Matt Morris is the biggest free agent pitcher signed by the Giants since Mark Portugal. There are so many ways to run with that opening sentence. It's a statement of fact, indictment of a frugal ownership, punch line, misdirection, and something that will guarantee Morris is overrated by a good number of people going into the season. Going through, one at a time:
Statement of fact
Armando Benitez is the biggest free agent pitcher if you want to get technical, but by "biggest", I'm referring to contract size. You could make a case that Jason Schmidt deserves to be counted as a free agent, as the Giants certainly had to outbid several other teams to retain him. Other than that, the other options are Brett Tomko and Osvaldo Fernandez.
Mark Portugal was coming off a great 1993 season for the Astros, and was signed to a 3-yr., $9M contract. It was the first and only time he'd pitch 200 innings, and it seems like the Giants got Astrodpwn3d a bit with the park effects. It didn't work out all that well, though it did eventually allow us to yell at Deion Sanders from the bleachers after he signed with the Cowboys.
If I had unlimited time, I'd love to invent some sort of salary inflation calculator, where we could compare a 3-yr., $9M contract in 1993 to a 3-yr., $27M contract in 2005. As I'm incredibly lazy, however, I'll just guess they're similar. Consider this an asterisk after "statement of fact", amending it to "statement of fairly sound opinion".
Indictment of a frugal ownership
Really, 3-yr/$27M isn't a huge contract in today's market. There have been plenty of premium pitchers to switch teams in the past 13 years, and it would have been nice if the Giants had, you know, got one.
Rectum? It nearly killed him. Wait, wrong one. Matt Morris isn't really that exciting of a free agent pitcher, and the punch line is that Mark Portugal was the last can of aerosol excitement the Giants threw money at. The Giants have had a lot of close calls in playoff series over the past decade, and a pitcher of some repute might have made the difference.
This is an easy category to fill. The seasons between Portugal and Morris weren't filled with refugees from the independent leagues. The Giants had some good success filling the rotation from the farm (Shawn Estes, Russ Ortiz), through trades (Jason Schmidt, Kirk Rueter, Livan Hernandez), and on the cheap (Mark Gardner, Brett Tomko). Most of those pitchers had their warts, but all were quality rotation members at one time or another.
And when bemoaning a lack of big-ticket free agent pitching, it's always handy to keep around a news article or two about Darren Dreifort and Chan Ho Park buying various former Soviet republics.
Something that will guarantee Morris is overrated by a good number of people going into the season.
Morris is no ace, and we're a long way from the peak of his career. The infrequent dalliances by the front office in the free agent market, however, combined with Morris' status as a capital-W winner on the Cardinals could lead a lot of people to think the Giants picked up an ace, or something close to it. The statistically-inclined folks, though, don't even give Morris much of a chance to be an average pitcher. Christina Karhl reviewed the deal on Baseball Prospectus, and while it's a Premium piece that wouldn't allow me to extensively quote, I can give my best paraphrasing:
I think the expectations for Morris should reasonably fall between those of the casual fan or eternal optimist, and those from the sabermetric cognoscenti. The obvious split between good Morris and bad Morris last year leaves arguments open for both sides. The optimists can point to the first half of dominance, the offseason shoulder surgery that preceded it, and feel comfortable glossing over a second-half they attribute to stamina issues. The pessimists are looking at the same shoulder surgery and the same second-half slide as a precursor to impending doom. The people in the middle only serve to screw up my false dichotomies, so they'll be ignored here.
It will be a minor miracle if Matt Morris is worth $9M or so in 2008, but I'm somewhat of an optimist in the short-term.