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Free Agent Lookback: Steve Avery

It was worth a shot, but did not work out.

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Steve Avery

One thing that this lockout has allowed me to do, which is something that I’ve been feeling we’ve lacked here at OTM at times over the years, is think more about the history of the team. I will admit this is not my strongest suit in my baseball fandom, but it is something I am interested in learning more about, in particular about the good-but-not-great players who have come through town over the years. I thought an easy way to do that is to look back at some players when significant anniversaries come around, whether it be for a free agent signing, trade, or whatever else it may be. So with that in mind, today we’re going to look back at the signing of Steve Avery, which became official 25 years ago today back in 1997.

Before the left-handed pitcher ever put on a Boston Red Sox uniform, he was one of the top prospects in the game. Being drafted by the Atlanta Braves third overall in the 1988 draft, he only needed a couple years to get up to the majors despite having been drafted out of high school. He made his debut in 1990 and is now an oft-forgotten member of that dominant Braves rotation that was such a big part of the baseball landscape in the 1990s.

Avery was particularly dominant in the early part of his career, with his first full season coming in 1991, his age-21 season. In that campaign, the southpaw made 35 starts (the first of three consecutive seasons hitting that mark), finishing sixth in the Cy Young voting that season with a 3.38 ERA. Although he didn’t get Cy Young votes in any of the next two seasons, Avery actually improved on his ERA in each of the next two seasons while making the same number of starts. He ended that three-year stretch coming off just his age-23 season and was just outside the top 20 in all of baseball in terms of Baseball-Reference WAR during that stretch.

Avery stayed with Atlanta the next few seasons as well, and was indeed there in 1996 when they finally got over the hump and won the World Series, but he was not the same pitcher after 1993. Many people point to the extreme workload at a young age as the reason for it, but Avery had trouble staying healthy in the second half of his Braves career, and Atlanta granted the left-handed arm free agency heading into the 1997 season.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox were coming off an 85-win season but had lost Roger Clemens in free agency. They also made a change at manager between the ‘96 and ‘97 seasons, hiring Jimy Williams, who had actually been coaching with the Braves before that. This relationship helped convince Boston brass to take a chance on Avery, hoping to capture some of that early-career magic. They signed him to a one-year deal worth $4.85 million, with an important clause we’ll get to in a minute.

That plan did not exactly work out as Avery just couldn’t avoid trouble on the mound in that 1997 season, with his control in particular standing out as a problem area with the Red Sox. Things got so bad that he was pulled out of the rotation after making 17 starts, which was significant as the southpaw had a clause in his contract which gave him a player option if he had made 18 starts. His 6.57 ERA through those starts (which brought him through the end of August as he had spent some time on the disabled list earlier in the year) made it a reasonable case to pull him from the rotation, and Avery himself even said he understood.

However, surprisingly for his last appearance of the year on September 25, Williams gave Avery the opportunity to start and trigger that option clause in his contract. The manager explained that his belief that if the team did not honor this agreement with the pitcher, future free agents would not want to come to Boston. It’s certainly not something I could ever imagine a team doing today, and to Avery’s credit he did pitch well in that final start, tossing five shutout innings.

After the season, he went ahead and triggered his option for the 1998 season, coming back to Boston on a $3.9 million salary that was assuredly more than he would have received on the open market. The expectations were down for Avery at this point, and he had another middling season, albeit a better one than his first season. In his two seasons with the Red Sox he put up an ugly ERA+ of 73 in his first season (meaning he was 27 percent worse than league-average) before putting up a more respectable 94 ERA+ in 1998. That season, of course, also was the first that Pedro Martinez spent in a Red Sox uniform, which overshadowed any progress Avery may have made.

Even with the improved season in ‘98, Avery was not brought back by the Red Sox for the following season, but he did try to keep his career going. He signed a one-year deal with the Cincinnati Reds for the 1999 season but suffered a torn labrum about midway through the season. That kept him off the mound for the next two seasons before he tried to make a comeback with the 2003 Detroit Tigers, a team many may remember for being one of the worst in baseball history. Avery made 19 relief appearances for that team before calling it a career.

Avery is a stark reminder of how fragile any young pitching career is, and it really feels as though fans in the 90s were robbed of a truly special run considering his early-career success and the fact that he was on the pitching machine that was the Atlanta Braves. For the Red Sox perspective, it certainly didn’t work out but was worth a shot to try and capture some of that magic from a pitcher who was still only 27 in the ‘97 season. It’s a move we see a lot of teams still try today, and while the success rate probably isn’t all that high, it’s always hard to argue against the logic.