Jason Schmidt: The Arm, the Ego, and the Option 

The big takeaway from the weekend series with the Mets: there's something wrong with Jason Schmidt. Somewhere between Kris Benson's leadoff double in the third inning and Kris Benson's bases-loaded walk in the fifth inning, Mike Krukow stopped jimmy-jackin' around and pronounced what we've all been thinking about Schmidt since early April: "He's not right."

He couldn't put anyone away. He was missing his target by a foot or more. He refused to throw off-speed pitches.

In this morning's papers, Schmidt says he's finally come to terms with not throwing 95; that he needs to mix it up more; that despite the drop in velocity he feels fine. Well, he said he felt fine before going on the DL in May. And his pitching hasn't improved since his return. This feels to me like the run-up to an official Giants press release along these lines: Whoops, further tests have revealed (i.e., despite all our earlier protestations to the contrary), it looks like there is in fact some damage/tears/strain/fraying of the labrum/elbow/rotator cuff/etc, and that Schmidt needs to go under the knife.

It would puncture a final hole in the sagging balloon of 2005, but it would also be a relief. No more dissembling to the media, no more trying to get him back on the mound to salvage the season. Clear a space, give Matt Cain or Brad Hennessey the turn, and start thinking about Schmidt's option for 2006. (More on this in a second.)

However, the situation may not be so clear-cut. The human arm has only so many pitches in it unless it's attached to Nolan Ryan. The line for a pitcher between loss of stuff and discernable, repairable injury is often blurry.

Would an arthroscope, a scalpel and that magic Ting touch get Schmidt back to his dominant self in 2006 or 2007? Or has his body simply reached a point of no return: sorry, bubba, no more 96 MPH fastballs.

If the latter, then Schmidt has taken a tiny but important step. He admitted after yesterday's debacle he needs to become more of a pitcher:

"I'm trying to pitch with the style I've used the last three or four years," he said. "I'm trying to do the whole power-pitcher mentality. I just have to mix it up more and change things up. That's probably what I've got to do, resort to other pitches instead of being stubborn out there and walking into things. That's part of pitching. Just stop being stubborn and go ahead and do it, and wait until the other stuff comes."

It's not like he's out there naked; he still throws 90-92 MPH and has a great change-up. Those are tools most major-league pitchers would kill to have.

Now that he acknowledges he may never return to the halcyon days of blowing 95 at the letters past the likes of Jose Reyes, he can get on with the rest of his career -- if indeed there's no yet-to-be-revealed injury.

But if his problems are mostly mental, not physical, I'm optimistic. Schmidt's a nice guy with, it seems, minimal ego. He should be able to embrace this new image of himself hitting the corners at 91; he's already taken the first step by making these public statements. Putting health aside for a moment, the question centers on his breaking pitches. His slider and curveball are afterthoughts to his fastball and change-up. They are often lazy and hittable. Can he improve them? Because for the first time in his career, he's really going to need them.

Ah, and what of the contract? The Giants have an option to pay him $10.25 million in '06. If they decline, they owe him a $3.25 M buyout and he walks away a free agent. Whether his struggles this year are injury-related or not, it seems highly unlikely they'll pick up the option.

But they're going to pay him $3.25 M anyway -- they may as well work out some sort of deal to build on it. Say, a base of $3.5 M with lots of incentives and a team option for '07 with a minimal buyout. If it turns out he's injured and can't pitch in '06, they pay only what they would have paid in declining the option. If he's not hurt and needs to spend the rest of '05 figuring out his new approach (call it The Schmidt Second Act), then becomes a darn good pitcher in '06 -- think Pedro Martinez in his final Red Sox year -- the the Giants get only what they pay for. Or pay for only what they get.

If you were Brian Sabean, how would you deal with Schmidt's option? Would you pick it up? Would you negotiate a lower-cost, good-faith deal for '06 that shows appreciation for all he's done for the Giants? Or would you cut him loose after this year?


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