Today I borrow the keys to Jon Daniels’ golf cart and take it for a ride in an attempt to convince the Ryan-Greenberg ownership group to open the purse strings just wide enough to land an ace. I’m talking about Cliff Lee, the most valuable free agent this year.
Let’s state the obvious. When it comes to magnitude of reaction, there are two ways to blow it. You can overreact and you can under-react. It’s a simple enough fact to state, but a hard problem to avoid, particularly if you’re the general manager of a baseball team that has just appeared in, and lost, its first-ever World Series. What is unique about the Rangers’ predicament is that they could find themselves having over- or under-reacted in virtue of their decision on just one player. The team is surely asking itself the same question the Phillies asked themselves in November of 2009: Is it better to have Lee and lose than never to have Lee at all? Of course, faced with a not entirely dissimilar problem, the Phillies passed on Lee and opted for the next best thing. That luxury, such as it was, does not appear available to the Rangers this offseason. The problem, then, is one of high stakes and at least nine figures. How much is Lee worth?
The first step is to find an adequate valuation of Lee in terms of wins. He has been one of the best pitchers in baseball for three years in a row now. He pitches plenty of innings, including a good number in the playoffs, at a very high level. A weighted average of his WARP scores suggests he can add somewhere between six and seven wins to a generic ballclub next year. But the Rangers are no generic ballclub. Not only are they a team on the cusp of playoff expectations (certainly the Angels weren’t happy to be left out in the cold this year), they have poor fifth starter options. Consider the difference between a rotation of Lee-C.J. Wilson-Colby Lewis-Tommy Hunter-Derek Holland and one of Wilson-Lewis-Hunter-Holland-Scott Feldman. Not only does Feldman wear eau-de-replacement cologne, he doesn’t go nearly as deep in games as Lee does. That means more innings from the bullpen, and as the World Series demonstrated, there wasn’t a whole lot to speak of there beyond Neftali Feliz. The alternative would be a potential move of Feliz to the rotation. Never mind that it would be the right decision even if the Rangers didn’t land Lee—any time you have a chance to develop a true ace, you gotta take it—the Rangers would still have to fill the hole in the bullpen and the extra innings that Lee would have been able to pitch over Feliz while he was stretching out.
Lee will, no doubt, decline over the course of his contract. But his pitching style suggests the decline may be graceful. He’s one of the smartest pitchers in the game, and his approach is just terrific fun to watch. He’s confident without being cocky, he recognizes his mistakes, and he adjusts. His control is unmatched, his command has the precision of a surgeon, and he appears to have the durability of a rubber bouncy ball. The real question is whether he will decline faster than MLB salaries will inflate. In the blue corner is the elite playoff pitcher of the age, in the red corner is the malaise of the U.S. economy. It’s a 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio versus 10-year Treasury bonds, and either way I’m taking the over.
All of this is to say that the Rangers are about as likely as any of the contenders for Lee to capture his full value over a replacement player. They should be about as willing to purchase a marginal win—at least for next year—as any team. Of course, the wrench in the works is that Lee will command at least a five-year deal, maybe more. That means the Rangers have to be honest about their chances to contend five years down the road. That’s a complicated question; many of their top prospects from a year ago are: (a) no longer on the team (Justin Smoak), (b) looking more like relievers every day (Feliz, Tanner Scheppers), or (c) downgraded in status (Martin Perez). Jurickson Profar is still several years away from being ready to play in the major leagues, and Robbie Erlin doesn’t project as a dominating front-line pitcher. The cupboard is looking increasingly bare.
That fact is mitigated in large part by the youth of the major-league roster. Players like Feliz, Holland, Julio Borbon, and Elvis Andrus could be in town for the duration of a potential Lee deal. Ian Kinsler is signed through 2013, and Nelson Cruz is under team control until then as well. It’s likely the Rangers will exercise their option on Colby Lewis (it’ll cost just $3 million to do so) in 2012. Josh Hamilton, too, has at least two more years left of arbitration. At the same time, however, significant money is owed to Michael Young—$16 million per year through 2013—and he is likely to repay that kindness with gradually declining performance.
The Rangers look like they could be potential contenders for at least the next few years, and beyond that would be hard for any team to predict. Given the historically weak level of competition in the AL West, and the significant likelihood that the playoffs will expand in the near future, the Rangers are in as good a position to gamble on a player like Lee as any. With the Tom Hicks Bankruptcy Court Road Show moved out of town (or is it across the pond?), new ownership is free to loosen the purse strings and hope that a higher payroll will attract better attendance. Their average attendance of nearly 31,000 per game this year was the best in Arlington since 2005, but 2011 could be the best in team history. Even in this good year, the Rangers averaged 20,000 unsold tickets per game. If Lee would help them attract a couple thousand more drivers from Interstates 35E and 35W—and the momentum that would go with it—then he’ll be worth the $25 million per year.
Of course it is tough to sidle up across the table from the Yankees and match their quick draw with the corporate credit card, but isn’t that exactly the challenge faced by teams hoping to become big boys in the American League? The last time the Rangers devoted $25 million to a player who was destined one day to become a Yankee, it didn’t turn out very well. But money in 2002 spent on Alex Rodriguez wasn’t what money in 2010, or for that matter 2015, is. And Dallas, it’s important to note, is a giant metropolitan area. The DFW region ranked fourth in the U.S. by population in 2009, and was one of the fastest growing metropolises to boot. By geographic area, the region is as big as the state of New Hampshire. Dallas wasn’t hit as hard by the housing crisis as other cities and continues to attract new residents. Immediately before the offseason started, the Rangers signed a 20-year TV deal worth somewhere between $3 billion and $1.6 billion that will be more lucrative than any other non-team-owned network deal. The agreement won’t kick in until 2015, but cash now can always be cash later and vice versa.
With all that cash and growth potential, where else would you spend? The team is set at almost every other position except the relatively easy-to-fill spots at first base and DH, and it only spent $65 million on major-league player salaries in 2010. Opportunities to lock in success do not present themselves often, but it is clear that the new ownership stands at a crossroads. Signing Lee would immediately make the Rangers the favorites in the AL West, and would announce a new era in Arlington. Besides, since when has Nolan Ryan backed down from a challenge?