Rick Porcello extension is a potential bargain for Boston Red Sox


The extension that the Boston Red Sox gave to right-handed pitcher Rick Porcello Monday night came as a surprise to most of us. Not only was there concern that the team was rewarding Porcello before he had ever stepped on the mound in a meaningful game with his new team, but many seemed shocked that a pitcher that has yet to earn the “ace” title warranted that much money.

It certainly is a lot of money. $82.5 million over a four year period (including the $500,000 signing bonus), for an average annual value of $20.625 million. That stands as the highest AAV the Red Sox have ever given to a pitcher, and only the 19th contract with an AAV over $20 million given to any major league pitcher.

Is that too much for a pitcher with Porcello’s track record? Actually, it may very well prove to be a bargain for Boston.

Porcello is coming off of a career year in which he won 15 games for the Detroit Tigers with a 3.43 ERA. That’s a solid season, but doesn’t exactly scream front-line starter material. What’s important to note is that Porcello has steadily improved in each of the last four seasons.

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After bursting onto the scene as a 20-year old rookie in 2009 with an impressive campaign that saw him finish third in AL Rookie of the Year voting, Porcello began to struggle as the league adjusted to him. It’s not uncommon for pitchers to hit some road bumps early in their career, especially when they come into the league at the young age that he did. His career 4.30 ERA is the result of some of those early struggles, and not indicative of the player he is now. The 26-year old is entering his prime, which suggests he will continue on his current trend of improving over the next few years.

If Porcello approaches his production from last season then he would have been able to command a much steeper price tag had the Red Sox allowed him to test the free agent market. Given the inflated prices we have seen in recent years for free agent starting pitchers, offers exceeding the $100 million mark would seem to be a fairly conservative estimate of what Boston would be competing with on the open market.

Much of the backlash directed at the decision to extend Porcello stems from a belief that if the Red Sox were going to spend over $20 million per year on a pitcher, they should have ponied up the dough to keep Jon Lester, who is undoubtedly a better pitcher at the moment.

The comparison between the two pitchers is inevitable, given that they were essentially traded for each other. Boston dealt Lester to Oakland at the trade deadline last season for Yoenis Cespedes, who they flipped to Detroit this winter to acquire Porcello. They have now signed Porcello to an extension after failing to lure Lester back with a pricey free agent offer.

Critics of how the Red Sox front office has been operating will insist that Boston has come up on the short end of the stick in this exchange by settling for an inferior pitcher. This viewpoint is misguided, failing to realize the difference in value between the two.

First of all, Boston did offer Lester more than what they gave Porcello, coming in with a final offer of 6-years, $135 million. It ended up falling well short of the 6-year, $155 million Lester got from the Chicago Cubs, but Boston’s offer was significantly more in both total dollars and AAV than the deal they signed Porcello to.

What makes Porcello’s new deal more enticing is the age difference between the two pitchers. Chicago is paying a premium price based on what Lester has already done, while Boston is paying Porcello for what they expect him to do during the prime years of his career.

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Chicago has the 31-year old Lester locked up through his age 36 season, with a $25 million team option tacked on in 2021 that includes a $10 million buyout if they decline the option. The results from most of the over-30 pitchers that were given free agent deals exceeding $100 million have historically been disastrous. As great as Lester is now, he’s unlikely to hold his value through the entire contract, which means the Cubs are risking that they may be carrying dead weight towards the end of the deal.

Porcello, on the other hand, should retain his value through the duration of his deal. Counting this year, which Boston already had him signed to for $12.5 million, the Red Sox will have Porcello under control for his age 26-30 seasons. This means they can keep him in a Red Sox uniform during his prime, while allowing them the option of letting him go at an age where pitchers typically plateau or begin their decline phase.

While Boston is getting some criticism for paying a high AAV for Porcello, the trade off is that the extension is only for four years. This allows the Red Sox to pay a lower total salary, compared to what he might expect on lengthier free agent offers, while ensuring that they won’t pay a premium price for a pitcher on the wrong side of 30. The terms of this extension mesh well with the philosophy the Red Sox front office has been attempting to adhere to the past couple of years, after having been burned in the past by expensive long-term contracts.

The cost of a win on the free agent market is approximately $6 million for every Win Above Replacement, according to a study by FanGraphs. In order for Porcello to live up to his contract, he’ll need to average 3.4 WAR per season. Last year he was worth 4.0 WAR (per Baseball-Reference), so if Porcello matches his production from last season, he’ll easily live up to his contract. If he makes the leap into the next stratosphere of pitchers, which seems reasonable given how his career is trending and the benefit the ground-ball pitcher will get from playing for a team that places greater emphasis on defense, this deal could prove to be a steal for Boston.

Meanwhile, Lester will need to average 4.3 WAR to live up to his contract, which is right in the range of the 4.6 WAR he posted last year. It’s unreasonable to expect Lester to remain at this elite level when he approaches his late 30’s, which means he needs to far outproduce that 4.3 WAR average on the front end of the deal in order to make up for the value he loses in his decline years.

In short, both pitchers are being paid approximately what their current production says they should be worth. The difference is that they are bound to trend in opposite directions over the course of their respective deals, which makes Porcello the far better value.