Every fan clamoring for their team to sign a young pitcher having a breakout year to a long-term, “team-friendly” deal should keep in mind the unfortunate case of Jair Jurrjens.
The former Atlanta Braves starting pitcher is in the news again because the Colorado Rockies have just acquired his services from the Cincinnati Reds for a minor league, non-prospect middle infielder named Harold Riggins. Jurrjens, who has been pitching at Triple-A Louisville so far this season, is not viewed as a top candidate for call up to the big leagues unless Colorado gets truly desperate; his 4.46 ERA in just over 34 innings so far in 2014 has done little to assuage concerns that Jurrjens just can’t get advanced hitters out at a rate necessary to pitch in the majors, even as a swingman or fifth starter.
Back in 2009, when Jurrjens threw 215 innings of 2.60 ERA (159 ERA+) ball, the idea that he wasn’t a future mainstay in the Braves rotation for years to come ranged from either nonsensical to heretical. But after a disappointing 2010, Jurrjens would have only one more above-average season in the majors — a 152 IP, 2.96 ERA (129 ERA+) 2011 campaign that earned him a spot in the All-Star Game — before his career went off the rails.
Jurrjens has never had arm problems, which is odd for a pitcher in this day and age; he went on the disabled list for rotator cuff soreness back in 2007, but that’s about the extent of his upper body injuries. He has had problems staying healthy, however: His right knee has already been surgically repaired once, and it was a bone bruise on that very same knee that cost him the last few starts of his 2011 season. Still, he supposedly came back healthy to begin the 2012 campaign … and posted a 6.89 ERA in 48.1 IP before the Braves were forced to send him down. Since 2012 began, Jurrjens’s career has been in a death spiral; he was granted free agency by the Braves after the 2012 season and signed a make-good contract with the Orioles. Despite their extremely underwhelming rotation, Baltimore was so unimpressed with his performance that he only recorded 7.1 IP for the team in 2013 spread across two starts: a 5 IP, 4 ER affair in mid-May, and a 2.1 IP outing in late June. Jurrjens then signed a minor-league deal with the Reds in the offseason, and now finds himself in Colorado.
Jurrjens is a reminder that all career arcs aren’t created equal, and that dreaded elbow and shoulder issues aren’t the only things that can derail the career of a young pitcher who has had success at the major league level. He’s also a warning against locking in young pitchers to deals whose value is predicated on picking up club options years and years in the future (though personally, I’m in favor of such deals if only because it puts more money in the hands of the people responsible for the actual on-field product). Cost certainty contracts are as much of a gamble as letting a player go through the arbitration process and then trying to extend them, and for some high-risk positions — starting pitching being the highest-risk of them all — it might make sense for most teams just to let the process play itself out.