Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cliff Lee: Who Cares?

Since the minute the Giants won the World Series, and now approaching winter meetings next Monday, all that anyone is talking about is Cliff Lee and the Yankees. Well... also Derek Jeter and the Yankees, but I'm way too tired of that story already. Everyone wants Cliff Lee, and who wouldn't?

Lee is, without a doubt, one of the best starting pitchers in baseball today. He's in the class with Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, David Price, and Adam Wainwright. After Lee won is Cy Young in 2008 with the Cleveland Indians, people started to notice. I'm not saying people didn't know who Cliff Lee was in the first 5 years of his career, but it's hard to get noticed in Cleveland. Pitchers, like Lee and Sabathia who came from Cleveland, get noticed in big markets (see: Philadelphia and New York, respectively)

But in the last 2 seasons, Lee has played for 4 major league teams. When you really think about that, it's absolutely staggering. After 7 and a half years in Cleveland, Cliff Lee has become a "hired gun."

After winning a Cy Young in Cleveland, Lee decided to cash out a few times on big time contending teams. First in Philadelphia, then Seattle (yes... at one point people thought they could contend in the AL West), and then in Texas. But after making it to the World Series in 2010, Cliff Lee has a decision to make. Does he continue this jumping around?

Clearly he won't. He's the only pitcher of true value on the market this year, which makes him even more valuable. Wherever Lee signs, it's going to be for an insane amount of money and a preposterous length of time. The kind of money and time that a 32 year old starting pitcher should never get. Sure, Cliff Lee is in the prime of his career today, but a 6 year deal means he ends up playing for that team way, way past his prime. We've seen it in almost every truly great pitcher in recent years, Maddux and Smoltz, Moyer and Wakefield, and countless other great pitchers.

So the question of how much is too much is just irrelevant here. Whatever Cliff wants, he'll get. And whatever that is, it'll almost certainly be too much.

But what about the Washington Nationals? How much will be too much if they were to try and sign Lee? Again, almost any amount of money. The Nationals don't need a Cliff Lee in 2011. I know that's a crazy thing to say, but his addition to the rotation gives the Nats a few extra wins and still a negligible chance at making the playoffs in the NL East. It also ties up more than $100 MILLION over the next few years that could be spent to sign young, talented pitchers like Jordan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg for future years of success. And in the end, you almost certainly end up overpaying a fledgling former star.

I know these statements are controversial, and probably won't sit well with many in NatsTown, but I don't want Cliff Lee to be a National in 2011. Or in any future year. At some point, it will be the right time to sign a big name starting pitcher in his prime for a few years to really set the Nationals first true playoff push. But it's not now.


  1. What makes you think that Cliff Lee WANTED to be traded four times in the past 2 years? I'll bet that he wanted none of those trades. Without a no-trade clause or 10and5 rights, he had zero say in where he went. I'll bet he demands no trade protection in his next deal so he has some career control.

    That being said, I completely agree that any team that gets Lee will immediately have one of the worst contracts in baseball on their hands. I did a post back in October (link here: talking about FA starting pitcher value, and the consensus was that a team is lucky to get 1 Win per $1M expended. Anything more than that roughly equates with a bad contract. Well, if Lee gets $25M/year he's immediately in a bad contract.

    So to that extent, I completely agree; the Nats don't want Lee at $25M/year because it will really kill us in terms of payroll flexibility for years to come. I'd much much rather experiment with a one-off starter and stay flexible for 2012/2013 when we may actually be good based on our own developed players.

  2. I wouldn't say that Cliff Lee wanted to be traded. But in the end he played in the World Series after each trade, where he racked up some pretty fantastic stats. It was those experiences and results (See: ALCS Game 3) that is going to earn him $20+ million a year. So I'm sure he isn't complaining too much.