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December 11, 2010

Winter Meetings

Cliff Lee: The Winner Finishes Second

by Kevin Goldstein

During my four days in Orlando, it was hard to spend more than five minutes in the media room, lobby, or any of the hotel-based eateries without hearing the name Cliff Lee, often coupled with “Rangers,”, “Yankees,” or my favorite phrase of the winter rumors, “mystery team.” Now 48 hours removed and under the threat of a winter storm warning, Lee still hasn't signed, and the offers continue to ascend towards the heavens, with five years becoming six, six becoming seven, and dollars remaining at well over $20 million per annum.

Meanwhile, we continue to wait, with Rangers fans hoping to keep the hero that led their team to their first World Series, and Yankee fans wishing to prove that their team's financial might can bring them the biggest free agent name once again. At this point, I'd recommend that both fans start rooting for the other side, as the 'winning' the Cliff Lee sweepstakes has all the makings of a classic Pyrrhic victory.

The age aspect of any deal is easy to see, as no matter the length, Lee will be well into the downside of his career during the latter part of the contract. The bigger risk is simply Lee himself. It's easy to forget that this is a pitcher just three years removed from pitching his way back to the minor leagues, with the Indians trading him away as much of over the risk of him declining as to his potential price tag.

And there is simply Lee the pitcher. Even the great version of Lee is succeeding mostly on nearly super-natural command. While his pure stuff is far too good to be classified solely as a finesse arm, it's hardly the arsenal of a power pitcher, and to be the Cy Young-level pitcher, he can afford no degradation in his ability to not only throw strikes, but to place his pitches nearly perfectly in the zone. When that's not happening, Lee falls from elite to very hittable, with game one of last year's World Series serving as our most recent exhibit. The chances of Lee being the pitcher he's been over the last few seasons two years from now are slim, four years from now, tiny, and six years from now? Unfathomable.

It's turned into an ugly game of chicken, with Lee's agent Darek Braunecker watching with delight as both teams accelerate towards each other with little care for self-damage. The Yankees can certainly afford the mistake more than Texas, but at this point, either team swerving, even if in a simple act of self-preservation, is making the smarter move.   

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

57 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

mwashuc06

Sounds like he's going to turn into the next Zito.

Dec 11, 2010 10:09 AM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

I expressed some of these same concerns at the Pinstriped Bible (http://bit.ly/gAy0hg). Spare me the spectacle of watching another thirtysomething with an injury history age painfully into expensive irrelevance. I've already got A.J. Burnett for that.

Dec 11, 2010 10:10 AM
 
calhounite

Boy do I agree with this. This is Driefort, Hampton, et al redux.

Dec 12, 2010 05:59 AM
rating: -1
 
sas129

If you're going to try to downgrade Cliff Lee as "another thirtysomething with an injury history" who will "age painfully into expensive irrelevance," it might help if:

1) the player you're comparing him to, in this case A.J. Burnett, has suffered a significant injury during the course of his current contract, or

2) the player you're comparing him to, in this case A.J. Burnett, had more than one bad year on his ledger before declaring him irrelevant.

It might also help if the two players were remotely similar in pitching style or track record.

Dec 12, 2010 10:48 AM
rating: 3
 
Drew Miller

I tentatively agree with Kevin, but I don't see how Burnett is a comp.

Dec 13, 2010 10:10 AM
rating: 0
 
FLeghorn

I agree with KG 100% on this one. If I'm Texas, I say 'let the Yankees have him', and just continue doing what got their team into the World Series to begin with ( yes, I know Cliff Lee was part of that equation..). The lingering albatross of this contract would kill the Rangers, and while Lee has been excellent for the last three seasons, he was merely adequate for most of his career before that. I say continue to monitor the progress of the young pitchers they have, maybe find a few decent arms to fill in the gaps ( Colby Lewis was as valuable in the playoffs as Lee was ), and let Daniels continue to elevate this franchise into the upper echelons. Overpaying for a 32-year old pitcher is the kind of thing Boston and New York do all the time, but they have the resources to just write it off when it fails ( as John Lackey will soon prove to be the case ). Texas needs to be smart about this; let him go. New York will likely regret it in the end.

Dec 11, 2010 10:34 AM
rating: 6
 
juiced

You're wrong, Lee is money. If you're the Yanks you HAVE to sign him otherwise it's bye bye division for 2 years. If you're the Rangers you can pass on him because of the financial risk and the weaker division, but kiss a 2011 repeat goodbye although you are positioned well beyond that. Lee's stuff is top shelf, and I think you're exagerrating the likely decline in his value.


He walked 16 guys all year and struck out about one per inning. Repeat that a few timesin your head. A case can be made for him being the league's best pitcher last year if you wanna bust out Voros McCracken for Xmas!

Dec 11, 2010 10:47 AM
rating: 0
 
cdmyers

I don't think the suggestion has ever been that Lee isn't money. It's that he might not be money 3 years from now, and probably won't be 5 or 6 years on. Getting merely good results from the last three years of a 25+ million a year contract will sink anyone besides the Yankees.

Dec 11, 2010 11:36 AM
rating: 2
 
Drew Miller

Uh, his "stuff" isn't top shelf. His control is.

Dec 11, 2010 12:47 PM
rating: 1
 
juiced

Bull, that cutter is filthy. And control is part of stuff anyway

Dec 11, 2010 13:08 PM
rating: 1
 
NYYanks826

Just because he only throws in the low 90s doesn't mean he doesn't have "stuff".

Dec 11, 2010 13:12 PM
rating: 2
 
Drew Miller

We have different definitions of "stuff".

Dec 11, 2010 13:41 PM
rating: 0
 
Drew Miller

And different definitions of what one should be thumbed up or down for.

Dec 11, 2010 14:19 PM
rating: 2
 
NYYanks826

Stuff shouldn't just be looked at from a speed perspective. You can throw a 97 MPH fastball, but it can be hittable because it's straight as an arrow. Stuff is a combination of speed, command, control, movement, etc.

Dec 11, 2010 14:29 PM
rating: 3
 
dianagram

I've seen Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee is no Roy Halladay.

Dec 11, 2010 11:44 AM
rating: 1
 
qwik3457bb

Both of them have three 7 WAR win seasons in a row, more or less (Fangraphs).

Aggregate: Halladay 21.4, Lee 21.1

If you can even be mentioned in the same breath as Halladay without looking foolish, you're a helluva pitcher.

Dec 11, 2010 12:07 PM
rating: 4
 
qwik3457bb

The 10 year forecast shows Halladay becoming mediocre no later than age 38. If Lee gets to 38 in as good a shape, the team that signs him will do all right.

Dec 11, 2010 14:05 PM
rating: 0
 
qwik3457bb

Citing Game 1 of the World Series about how Lee can morph from elite to very hittable? OK, you've got that game on one side, along with Game 5 of the 2009 World Series where he ran out of gas in the 8th after 7 strong innings, and then, on the other side is his other 8 postseason starts, in which he K'd 73 and walked 4 in 64 2/3 innings. Against good teams. At the highest levels of pressure. And comparing him to AJ Burnett is, well, looney. Burnett's never had a year nearly as good as Lee's 2008, or his 2010.
==============================
Lee is certainly a longevity risk, and a big one, but I don't see any reason to doubt he can continue to pitch like this in the short-term (2 or 3 years).

Dec 11, 2010 12:16 PM
rating: 4
 
NYYanks826

I agree with Juiced. The Yankees without Cliff Lee in 2011 have a much slimmer chance of winning the division than they do if they are able to sign him...obviously.

The fact is that the Yankees are the one team that can get away with signing him for $23-$25 million a year even if the last 3 or 4 years of his contract are a sunk cost. You know that if this is the case, they'll go out and sign the biggest free agent pitcher of the 2014 class in order to attempt to replace the value lost with Lee.

Go out and get Lee now, solidify your rotation for the next few years, and worry about getting a new pitcher if Lee does indeed fall off a cliff (no pun intended).

Dec 11, 2010 12:35 PM
rating: 1
 
blw777

If the Yankees can afford to spend $25m/yr and write off the 2nd half of the contract, why don't they just go spend $50m/yr for three years and be done with it? Who could they get for that money?

Dec 11, 2010 20:48 PM
rating: 0
 
smansell

On a 3 year/150 million deal, any value the Yankees get must occur in a 3 year span. On a 6 year/150 million deal, not only do you benefit from time value of money, but you get any value that Lee has remaining in the last three years of the deal.

Now, Lee isn't likely to provide good value over either of those contracts, but for the same total amount of money the longer amount of team control is always preferable. You can always cut him if he's generating negative WAR.

Dec 12, 2010 15:48 PM
rating: 2
 
Matt Kory

This is exactly the reason why Brian Cashman is over rated as a GM.

Dec 12, 2010 09:46 AM
rating: 2
 
Drew Miller

Assuming Lee gets 7-8 years at $21-23M per, which is the worse signing--Lee or Werth?

Dec 11, 2010 12:48 PM
rating: 0
 
qwik3457bb

Werth; but only because the Nationals are hurt much worse if he tanks at the back end than the Yankees would be.

Dec 11, 2010 14:03 PM
rating: 1
 
Drew Miller

If we take ability to financially recover out of the equation, is it a wash, then?

Dec 11, 2010 14:20 PM
rating: 0
 
qwik3457bb

Maybe. I dunno, really.

Dec 11, 2010 20:56 PM
rating: 0
 
smansell

Pitchers are usually higher risk, so I would say Lee would be the worst contract. I'd rather have Vernon Wells or Alex Rios than Barry Zito, for instance.

Dec 12, 2010 15:51 PM
rating: 2
 
Drew Miller

Yeah, but Werth already has an extensive injury history.

Dec 13, 2010 11:38 AM
rating: 0
 
Matt Kory

Werth is worse because of the context. Marginal wins are more valuable to teams on the cusp of contention (Yankees). The Nats could have won ten more games last year (not that Werth is a +10 player) and it wouldn't have mattered.

Dec 12, 2010 09:49 AM
rating: 3
 
Matt Kory

I take that last sentence back. It would have mattered if the Nats won ten more games last year. They would have ruined their shot at Bryce Harper.

Dec 12, 2010 10:37 AM
rating: 5
 
Drew Miller

Heh. You're pretty much right anyway. But I do think there's some value in being perceived as "a team that spends money". It helps get free agents to sign with you when they wouldn't, otherwise. Of course, actually spending the money helps.

Dec 13, 2010 11:46 AM
rating: 0
 
Ben Solow

I don't know how reasonable this is, but is there any chance that the Nats consciously overpaid for Werth because they want to have some decent talent to attract future free agents? It seems reasonable to me that you might have to pay a lot more for the first guy to come, but that it's easier to recruit more talent once you've already got some on the team. The promise of Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, et al is nice, but not enough to get good players at reasonable rates. Add Jayson Werth to that mix, and maybe other players start deciding that they don't need such a high Nationals premium to come play in D.C.? Not sure if that's the case, but it seems plausible to me; aside from wanting to win, players also make more money playing for winning teams, all else equal, due to playoff shares, etc.

Dec 12, 2010 22:30 PM
rating: 3
 
Lyford


Assuming Lee gets 7-8 years at $21-23M per, which is the worse signing--Lee or Werth?

That depends on who the party of the second part is. If it's the Yankees, it doesn't matter whether it's a good contract or a bad one, because they can afford it and they really need the player. Lee can make the difference between play-offs or not, World Series or not, and even a bad contract doesn't prevent them from doing what they need to do in the future. Werth's unlikely to be part of a good Nationals team.

Dec 13, 2010 09:27 AM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

Seriously - it's amazing how many people assume that a bad team now will be a bad team for the next 7 years. every single season, some team surprises. I think the odds would be pretty good that over the next 7 years, the Nationals will be good at least once.

Dec 13, 2010 09:42 AM
rating: 3
 
vertumnus

But then the question is - Will Jayson Werth be a good player when the Nationals are good? It's entirely possible that Werth is going to have 2-4 really good years while the Nationals are still bad, and then begin to decline as Strasburg, Harper, Norris, etc are just coming into their own. If the Nationals' WS contention window is 2015-2017, are 36-38 year old Jayson Werth and his $20 mil contract helping the Nationals, or hurting them by taking up lots of their payroll and producing relatively little?

Dec 13, 2010 14:17 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

Or, like the Giants with Barry Zito - they might win by saving money with a bunch of really good, pre-arb guys while over-paying for one aging semi-useful player. I think Washington has enough funds to have one or two bad contracts on the books.

Dec 13, 2010 16:08 PM
rating: 0
 
BillJohnson

Much of this analysis hinges upon the question: will the real Cliff Lee please stand up? Anybody whose top two age-31 comparables are Tom Glavine and Dave Goltz, with similar Jekyll/Hyde pairings on down the list (nor is BP the only site with that kind of dichotomy), must be an exceptionally difficult pitcher to make sense out of. A team that got Glavine's age-32 through age-37, or even age-38, seasons for $20M each would likely be very happy with what they got in today's market. A team that got Goltz's ... wouldn't.

Dec 11, 2010 16:32 PM
rating: 8
 
amazin_mess

If I'm the Rangers, I pull my offer and trade for Zack Greinke.

Dec 11, 2010 19:17 PM
rating: 2
 
T. Kiefer

EXACTLY. And if I'm the Yankees, I pull my offer and arrange a blockbuster trade for Felix Hernandez.

Dec 12, 2010 09:07 AM
rating: -2
 
Drew Miller

Bavasi's no longer running the Mariners.

Dec 13, 2010 11:39 AM
rating: 3
 
Drew Miller

Unless you were snarking, in which case mad props.

Dec 13, 2010 11:39 AM
rating: 1
 
hyprvypr

Felix has the Yankees are his 'No-Trade' list like 5 other AL/NL East teams. He clearly won't touch any team on the East coast with a ten-foot pole. The Yankees better chase Pavano, he's their only hope(LOL).

Dec 15, 2010 10:15 AM
rating: 0
 
Richie

The pertinent phrase is called "Winner's Curse". See Wikipedia.

I don't see why Lee should be particularly hard to project. How long do incredible control pitchers stay great? Maddux and Wells lasted forever, but how many similar guys are there that are now forgotten because they didn't?

And glancing at Goltz's career ... man, it sure don't look all that comparable.

Dec 11, 2010 20:33 PM
rating: 1
 
Richie

Nor was Glavine's control anything THAT! special. I don't get those two 'most comparables' at all. Just look up the absolute 'best control' guys, and project from that.

Dec 11, 2010 20:37 PM
rating: 0
 
BillJohnson

You may be confusing "control" and "BB/9 rate." The latter wasn't particularly notable, because Glavine made his millions by sitting on (or off...) the outside corner, letting hitters swing at things that might or might not be called balls depending on the phase of the moon, how intimidated the umpiring crew was by various reputations, what the home-plate ump had had for lunch, etc. His control/command in placing pitches right on that hairy edge was brilliant, and he had the WHIP to prove it.

Dec 11, 2010 21:06 PM
rating: 2
 
Richie

Fine. How long do incredible "BB/9" rate guys generally last?

Dec 12, 2010 07:37 AM
rating: -1
 
BillJohnson

Not as long as incredible control guys, which is the whole point.

Dec 12, 2010 09:09 AM
rating: 1
 
jalee121

Here comes a tin foil hat moment. Is it possible the Rangers are trying to make it look like they're attempting to sign Cliff Lee? By doing so, the Rangers front office can at least say to their fans (both the new found fans and the longtime ones) that they attempted to sign him but those evil Yankees swooped in and once again "bought a player?" The Rangers will see a spike in short term revenue for their recent success, but doesn't putting up a front of "hey at least we tried" appeal to their fans long term?

All of this is most likely complete BS. I really have no idea if even doing such a thing would actually look good for the franchise.

Dec 12, 2010 10:13 AM
rating: 2
 
BurrRutledge

I think this only helps if they then aggressively pursue a ligitimate "plan B."

Dec 12, 2010 16:51 PM
rating: 1
 
Drew Miller

This is at least non-complete BS. Teams drive up the value of free agents all the time. And PR is a HUGE part of any team's strategy. I'm sure the Rangers want Lee back--but not at a ridiculous price. This may well be their strategy.

Dec 13, 2010 11:49 AM
rating: 0
 
andygamer

The player I am reminded by is John Tudor. Older lefty, with impeccable command. He only had a window of really superior pitching, and I think it was an injury that did him in.

Dec 12, 2010 13:34 PM
rating: 1
 
awayish

can't evaluate these things without knowing financials for the two teams. seems like rangers are betting that a stretch of winnings seasons can establish a larger baseball fanbase and thus expand their business over there, while the yankees make bank with any successful lee season, so much so that they might be willing to eat say 3 bad years simply to have the 4 good ones.

Dec 12, 2010 15:47 PM
rating: 0
 
dodgerken222

I often am reminded of John Tudor when I watch Cliff Lee. Tudor had a fantastic age 31 season in 1985, with a 1.93 ERA, but had a workload of 275 inings. He threw 219 frames at age 32, then never topped 200 again. As a Dodger fan, I remember when LA got him when it became clear we would play the Mets in the NLCS in '88 (for Pedro Guerrero), primarily to hopefully neutralize Strawberry. His elbow started acting up and was barely available in October. By 1990, he was gone from baseball. This was before teams were paying close attention to pitch counts and things, so at least Lee has never thrown 275 innings in a season. Still, at his peak, I would have taken Tudor over Lee. Giving any pitcher a $20M per year deal for seven years is insane, let alone at age 32.

Dec 12, 2010 17:45 PM
rating: 4
 
Jay Taylor

For what it's worth, Cliff lee threw 272 innings (counting playoffs) in 2009.

Dec 13, 2010 09:11 AM
rating: 3
 
Richie

So where are the numbers on how long "incredible BB/9" guys last?

Dec 13, 2010 07:08 AM
rating: 0
 
Hoff

So, the fact that cliff lee might have left 50 million dollars on the table, and 2-3 years, well, i think that changes this analysis a little bit. Why did roy oswalt, halladay and lee get gift wrapped to the phillies? Is it because cliff lee likes hunting, and couldn't do that in new york? I better see cliff lee playing deer hunter at the dave and busters. isn't the union supposed to get mad at you when you take 50 million dollar pay cuts?


-a very disgruntled mets fan who hopes that a squadron of 32 year old pitchers is about as bad as it would otherwise sound. (oh god, they have 4 pitcher from the top ten in siera. Matt Swartz its like you invented that damn stat to taunt us!)

Dec 13, 2010 21:40 PM
rating: 0
 
irussma

Yeah, I'm guessing the union is pretty upset right now. It's not a pay cut per se, though, because Lee was a free agent. Still means the union will be mad, but it also means they can't do anything about it.

Dec 14, 2010 09:22 AM
rating: 0
 
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