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December 15, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Cliff Lee's Choice

by Christina Kahrl

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So, about that mystery bidder. It wasn't the woman with the opera gloves wearing sunglasses indoors in the front row. Nor was it the guy in the corner wearing a fez. The rumors weren't entirely wrong—the international man of mystery this time around was somebody from the National League East. It just wasn't the Nationals' Mike Rizzo; it was the Phillies' Ruben Amaro Jr. By signing with Philadelphia for at least $120 million over five years, Lee decided you could go home again. Which, admittedly, is easy enough to say about a guy who has played for four different teams in the last two seasons.

This immediately led to two kinds of response—joy that Amaro had righted a wrong left over from last season's needless trade with Seattle, and despair in Texas and New York that they had somehow not won fair and square by mounding up the biggest possible piles of money.

To deal with the first, the Phillies have already paid their pound of flesh over that mistake. Cliff Lee was in the World Series, and they weren't. The original proposition that, if you get to employ two of Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee and Joe Blanton, somehow Lee was the one to deal, has been belatedly repaired to reach the appropriate solution. Maybe somebody from the Mariners' package received for that last, below-market season Lee was under control for will deliver value, but not as soon as Lee will now, and it's still an open question over whether their career value will pile up to something equal to one Cliff Lee campaign. You can certainly hope so because at least the question's less galling now that money has repaired the initial error.

But as for the financial side of things, the deals were closer than you'd think if you just look at the size of stacks o'cash being bandied about. The Rangers were reportedly offering $138 million over six years, the same as the Yankees were over the same length of time. However, Texas wanted to defer some portion of the deal's pay-outs, while offering “just” a vesting option for a seventh year. The Yankees also had a vesting option for a seventh season that would bring the total package to $154 million over seven years. That puts the Average Annual Values (AAVs) of the deals in the $23 million range, dropping to $22 million over seven in the Yankees' vesting package. The Phillies' flat offer was a base of $24 million over five years, and a vesting sixth that would bring the deal down to $22.5 million.

So the AAVs favor Philly if you're talking five years, while Lee's six-year compensation seems lower in Pennsylvania than in Texas or New York. But Texas' deal had all of that deferred cash, and not all states are equal when it comes to income taxes and the like. Texas has no income tax, so Lee would be losing just 35 percent of his payday to Uncle Sam, while New York's state and city taxes mound up to more than 45 percent of any offer that he wouldn't get to keep. If the Rangers were pegging their bids to the Yankees, they were being fairly sensible—they had a simple economic advantage as a matter of geography and state income tax. Pennsylvania has a flat income tax of 3.07 percent, but Philadelphia non-residents (assuming Mr. Lee remains an Arkansas resident) have to pay another 3.5 percent, so Lee is basically losing 41 percent of his paycheck to taxes. That's more than he'd have lost in Texas, but he's getting a bigger paycheck in the first five years, and apparently none of the money is deferred. Add in that vesting sixth season with the Phillies only brings the deal down into the AAV range of the Rangers' six-year offer, and that's without sorting out how much of their deal was deferred.

All of which is a long way of saying he got a trio of interesting, competitive offers. Picking between three contenders offering roughly similar packages, he chose a contender in a city he's already familiar with, in the DH-less league, in a division that doesn't have the Red Sox to deal with. And as Eric Seidman noted in his column today, he'll do so while getting to be part of a unit with a shot at history. Does that make it a good idea for Cliff Lee? Absolutely.

But does it also make it a good idea for the Phillies? Considering that this rotation, like any other, isn't locked into place forever, yes, it was, beyond the backstory. Now, just as they would have been before last winter's Lee trade, they're the easy favorites for the pennant, and as a matter of productivity, beyond projection, Lee was worth it. But the Phillies also had more payroll wiggle room over the long term than might have been readily accepted. While Doc is locked in place through 2013 (or 2014 if his option vests), Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, and Blanton are all only under club control through 2012, further fueling the suspicion that Kentucky Joe is going to be somebody else's innings muncher by Opening Day 2011.

There's more, of course. As far as near-term budgeting, both Jimmy Rollins and Raul Ibanez are free agents after 2011, potentially subtracting another $20 million from the payroll. Some of that will go toward replacing (or re-signing) both or either, but it isn't like either player has been turning on the gas with at-the-plate production en route to their free agency. Domonic Brown is years away from arbitration, assuming he takes over as the everyday right fielder, so that's another $7 million that was already back in the kitty once the Phillies were Werth-less. Life after Jamie Moyer and J.C. Romero? Another $12 million to play with on a club that already has most of its major components locked into place, so even with the gains in some player's individual compensation packages, that was a lot of money going back into the budget. Beyond next year's budget, it'll only take $1.5 million to buy back the additional $11 million they won't have to pay Brad Lidge to alternate saves accumulation and mound combustion in 2012.

The number of applecarts upset by this latest surprise in winter activity are outnumbered by the number of re-fired ambitions as far as what this means in the AL. Maybe the Yankees weren't needlessly distracted by noisy Jeter drama, but Brian Cashman is now wearing a Hot Stove sombrero if you consider Lee, Jayson Werth, and Carl Crawford as this winter's must-have additions for the front-rank contenders. Now the Yankees' rotation is back down to CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, whichever flavor of A.J. Burnett shows up next year, and Andy Pettitte's Hamlet-like pondering of the attractions of retirement. Oh, and Jobamarama Drama, which is always simmering.

You can bet the Red Sox don't mind this situation in the least, not just because they're beginning to look like the favorite to win the division, but also because they have enough ammo in terms of talent in the organization to interfere with an easily-anticipated pinstriped effort to land Zack Greinke. If the Yankees don't get Greinke, they may be limited to chasing after any one of a number of mid-Rotation Innings Masticators or League-Average Inning Munchers as you see fit. Maybe the Phillies will gleefully yield Kentucky Joe as a consolation prize.

The AL West might also be hissing with a collective sigh of relief, because the Rangers sans Lee are far from easy favorites over an Angels team that should have Kendry Morales back and bopping, as well as an A's team that might have an improved lineup as well as the better rotation. Without Lee, the Rangers probably won't win 90 games, and if the division's back down to something like an 85-win standard, maybe even the maladapted Mariners can stop getting defensive and get serious about their own opportunity to get back into the mix. And if the Yankees are weak while the Rays seem to be in what might be politely referred to as transition, maybe the league's wild card is in play for the teams that don't win the Central. Hell, worst-case scenarios for the Yankees might even inspire dreams of relevance to the post-season picture in cities unused to the experience, like Toronto or Baltimore, while the Rays hardly need be counted out already. Maybe everybody in the league matters. Well, OK, not the Indians, and the Royals only by virtue of what they do or don't do with Greinke. Still, there's now some daylight beyond the annual expectation that the AL East owns two playoff spots.

Of course, there's a lot of winter left before we can really fire up those kinds of previously improbable ambitions. In the meantime, you can bet on Brian Cashman's commitment to strangling those dreams in the crib, long before they have legs of their own to walk on. But the number of options open to him have been radically circumscribed because of how this winter has played out. For all of the bleating over big-market muscle crushing hope and faith everywhere west of the Hudson, elective choices from the off-season's top trio of free agents have made all the difference, since only one—Crawford—put himself into the overwrought Red Sox/Yankees death match, while Lee and Werth both steered clear.

The Yankees and Rangers don't have to worry about being entirely disappointed, however. They successfully resolved one free-agent duel between themselves without any help from an aspiring Comrade Buttinskis: in a two-team showdown, the Bombers successfully signed Mark Prior, leaving the Rangers to feel the pain of rejection. Anyone willing to lay odds on the chances he throws more innings in pinstripes in the majors than Bob Sykes?

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  A's,  Cliff Lee

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