During the offseason, the Twins committed to retaining free agent Carl Pavano by offering him arbitration, which he accepted. Pavano took the offer because he knew he'd stand to make around $7 million and that was probably more than any free agent contract would pay him given that he'd finished the prior season with an ERA north of five.
Some Twins fans reacted with appall at the price tag for Pavano. At $7 million, he'd be making more than twice as much as anyone else in the rotation, and one would have a hard time arguing that he was the team's best starter. While he'd pitched some big games for the Twins down the stretch after being acquired from the Indians in August, there was no denying that his overall results on the season were ugly. He led the league in earned runs allowed and opposing hitters ran up a .294 average and .466 slugging percentage against him.
Now he was going to become the Twins' highest-paid starter, by a long shot. It's not the first time the right-hander has found himself locking into a controversial contract.
Following a 2004 season in which he won 18 games for the Marlins, Pavano signed a monster deal with the Yankees, one that would pay him $40 million over four seasons. The contract was an unmitigated disaster for the Yankees, as Pavano battled injuries throughout his time in New York and totaled just 145 (below-average) innings over the life of the four-year deal. His name became a running joke in New York.
However, Pavano has been remarkably durable since signing his one-year make-good deal with the Indians prior to last season. He made 33 starts and piled up 200 innings last year, and he's been healthy and strong so far this year. What's even better are his results: Pavano is 4-2 with a 3.43 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. He sports the league's best strikeout-to-walk ratio and has issued fewer walks than any other qualifying starter in baseball. Given that he's putting up almost the same numbers so far that he did in that 2004 season, one which made the Yankees deem him worthy of a mega-deal, $7 million could end up looking like a bargain. This isn't necessarily just a lucky surprise.
The smart observer did not look at Pavano's 2009 season and see a bad pitcher with a 5.10 ERA who was getting obscenely overpaid through arbitration. They saw a veteran pitcher who was plagued by bad luck but who did well with everything he had direct control over. He ranked fourth in the AL in strikeout-to-walk ratio, joining elite hurlers Roy Halladay, Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander and A.J. Burnett in the top five. He posted his highest strikeout rate since 2001, when he was 25. He showed increased velocity across the board. He pitched more innings in that one season than he did over his entire four-year stay in New York.
Few people seem to realize this, but Pavano is about six months less far removed from undergoing Tommy John surgery than Francisco Liriano. Given that Liriano seems to be rounding fully into shape about three years after the surgery, it wouldn't be terribly surprising if Pavano can continue to pitch the way he did during his prime this season. Many are simply assuming Pavano's hot start is a mirage, and it's true that he'll always be susceptible to the occasional dud performance, but his supporting peripherals are encouraging and in my mind there's no reason the 34-year-old can't keep up at this pace.
If he does, that $7 million will look like money well spent.