Very few pitchers in the history of baseball are anything like Cliff Lee. His triumphant career turnaround at the age of 29 quickly saw him go from failed prospect to Cy Young winner, seemingly out of nowhere. In 2007, Lee was all but done with the Indians and the fans were done with him. In 2008, he was the best pitcher in the world. The question that remains for baseball teams in 2013 though is whether or not he can continue to be great past this year and whether or not he's as valuable as his upcoming price tag.
Because it's going to cost them at least their best prospect for the rights to possibly acquire their most expensive player. That's like getting a divorce and then first having to give your son to the lawyer before you pay him or her $500 an hour.
From 2002 to 2007, Lee went 54-36 with an ERA of 4.64, 6.7 K/9, 3.1 BB/9 and an ERA+ of 94 in 741.2 innings.
Since 2008, Lee has gone 81-46 with an ERA of 2.91, 8.0 K/9, 1.3 BB/9 and an ERA+ of 140 in 1255.2 innings.
Lee has walked 187 batters since 2008. Nolan Ryan walked 200+ in a season twice in his career. In a "down season" in 2012, Lee led the major in BB/9 and K/BB ratio. This year he hasn't fallen off a bit and he's still one of the best pitchers in the world even if the Phillies are starting to really feel the consequences of signing a bunch of 30-plus-year-old baseball players to nine figure deals.
Lee is the most valuable trade commodity that they have and they might need to find someone that's willing to part with at least one high-profile prospect that's going to help Domonic Brown bridge the gap between a fairly dominant era in Phillies baseball to a fairly daunting one.
Ryan Howard is signed through 2016.
Jimmy Rollins is signed through 2014 and has a vesting option for 2015.
Roy Halladay is going to fall way short of his 2014 vesting option, lucky for Philadelphia.
Cole Hamels is signed through 2018 on a $153 million contract.
Jonathan Papelbon is signed for $50 million through 2015 with a 2016 vesting option.
At 49-56 as of this writing, following an 81-81 finish last year, the Phillies are likely headed into rebuild mode but having to do so with a significant amount of cash committed to some fairly old players like Howard and Rollins yet don't have a ton of talent on the farm system to start replenishing the major league roster. Their top prospect Jesse Biddle is walking 5.1 batters per nine with double-A Reading. Another pitcher, Ethan Martin, is talking 5.2 batters per nine for triple-A Lehigh Valley.
Never could it be more apparent that a team needs to sell and the Phillies only piece of significant value is Lee, but what should be teams willing to give up for a 34-year-old pitcher that's owed a minimum of $62.5 million over the next two years?
Remember when I said that few pitchers are like Cliff Lee? It wasn't that long ago, stoner. Well, that's still quite true but Baseball-Reference still lists Lee's ten similar pitchers by Similarity Scores thorough age 33:
- Tom Browning. Made nine starts after 33.
- Jack McDowell. Made zero starts after 33.
- Larry Jansen. Pitched 34.2 innings after 33.
- Mike Flanagan. Pitched 852 innings after 33 with 121 starts and 106 relief appearances with an ERA of 4.10.
- Bartolo Colon. Made 37 starts in the three years after turning 34. Returned after a year off and now at age 40 was named an All-Star, leading the league in BB/9.
- Dennis Leonard. Missed his age 33 and 34 season, had one more season at age 35 with an ERA of 4.44.
- Matt Morris. Did not pitch after 33.
- Denny Neagle. Made seven starts after 33.
- Ramon Martinez. Did not pitch after 33.
- Scott Sanderson. Made 121 starts after 33, going 48-43 with an ERA of 4.47.
The most successful in this bunch after their age 33 season were Flanagan (not that successful), Colon and Sanderson. Of course, none of these pitchers leading up to turning 34 were as good as Lee, and already this year he has proven to be more successful than pretty much all of those guys.
I am not going to sit here and argue that Lee is anything like Denny Neagle, though that would be fun and controversial and I could be like one of those guys named Rick Reilly that just says shit to say shit. But every pitcher is fragile and every pitcher is more fragile as they climb up their thirties. The Phillies wouldn't have to look far to see that.
When Roy Halladay was 34, he went 19-6 with an ERA of 2.35 for the Phillies. He finished 2nd in the Cy Young the year after winning the Cy Young. He was the best pitcher in the world for a stretch from 29 to 34, just like Lee.
Since then, he has made 32 starts with an ERA of 5.24 and he will have been paid $40 million for that. So what would a team have traded for Halladay had they been able to predict the future? I'm assuming the answer is "nothing" but obviously you aren't going to get nothing for Lee just because of what happened to Halladay. But just that reminder alone should depress the return value for Lee.
That is ludicrous.
Bogaerts, 20, is hitting .279/.380/.483 in triple-A with strong plate discipline and eight home runs in 41 games as a shortstop. More than a few people consider him the best prospect in baseball. Not to mention the fact that Bogaerts isn't exactly blocked at short by Stephen Drew and Jose Iglesias, nor is he exactly blocked right now at third by Will Middlebrooks.
Workman, 24, has struck out 108 and walked 30 in 101 innings over double and triple-A this year with a 3.21 ERA.
A major league outfielder is a major league outfielder.
You have to put into context exactly what you are trading for with Cliff Lee because I'm hardly accusing him from being a pitcher without value. He's still great, but if you trade for Lee, you better realize that you are trading for Lee this season. You are trading for him because you want to win the 2013 World Series. Forget about anything after that first and focus on the immediate, because it is a lot more guaranteed than 2014 and the next year, the same year that Back to the Future II takes place in so you know its a long ways away.
Lee is owed about $8 million over the rest of the season. He will probably be worth 2.0 WAR in that time (He's been worth 2.8 WAR -- holy damn it, Dave Cameron already wrote about this today??? I'm not stopping now.) In the AL East, with the Rays currently 0.5 games ahead of Boston, this could be crucial to winning the division and avoiding a one-game playoff.
Point 1: Winning the AL East would be very valuable due to the new Wild Card rules. If it weren't for the fact that two teams get a Wild Card, Boston would have a 4.5 game lead and it wouldn't be as big of a deal. But at this point they are all but assured to make the playoffs, but winning the division is significantly more important than it used to be.
Boston, like every other team that ever existed, could use someone like Cliff Lee. But what if he doesn't mean the difference in winning the division and you lose a one-game playoff?
Counterpoint 1: If Lee loses game one, then its over and that's not good. If Lee starts that game and wins, great, but now he's not available to start the ALDS in Game 1. If Clay Buchholz is healthy it also makes a big difference, but if he's not then the Red Sox will be relying on players of lesser reliability. But there are plenty of scenarios where Lee doesn't help Boston win the World Series in 2013. In fact, that is way more likely than the scenario where he does.
Point 2: But the Red Sox have Lee for two more years plus an option on a third. When Lee was traded from the Indians to the Phillies, he didn't extract much return value. Both at the time and in hindsight. When he was traded to the Mariners, the same was true. But when the M's dealt him to the Rangers at the deadline, they received a top ten hitting prospect and a couple other role players.
However, the Rangers just saw him leave after the year and they did not win the World Series. Sorry, y'all :( Now he comes with a tag that says "This is yours.. for awhile!"
Counterpoint 2: $25 million when he's 35. $25 million when he's 36. A $12.5 million buyout when he's 37 or pay him $27.5 million.
When I say that the team that acquires Lee should focus on the immediate, I mean that you better believe he's going to help get you to the World Series this year. If he doesn't, you're still contractually obligated to pay him over $60 million in the next two years.
The Red Sox might be one of the "high rollers" of baseball, but they have other things to worry about.
Like re-signing Jacoby Ellsbury and Jarrod Saltalamacchia and maybe Mike Napoli. Or picking up an option on Jon Lester. Or as usual, getting after free agents. Adding $25 million in salary puts a serious red flag on doing those things next year and it doesn't seem like the Phillies are keen on chipping in on the massive dollar amounts owed to Lee.
Maybe if they did throw in a lot of cash you could expect to see some bigger named prospects involved, but trading for a pitcher with a lot of mileage that's about to hit the halfway point of 30 and is owed $62.5 million at minimum doesn't warrant you perhaps the best prospect in baseball. (Holy crap Amaro is a bad GM. I just can't get over it.)
The Phillies are backed into a place where it seems like trading Lee will be their salvation for the next generation, but teams are also aware of that. They will not be getting names like Xander Bogaerts -- not because Lee isn't valuable, but because he's not 29 anymore. He's still a great pitcher, but will he be a great pitcher next season?
If I were the Red Sox I would trade for Lee under two scenarios:
- The Phillies pick up most of his salary, I send them five good prospects not named Bogaerts.
- The Phillies don't pick up any of his salary, I send them Nomar Garciaparra.
In other words if I was running the Red Sox, I wouldn't be trading for Lee this year. And I'm still going to make the playoffs.
That's a place that Philadelphia probably won't see for awhile.