justin Verlander. Because screw you, rest of the league, that's why" isn't very sporting of you. Pretend you're representing a team that isn't rich, but isn't poor, and generally interested in contending right away. The Orioles, say. Now, there are a few different ways to go about this:

a. Proven greatness on a long-term deal

Here be Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez. But it's also where Matt Cain and Cole Hamels reside, to a lesser extent. You know what they're capable of; you know what they're likely to do in the future. And they still have their relative youth.

Still, those contracts are guaranteed, and they're guaranteed for a long, long time. There's a trap door under every pitcher in the world, and there's a gibbon in the control room, mashing buttons because he has nothing better to do. The reward is more of the same, and it's a heckuva reward. But the risk is, quite literally, hundreds of millions of dollars. Insurance might cover a chunk, but it would still be costly.

b. Proven greatness, but on a shorter-term deal

Clayton Kershaw and David Price are both underpaid right now. They'll be underpaid next year, and Price will probably be underpaid the year after that. They're also two of the game's very best pitchers, which means there's a choice to make between them and the first group. If Price makes, say, $40 million over the next three years, that means Cain will be guaranteed about $67.5 million more. But Cain will also be under contract for two more years and a team option. Do you value the longevity and cost certainty, or do you assume that all pitchers will break your heart and go with the lower commitment?

I'm not sure there's a right answer. Also, this is a daily reminder that I'm glad not to be a GM. They have to do this stuff, but they don't get to use Monopoly money.

c. Peanuts, followed by arbitration

Dylan Bundy is the best pitching prospect in the minors, with Gerrit Cole not far behind. They'll each make something like Delmon Young money over the first three years of their respective careers. And if things get weird after that, their teams can just release them into the wild. Is that the most valuable kind of contract when it comes to pitchers? If you're a little wary of their uncertain career path, you can choose someone a little more established, like Jarrod Parker or Wade Miley.

Most rookies and second-year pitchers are on something that's basically a two- or three-year contract close to the league minimum, with three team-friendly options after that. Maybe that's the most valuable kind of contract -- cost certainty, minimal risk. All that's missing is the dominance, really. Which might never come. That's the problem.

d. Cheaper long-term deals that are still a bit speculative

As in, these pitchers are good, but they could be even better. Matt Moore was good last year, but the Rays would still be a touch disappointed if he repeated that season a few times. No one's really sure where Bumgarner ends and AT&T Park begins, at least if you're using park factors to adjust his stats. Darvish's ERA is probably going to come closer to his FIP this year, but you'd like to see it happen at least once before declaring him to be the most valuable pitcher in the game.

If I had to prioritize the four categories, I'd go in this order: d, b, c, a. I don't like risk, but that's not just the risk of overpaying a pitcher -- it's also the risk of losing a pitcher to free agency, the risk of a prospect not panning out, or the risk of not having a legitimate ace. It's a pretty delicate balance, and there probably isn't going to be a magic equation to answer this question.

With all that written, here's a stab at the ten most valuable pitchers in baseball when talent, performance, and contract are taken into account:

10. Matt Cain (five years, $100 million, followed by one $21 million team option)

9. Jered Weaver (four years, $70 million)

8. Clayton Kershaw (one year, $11 million, followed by one arbitration year)

7. Gio Gonzalez (four years, $38.75 million, followed by two options totaling $24 million)

6. David Price (one year, $10.1 million, followed by two arbitration years)

5. Chris Sale (five years, $32.5 million, followed by two team options totaling $26 million)

4. Madison Bumgarner (five years, $33 million, followed by two team options totaling $24 million)

3. Yu Darvish (five years, $50.5 million)

2. Stephen Strasburg (one year, $3.9 million, followed by three arbitration years)

1. Matt Moore (five years, $14 million, followed by three team options totaling $26 million)

Kershaw misses out from the top spots because he's under contract for just the next two years. He's the best pitcher in baseball, most likely, but two years just isn't long enough to make me feel comfortable. He'll also get a moon base with his next contract with the Dodgers, so he's not long for that second category. It would take another year at below-market prices to move up to the top five, which is why Price is there.

Cain takes the last spot, even though he has a lot more guaranteed money coming to him. Think of it as a contract similar to the Weaver deal when it was first signed, except it's in the early stages. It's still below market value, though.

Strasburg is the best of all worlds -- a legitimate ace who's cheap, and he isn't eligible for free agency until after the 2016 season. I figure the Tommy John surgery is like a tonsillectomy that he got out of the way early, but that's because I'm kind of an idiot when it comes to "medical science." Plus, if he totally goes kerflooey, the last three years of that deal aren't guaranteed.

I came into this expecting to rank Moore lower, mostly because he hasn't been nearly as successful as the pitchers behind him on the list. Not yet. I remembered his contract as being a little overrated.

But the Rays have committed just $14 million to him for the next four seasons -- the kind of money that even a team like the Rays can work around if things go sour. After that, there are three team options with salaries closer to Joe Blanton's than Justin Verlander's. Even if Moore doesn't improve a lick but stays healthy, he'll still be a bargain for the Rays until he's 31.

If he's an ace-type, the Rays will pay Moore less from 2016 through 2018 than the Tigers will pay Verlander in 2016. Potential, long-term value, short-term value, risk, reward ... gimme Moore.

No, wait. Strasburg. Wait, the answer is always Matt Cain. Dang it. But if you're forcing me to choose, it's Moore.

It's almost as if the Rays know what they're doing.

More from Baseball Nation:

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Free agency isn’t dead. It’s just boring.

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Five stupidly specific predictions for 2013

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