After unsuccessfully shopping around for a multi-year deal, Carl Pavano accepted the Twins’ arbitration offer before Monday’s midnight deadline. That means he’ll stay with the Twins in 2010 via a one-year contract for an as-yet-undetermined salary, which will either be decided by an arbiter or agreed upon by the two sides prior to a hearing. He earned about $4.5 million last season from an incentive-laden deal with the Indians, so Pavano figures to get a raise to at least $6 million for 2010.
On the surface, that may seem like too much money for a guy with a 5.10 ERA, but Pavano’s raw totals are misleading for several reasons. For one thing, after a brutal April, he went 14-9 with a 4.67 ERA and 131-to-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 181 innings. Beyond that, his secondary numbers suggest that his performance was more along the lines of a 4.10 ERA than a 5.10 ERA once luck, defense and bullpen support are removed from the equation.
Pavano had 147 strikeouts versus just 39 walks in 199 innings overall and induced ground balls on 44 percent of his balls in play, which equals an Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) of 4.17. His actual ERA was a full run higher because, more than any AL pitcher, Pavano was hurt by poor defense behind him and an unsustainably low rate of stranding runners. He had the highest batting average on balls in play at .335 and the lowest strand rate at 66.1 percent, both of which can’t help but improve.
None of which is to suggest that Pavano is a great pitcher, because he’s definitely not. However, simply repeating his 2009 performance would make him a very solid middle-of-the-rotation starter for a team whose rotation had the third-worst ERA in the league. Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and Nick Blackburn are cemented in the rotation, and the Twins clearly felt uncomfortable handing the remaining two spots to Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak or Jeff Manship.
Instead, they bring back Pavano for what will hopefully be another 180 to 200 innings of an xFIP in the low 4.00s and let the unproven arms fight over just one rotation spot while making it easier to trade Perkins or another young starter for help elsewhere. Bypassing young pitchers by signing a veteran starter with an ugly ERA is certainly nothing new for the Twins, but Pavano differs significantly from guys like Livan Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz, and Sidney Ponson in that he actually pitched well in 2009.
Hernandez, Ortiz and Ponson had xFIPs of 5.62, 5.39, and 5.10 respectively the season before signing with the Twins, so naturally they stunk. Pavano may seem like more of the same based on his ERA, but that’s hardly the case. Of course, he has to stay healthy for any of that to matter and prior to logging 199 innings this year, Pavano threw a grand total of 145 innings in the previous four years. I’m in no position to speculate on his odds of staying off the disabled list in 2010, but he didn’t miss a start in 2009.
Plus, by calling his bluff and refraining from a multi-season commitment, the Twins avoided most of the risk that comes with Pavano specifically and pitchers as an oft-injured group. Short of simply signing a terrible player, it’s fairly tough to screw things up too badly with a one-year deal, because the worst-case scenario involves wasting some money and then wiping things off the books. Pavano is a far better bet than Hernandez or Ortiz were and beats the hell out of multiple years for a guy like Jarrod Washburn.
With that said, there was certainly a compelling argument to be made for not offering Pavano arbitration and simply letting Liriano, Perkins, Duensing, Swarzak or Manship fill two spots. That would’ve saved the Twins at least $5 million, which would clearly come in handy, and if all else is equal, I’m always in favor of going young. However, if Liriano goes to the bullpen and Perkins is traded, that leaves an awful lot riding on Duensing, Manship and Swarzak, none of whom are better bets than Pavano for 2010.