That's a pretty fair and accurate encapsulation of how I've come to think about the whole thing.
Bear with me; I've been toying with the idea of writing this post for what seems like months, but now that the World Series is over and players are beginning to file for free agency I still don't have any particular outline in mind, so I'm just going to go straight ahead and damn the torpedoes.
This is the big thing, here: Jason Schmidt is a guy whose name value rather substantially exceeds what he actually brings to the table on the field. Fans who want the Mariners to pay out the wazoo to bring him in this winter are imagining Schmidt as the pitcher he was a few seasons ago, instead of as the pitcher he currently is. Don't get me wrong, he was still a perfectly acceptable weapon on the hill as recently as a month ago, but he's no longer the bonafide #1 some people have made him out to be. That part of him is gone, and it's unlikely to ever return again.
It really is a situation where the numbers tell the story. Or rather, one particular number, recorded over several consecutive years. Observe:
Jason Schmidt K%
Schmidt's strikeout rate peaked in 2004 and it's dropped by a quarter in the past two seasons, reaching its lowest level since an injury-plagued 2000 campaign. By itself, it was still well above average and in the same neighborhood as Erik Bedard and John Lackey, but statistics don't mean much without context, and for Schmidt it looks like the beginning of a decline. And as a 33 year old power arm with a history of injuries and taxing workloads, it doesn't really come as much of a surprise, either.
The good news for Schmidt is that his other ratios have generally stayed put, but then again, maybe that's not so encouraging after all; he's always been a flyball pitcher, and when you've got a guy whose strikeout rate is decreasing, you'd prefer to see him counter the decline with a drop in walk rate instead of posting the same mediocre BB% he's always had (save for a 2003 outlier). Without missing bats, Schmidt doesn't really have a leg to stand on.
We should probably avoid going too in-depth if we don't have to, though, and in this case I don't think it's necessary. Schmidt's always pitched to his FIP (3.87 career FIP, 3.91 career ERA), nullifying the possibility that he's a Moyer-like exception to the rule, which allows us to make the following comparison:
There you go. That's the issue in a nutshell - for two years Jason Schmidt has been good, but nowhere near the ace he used to be.
Any contract talk should operate under the assumption that, as an aging pitcher, Schmidt is unlikely to exceed his 2006 performance. Have him repeat his season in Safeco and he probably puts up an ERA around 3.80-4.00. Over 200+ innings, that guy's worth up to $10m or so, maybe a little less (I'm feeling generous). So even allowing for total consistency over the next several years, you're looking at an absolute max of $30m/3yr - $40m/4yr. I don't think that's going to get it done (although the latter has an outside shot).
But what are the odds that Schmidt staves off further decline for the life of his contract? Although his PECOTA page hasn't been updated for 2006, his list of Baseball-Reference comps is terrifying (this isn't authoritative by any means, but still). He turns 34 next January, his strikeout rate has dropped 24% in two years, and as a power pitcher with a history of high workloads he carries an elevated risk of injuries causing him to miss time or pitch worse. Plus, his walk rate's already teetering on the edge of acceptability, and any drop in command could make all kinds of bad things happen. Suddenly you're looking at something like (say) $25m/3yr - $32m/4yr, and that's definitely not going to cut it.
I don't want to get carried away and proclaim that the end is nigh for Jason Schmidt's career, because I don't think it is. Even in what looks like the early stages of an age-related decline, he still has a lot to give before he loses his usefulness, and after starting 32 games in 2006 it seems silly to call his durability into question. But at the same time, he and his agent are going to be asking the market for a #1-type contract, and the smart money's on Schmidt not holding up his end of the bargain.
If you want to think about it this way, Schmidt's probably going to get something in the neighborhood of Richie Sexson's contract without Richie Sexson's upside. And you remember how outspoken I was about that thing after it was signed. Sexson posted a park-adjusted .985 OPS his first year in Seattle, and Schmidt just doesn't have the ability to match that kind of impact, not anymore. I think he can still be a perfectly fine pitcher for at least a few years before his body stops cooperating, but he's going to get paid to do a lot more than that, and I don't want the Mariners to be that team who's left crossing their fingers that somehow by switching leagues Schmidt's able to turn back the clock.
Earlier today (prior to USSM's server crash) Dave posted that $30m/3yr would be as high as he goes with Schmidt, and I'm inclined to agree. I wouldn't want to go past $10m a season, and I definitely wouldn't want to tack on a fourth or, God forbid, a fifth year. It just wouldn't be worth it. Sure, it'd be great to pencil in Schmidt ahead of Felix in the 2007 rotation because seeing those two names back-to-back makes for compelling reading, but in the end what you're left with is an expensive name that's worth more to you than it is to the team on the field.
Unless by some unforeseen miracle Schmidt ends up signing for way less than expected, I'm content to let him (and Zito, for that matter) land elsewhere. Gimme Matsuzaka and everyone's happy.