Let's go ahead and face it: people love getting a good deal and, to take that a step further, also love the mere thought of getting a good deal. They also love the thought of their favorite sports team getting a good deal, and it is for that reason that I believe there is a strange sort of positive connotation attached to the phrase "low-risk, high-reward signing." After all, such a phrase implies some probability -- however minimal it may be -- that the signee could produce significant value at a below-market salary, yet still be readily disposable in the event that his performance fails to pass the necessary tests. People love the idea of getting something for less than its actual worth.
And so it is that the Rangers' dalliance with free-agent right-hander Brandon Webb is drawing a fair amount of attention, mostly of the positive variety, with Texas reportedly attempting to hammer out a deal with the one-time Cy Young Award winner (and two-time runner-up); as of early Tuesday afternoon, Webb was scheduled to speak to manager Ron Washington and pitching coach Mike Maddux, and is believed to want to pitch for Texas (though reportedly not for a lengthier period of time than one season). Given the rough contract parameters that Webb is seeking, one could reasonably conclude that he will command a base salary of $4-5 million in 2011, with innings-based incentives that could vault his total compensation beyond $10-11 million.
What renders the term "low-risk signing" something of a misnomer is that every signing carries at least moderate risk if there's any chance of the player being used improperly; sticking by an ineffective player for an excessive period of time can have deletrious effects, particularly if there are potentially better options available, and we've seen instances of this in Texas from time to time. Furthermore, one must also consider the chances of actually unlocking the "high-reward" component -- sure, Webb could replicate his pre-injury form and post a four-plus-win season, but if the probability of such an event is only 5-10 percent, how much emphasis should we really place on the upside?
Notwithstanding the fact that Webb's surgeon is conveniently also the Rangers' team physician (and has green-lit Webb's return to pitching after a two-year layoff), pitchers coming off shoulder injuries -- or any serious injuries at all, really -- are generally poor bets to produce satisfying value; this was particularly true in 2010 (although Rich Harden's inclusion in this list of pitchers is questionable). There are exceptions, of course, and I suspect these are what will engender hope for Webb: Jimmy Key, Orel Hershiser, and Bret Saberhagen. Each of these three veteran hurlers successfully returned from shoulder problems to log at least two more solid seasons before career expiration, and all three were comfortably above average performance-wise (like Webb) before succumbing to season-ending shoulder issues.
Beyond that ray of promise, however, there is little else on a historical level that augurs Webb's successful comeback, as there are countless numbers of pitchers who couldn't pull it off, or actually did pull it off in terms of returning to the majors, but heavily underwhelmed in Year One (Ben Sheets). Even good medical reports for Webb likely render him a coin flip, at very best, and even if he manages to avert further health-related setbacks in 2011, there are enough things that could go wrong and subvert his effectiveness that you really can't lean too optimistic on his median projection, let alone project with much confidence. Perhaps 110-120 innings of league-average baseball, with the understanding that he might be much better but will more likely be worse? I really don't know.
I'm not saying that signing Webb is a bad idea, of course. What I am saying is that it's not going to be enough on its own to supplement the starting rotation, given the abundant uncertainty, and that in the event Texas actually finalizes a deal with Webb, we should be careful not to be seduced by the inevitable labeling of Webb's next contract as a "value" signing, a "low-risk, high-reward" signing, or any of the rest of it.