Jennings can't win, but payday awaits

LOS ANGELES – Jason Jennings has accomplished in 17 starts this season what Satchel Paige did on the Fourth of July, 1934.

Win two games.

Playing for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Paige no-hit the Homestead Grays at home in the morning, drove to Chicago and, legend has it, shut out the American Giants in 12 innings before nightfall. The performance prompted the Bismarck (N.D.) Churchills to offer him $400 and a late-model Chrysler to pitch for one month.

Jennings, it is safe to say, will command more than that as a free agent this off-season.

OK, any link between a depression-era Negro League player who might have been the best pitcher in baseball history and a current major-league starter is unfair. But even by modern-day standards, the prospect of a bidding war for the wholly mediocre Jennings is sobering.

"He'll probably get three-year offers in the $22 million to $27 million range," said a National League scout who watched Jennings cough up a two-run lead in the sixth inning and fall to 2-8 in the Houston Astros' 6-3 loss at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night.

Until Dodgers catcher Russell Martin blasted a two-run home run that turned a 3-2 Astros lead into a 4-3 deficit, Jennings looked like a pitcher many teams would want in their rotation.

Of course, as another scout said, "You can't judge a pitcher against the Dodgers anymore, because everybody looks like Cy Young."

Or Satchel Paige.

But after five effective innings, Jennings morphed into Jennings, and when Astros manager Phil Garner trotted to the mound to take the ball, the 29-year-old right-hander stood hunched over the mound, hands on his knees as if he were about to vomit in front of 49,098 people.

"This season has been a joke," he said. "That was the best I've felt in a long time and to have it end like that. … That was probably one of the most frustrating losses I've had in a while."

Yet from a contract standpoint, does it matter how poorly Jennings pitches the rest of the year? As long as he trots to the mound every five days and lasts five innings or longer, which he has done in 15 of 17 starts, he'll find a job, and a lucrative one.

After Chicago Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano, the cream of the free-agent pitching crop includes Jennings, Curt Schilling (40 years old and fragile), Kenny Rogers (42 and the same), Freddy Garcia (out with shoulder troubles), Bartolo Colon (out with elbow troubles) and Livan Hernandez (who is still Livan Hernandez).

A more persuasive commentary on the scarcity of quality starting pitching could hardly be made.

According to an informal poll of scouts who watched Jennings give up seven hits and strike out four in 5 2/3 innings, the worst he'll do is sign a one-year deal for a slight raise over the $5.5 million he's making this year. Hey, don't laugh. Jeff Weaver did far better than that after going 8-14 with a 5.76 ERA last year, drawing $8.325 million from the Seattle Mariners.

Even though Jennings has been ineffective and unfortunate – getting the sixth-worst run support in the majors at 3.3 runs a game after finishing with the second-worst in the NL last season – he might not regret turning down the Colorado Rockies' three-year, $22 million extension offer last year. The Rockies exercised his $5.5 million option for 2007, then traded him and a prospect for center fielder Willy Taveras and young pitchers Jason Hirsh and Taylor Buchholz.

Excited about joining a new team in his home state of Texas, Jennings said he threw too much during the off-season, which led to elbow tendinitis in April. He went on the disabled list for the first time in his career and hasn't been the same since. His velocity – never his calling card, anyway – is down a couple miles per hour, and he is prone to crucial mistakes from the fifth inning on.

The 2-0 slider Martin deposited beyond the center-field wall was only the most recent example.

"He throws good, then all of a sudden he makes a mistake and gets hurt," Garner said. "His elbow still bothers him. It's an issue. But he's close to being back to the guy I saw in Colorado last year. He's just a pitch or two away."

Scouts pointed out that Jennings has his virtues, even if accumulating victories isn't among them. The former Baylor Bear is mentally tough, for one thing. Pitching for the Rockies from 2001-2006 proved that much. He's the franchise leader with 58 victories and was 31-22 with a 5.19 ERA at Coors Field.

"I pitched in a hitter's park in Colorado and I'm in another one now (Houston's Minute Maid Park)," he said. "Both parks are very unforgiving when it comes to fly balls."

His 3.78 ERA last season was the only sub-4.00 ERA ever by a Rockies right-hander with 160 or more innings. So what if he was 9-13, making him 11-21 in the last two years? Wins and losses are largely the product of run support and luck. At least that's what his agent, Casey Close, is bound to assert when negotiating a deal this winter.

Close might also re-calculate Jennings' statistics after tossing out one game &ndash a July 29 debacle in which his client allowed 11 earned runs to the San Diego Padres in the first inning and retired only two batters.

Without that game, Jennings' ERA would be only a shade over 5.00 instead of 6.16. How many millions is that worth in today's market? Well, prices won't have fallen since last off-season when …

Miguel Batista (4.58) got $25 million over three years from the Mariners.

Adam Eaton (5.12) got $24.5 million over three years from the Phillies.

And Vicente Padilla (4.50) got $33.75 million over three years from the Rangers.

"My goal is to stay in games long enough to give your team a chance to win," Jennings said.

He meant, of course, that he wanted to stay in games long enough to give his team a chance to win. But a slip of the tongue probably won't cost him anything in the off-season, either.

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