"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Walking Around Cliff Lee

Why hello there, fellow Yankee fans. I’ve read here and there that a lot of you are not that keen on signing Cliff Lee to an expensive, long-term contract. Let’s walk together around the Banter for a short, longish while. Go ahead and bring those heavy reservations and burdensome doubts with you along the way, but also feel free to drop them by the side of the trail as we go. By the end, maybe you’ll have shed all that unnecessary weight currently resting upon your shoulders.

Before we start, let me make sure I understand the full extent of your objections. One possible reason to shun an expensive long-term contract is a strong doubt about the quality of the player. Another would be a strong doubt about the health of the player. The final reason to object to signing an expensive long-term contract is the opportunity cost, both in terms of the payroll and the roster flexibility, of committing dollars and years to the player.

Is that it? Are there other worries I haven’t addressed? No? Well, if you think of any on the way, please let me know.

OK, let’s begin our walk getting comfortable with the quality of the player in question. Cliff Lee is one of the best pitchers in baseball by any measure – I think that’s a point of agreement. He has succeeded in both leagues and a variety of home parks. He has performed as exquisitely while toiling in last place as he has in pitching two different teams to the World Series. He has twice toed the rubber in Yankee Stadium, in October, against our hostile crowds, and twice been virtually untouchable.

In the three years since 2008, he has accumulated 20.9 fWAR and 16.6 bWAR. His fWAR total is behind only Roy Halladay (21.4 fWAR) and his bWAR is behind only Halladay (20.4 bWAR) and CC Sabathia (16.8 bWAR). He’s been better than Felix Hernandez. He’s been better than Tim Lincecum. Think of any pitcher not named Halladay, and Lee has been better.

The doubts nagging you, I gather, are not ones of current quality, because the statistics are breathtaking and as Yankee fans, we’ve experienced his devastating dominance first-hand. The doubts are about the sustainability of this level of performance into the future. After all, he pitched several years before 2008 and was a very different pitcher – an obviously inferior pitcher to what he is today. And he will undoubtedly lose some velocity between now and the end of whatever contract he signs. Will he regress to his old form? Will he fall somewhere inbetween?

Can he keep up his current quality for the length of the contract? No. I think that is a safe guess, and I don’t think the Yankees, or any other team going after him this winter will make the mistake of thinking that Cliff Lee at age 36 or 37 will be exactly as good as he was at 31. So the requirement is a little more forgiving than that. Can he pitch well enough so that he is worth his contract?

This is an unknowable thing. It was unknowable about Mike Mussina, when the Yankees signed him after the 2000 season. It was unknowable about Andy Pettitte when the Yankees didn’t sign him after the 2003 season. It was unknowable about CC Sabathia when the Yankees signed him after the 2008 season.

We have to guess. And while you may point to his less-effective early career as a reason to guess against him, I find it the most reassuring piece of evidence at our disposal. He has already shown capacity to reinvent himself.

Between 2007 and 2008, somehow, he learned to command his arsenal of pitches with uncanny precision. He achieved the pitching dream of vastly improved accuracy without the usual corresponding sacrifice of velocity and movement. He cut his walks in half while increasing his strikeout rate. I don’t know how he did it, but the fact that he did it gives me a lot of hope that he could cope with a lesser fastball in year three or four of this deal in a way that say, AJ Burnett, or even CC Sabathia, could not.

He’s great now. He’s shown the willingness and ability to go back to the drawing board when things are not working. There is no guarantee that any player can sustain any level of performance over any time. But, for the Yankees’ money, I think Cliff Lee’s future performance is among the safer bets out there – not just in terms of this free agent market, but in terms of all starting pitchers in baseball.

So are you feeling better that Cliff Lee will be a good enough pitcher for the length of the contract? That he will be close to his current form for a few years and then has a good chance to adapt well down the road?

If you’re ready to move on, let’s walk past the statistics and talk about his health, and how likely he is to suffer some devastating injury (or a lot of annoying minor ones) that makes the quality of his performance irrelevant.

Though I had a lot of means to assure you about the quality issue, I have virtually nothing to offer you for this. He will probably get hurt. He will probably spend some time on the DL and his absence will almost certainly have a negative impact on some Yankee season and/or postseason. But the same can be said of current Yankees CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes or other possible Yankee acquisitions Zach Greinke and Jonathan Sanchez.

Almost all pitchers get hurt sometimes. When they don’t, they make headlines for consecutive starts made or years without a trip to the disabled list. I think this is reason to get Cliff Lee rather than a reason to avoid Cliff Lee.

First of all, if Cliff Lee’s potential absence from a future Yankee rotation due to injury would be a bad thing, how about his guaranteed absence from ALL future Yankee rotations due to the fact that he’s a Texas Ranger? Because he might get hurt and deprive the Yankees of his good pitching for some period of time, they should avoid him altogether? I just don’t see how that makes any sense.

Second of all, having Cliff Lee around will very likely help New York endure CC Sabathia’s first Yankee injury. Because pitchers are so fragile and unpredictable, having a lot of durable, excellent pitchers is a good strategy. If you feel that durable is too strong a word for Cliff Lee, who missed time in 2010 with two separate injuries, and also had minor foot surgery before the season, that’s fine. He also spent time on the DL in 2003 and 2007. But he’s pitched over 200 innings in five of the last six years, so that’s good enough for me.

I can tell from the way you are looking at me that I have only been fighting the heads of your demon doubts. The belly of the beast is related to performance and injury, but neither exactly performance nor injury. He’s 32. He’ll be 37 or 38 by the time he’s done as a Yankee and when we contemplate that 2015 or 2016 roster, it’s going to suck having 22-25 million dollars tied up in a very old pitcher.

This is where I think I can help you the most. That roster spot is just not a big deal. The Yankees have never, ever, in their long luxurious history, had five good starting pitchers all have good, full seasons at the same time. Having five rotation spots means the Yankees will never have to turn away a can’t miss prospect. They’ll never have to say, if only Cliff Lee wasn’t here, we could keep Greg Maddux Jr, but since he is, we’ll have to trade him to Arizona for extra rosin bags. It will never come to that. Trust me.

The Yankees might trade a good young pitching prospect to get help elsewhere, but the Yankees will almost certainly be better off with Cliff Lee and whatever they reap for the trade than with the prospect and whatever hole they need to fill.

And the rotation is where the Yankees need the most help. They have one sure thing on the team. One question mark due to youth. Another due possible retirement. And AJ Burnett, whose pitching has been bad enough for long enough that I don’t know if any questions remain. Then, on top of that mess, they have a completely open rotation spot.

So this is how it could work. Andy Pettitte will sign up for one more year. CC and Lee will front the rotation. Hughes will gain traction and confidence behind the three lefties, and Burnett will attempt to salvage his career from the back end of the rotation. They will make a run at the 2011 World Series, hopefully win it, and then Andy will retire and there will be a brand new, gaping rotation spot waiting for the Yankees best prospect, whomever that may be.

Having Cliff Lee on the roster is not going to hinder the Yankees in any developmental or competitive way, even if he sucks at the end of the deal. In 2009, they won the World Series with three credible Major League Starters. In 2010, they made it to the ALCS with three credible Major League starters. If Cliff Lee sucks in 2015, they will just have to get other good pitchers to fill in the other open spots.

It’s why a long term pitching contract is more flexible than a long-term position player contract. Alex Rodriguez will either block the third base slot or the DH slot for years to come. The Yankees have no real opportunity to develop nor pursue some other great first baseman now that Teixeira signed such a long deal. But there’s always at least one rotation spot to play with.

Now I think I’m past the belly but I haven’t struck the heart of your fears. At the heart of your fears is money. How much, how long, how crazy will it get? How much more shit can you possibly take about the Yankees and their payroll? To which I say, simply, the day the Yankees pass on a free agent or above-slot draft pick or international rookie, because they have run out of money… that’s the day we worry about the payroll.

Before 2005, the Yankees did not sign Carlos Beltran, and they needed a centerfielder. In 2008, the Yankees could not sign UCLA-bound draft pick Gerritt Cole, who would have instantly been one of the best prospects they ever had. In 2010, they were not heavily involved in the Aroldis Chapman bidding. None of these things happened because the Yankees ran out of money. They just chose not to do them.

More specifically, the money given to Carl Pavano did not prevent them from getting Beltran. Cole wanted to go to UCLA. And I just don’t think the Yankees had a good read on how good Chapman was. They evaluate a player and decide how much they’re willing to spend on that guy. And then they try to go get him, and sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.

Until Brian Cashman gets on the radio and says, “we need a big time outfielder, but we can’t afford any of the free agents out there because we’re paying Cliff Lee so much money,” none of us should worry for one second about the size of the contract he signs. Actually, even if Cashman says that, I won’t believe him because a lot of what he says is just BS anyway.

I am not so sure you are still with me. I think mentioning Carl Pavano’s name might have been counterproductive. So yeah, that was bad and I don’t blame you if that knocked you off your moorings. Paying a guy a lot of money and then having him not do any pitching is not good for the club. Anytime you pay a pitcher you might get zero (Pavano) and you might even get less than zero (Vazquez). At the price of Vazquez and Pavano combined for five or six years, getting less than zero from Cliff Lee would be disastrous.

But consider the upside of Cliff Lee in 2011-2013 – an upside utterly unattainable by Vazquez and Pavano. This is the period when I still expect him to be great. It is also a period when I expect CC Sabathia to be great. It is a period which we will see the best of what Arod’s got left, the best of Cano, the end of the prime of Mark Teixeira and the current outfield, the maturation of Phil Hughes, and the last great gasp of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte.

With CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee providing deep outings in postseason games, minimizing the impact of the erratic bullpen and taking pressure off the lauded, laden lineup, the Yankees would be a late-October horror movie for everyone else.

They’d be a team that could carve out another mini-dynasty and when the dust settles, provide the quality veteran stability to straddle the transition to the next Yankee teams with players we can’t even fathom today. CC and Lee will still be making their starts. Cano, Arod, and Teix will still be hitting enough, and Montero could be the shining star. New outfielders, a new closer and a new shortstop will be required, along with two or three starting pitchers.

If your main reservation for acquiring Cliff Lee is that the Yankees will need that money to acquire all the new pieces mentioned above, relax. The best way to obtain those players is to remain the best team in baseball – not to squirrel away money now and sacrifice current results. Winning will keep the engine running here in New York and by the time they need these new players, Cliff Lee’s contract will not be a consideration.

This new team may fail to develop championship mettle. But that is true whether Cliff Lee is here or not. And I personally will find it much more tolerable to forgive the new team’s failures if they are coming on the heels of another two or three parades.

We’re at the end of the walk. Was that last bit too much? A dream best left unwritten so it won’t look sumpremely foolish in hidnsight? Are you too timid to aspire to dynasty? Too racked with guilt to endorse the extreme expense that it entails?

I hope not. But if you are, I leave you with this. If the Yankees don’t sign Cliff Lee, they will be a worse team in the immediate future than they could have been, and you’ll still take just as much crap about their payroll as you ever did. So I hope the Yankees sign the guy and grab at the World Series with both hands. In the end, they still might not win, but at least we’ll be fans of the one team out there that puts titles ahead of excuses.

I should have asked earlier, but do you have a ride home?

Categories:  Baseball Musings  Hot Stove  Jon DeRosa  Player Essays

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1 PickNY   ~  Nov 11, 2010 4:55 pm

Mr. DeRosa,

Your article was on POINT Jack! I'm sold, so count me in! Plus, it's not my MONEY!

Go Yanks for another dynasty run!

2 The Hawk   ~  Nov 11, 2010 6:51 pm

I think such a long, thought-out piece deserves more responses. That said, I am still Lee-ry of this move.

3 inOhio   ~  Nov 11, 2010 6:53 pm

No thanks. Yanks have too many holes with or without Lee. Would like to see some home grown talent for a change, and a concerted effort to develop from within. Overpaying for Lee seems less like a solution, and more like desperation.

4 Mattpat11   ~  Nov 11, 2010 7:12 pm

I said this about Randy Johnson before got him and after he left. Regardless of how this works out, its the right move to make.

The Yankees pitching staff wasn't good enough this year, and now they're a year older, injured, contemplating retirement or still AJ Burnett.They may or may not win the World Title next year with Cliff Lee, but I have no idea how they do without him.

5 monkeypants   ~  Nov 11, 2010 7:22 pm

[2] I have a hard time getting up the energy to respond. By this point, we all know the terms of the debate. The Yankees have holes and question marks, especially in the starting staff. Lee is the best FA on the market. The Yankees will overpay in terms of years and money. No matter how good Lee has been some of the last three years, his injury past and late bloomer-ness raises real warning flags. The Yankees are buying high right now. Lee is already 31.

I too am extremely Lee-ry. I am also a bit warn out by all of the Lee-cturing, and have been since the trading deadline.

6 RIYank   ~  Nov 11, 2010 7:34 pm

Yeah, sorry, I'm like monkeypants here. It's not that you don't have good points, Jon, it's just that the things we all know we should worry about seem more worrisome to me than to you. For example, I am not at all convinced that spending the money on Lee won't prevent the team from signing a star later. Hal said he wants to keep the payroll about the same. That doesn't mean he will, but it does signal, whether truly or not, that there are going to be limits and trade-offs.

Meanwhile, Rob won the Silver Slugger to go with his Gold Glove. Louisville and Rawlings, silver and gold. I wouldn't mind if they sat down with him and inked a seven year contract now.

7 Mattpat11   ~  Nov 11, 2010 7:37 pm

There are reasons to be leery, but I'd be even more leery of the panic moves they make if they don't get him.

Yay Jon Garland!

8 OldYanksFan   ~  Nov 11, 2010 8:45 pm

I think a lot boils down to this.
Can the Yankees have have a year or 2 where they try to win, but concern themselves more more the upcoming years? Not a rebuild and maybe not even a reload... but just a 'we don't always have to get the expensive shiny toy'.... we are smart and have other options.

I didn't like 2008, but I lived through it. And had I known up front that it was a 'lay back' year, because we were looking down the road a bit, it wouldn't have been that bad.

Having been a fan since '65, I remembered the pure joy of seeing the Yankees FINALLY become a .500 team. It was years before I could even allow myself the think about actually winning.

And now, after 15 years of winning, I too am beginning to feel entitled. And I don't like it.

So part of the reason I don't want Lee is because as a fan, I'd really like to see more of our kids and really like to see us win when we aren't the favorite. So with Lee, I have the internal battle of trying to be a smart GM and follow our path of Win Now! vs the fan in me that believes the game can still be fun even if we don't buy the best guy out there.

9 Mr. OK Jazz TOKYO   ~  Nov 11, 2010 10:47 pm

[7] I too was Lee-ry until you mentioned Jon Garland...

But I want to see Carl Crawford in pinstripes. Crawford, Gardner & Ganderson in the OF, pitcher's delight!

10 Chyll Will   ~  Nov 11, 2010 11:05 pm

[8] Still, our home grown commodities who become Jeter (Cano) or Andy or Mo will become verrry expensive when they hit their FA years. Unless Cano is so crazy about the Yanks that he never wants to go anywhere else (and so fearful of a career-zapping injury), he and his agent would be criminally insane or incompetent to sign a long term deal before he's eligible to hit the market. So really they're damned if they do, damned if they don't. Be empirical I say, and do. They alone can afford to make a mistake on Cliff Lee with all the hot pitching prospects they've got, riiiiight?

[9] I think they pursue first Crawford if they fail to land Lee, then Werth if they fail to land Crawford. Not that they absolutely need either one. I wondered if Sandyball would try to get one of them, but he's got too many problems to sort out his first year. Bad timing all around for both NY teams, honestly.

11 Mr. OK Jazz TOKYO   ~  Nov 12, 2010 12:02 am

[10] Crawford would be nice on the Mets..Reyes & Carl on the basepaths together..scary.

I don't want to imagine Cano leaving NY...

12 rbj   ~  Nov 12, 2010 9:59 am

I've got no problem signing Cliff to a 5-7 year deal. By year 5 and beyond, Derek, Mo, Jorge and Andy will be retired, which means what, $50 million off the books right there, and I doubt Robbie & Jesus will eat all that up. It'll be an aging CC & Cliff plus . . . we don't know. Nova? Someone in 8th grade or 9th grade now?

So we get a good Lee for now, pay for it later when it is a maybe 1 or 2 overpayment 5 years down the road which can be made up for with other cheaper homegrown talent.

Surround aging CC & Lee with a good farm system.

13 OldYanksFan   ~  Nov 12, 2010 10:01 am

Rumor has it that Carl might get $15m/yr or so.
While Carl has a career OPS+ of 107, he has been very good the last 2 years, averaging a 125 OPS+.
Meanwhile, Swisher has a career OPS+ of 116 and an average of 126 his last 2 Yankee years.
Carl is faster and a much better defender, but I'm not sure he is that much better then Swisher. Whatever the upgrade, I don't think it's worth an extra $6m yr and yet another long/expensive contract for Carl.

We have Swisher for 2 more years at $9.6m. It's not only a steal, but allows us to look around in 2013.

14 OldYanksFan   ~  Nov 12, 2010 10:15 am

".... Derek, Mo, Jorge and Andy will be retired, which means what, $50 million off the books right there..."

Yes, but if the Yankees want to continue to 'Win', it means we need to replace their production for $50m. Also, CC and Teix are getting very 'mature' at this time, and ARod is getting ancient. We will have lost the best closer in the game, the best SS in the game and a solid #2 SP. It won't be cheap to replace them.

The only real gain I see is Posada... assuming that Montero/Romine take over, that puts Po's salary in our pocket. Maybe we can replace Andy inhouse also.

But it doesn't really matter how you figure who coming up or who's coming off. When you sign players to long, expensive contracts... knowing you will probably be getting limited production at at huge cost, it's a liability. As you do this with more and more players, you begin to accrue liability.

I'm not saying we can't overcome this, just that it's something I know Cashman is considering. He has a tough job as he always has to weigh 'Winning now' while still preparing to Win in the future.

I'm glad I don't have Cashman's job. For all our money, I think Cashman's job is MUCH more difficult then other GMs.

15 BobbyB   ~  Nov 12, 2010 3:03 pm

If Lee had been traded to the Yankees, not the Rangers, The Yankees, not the Rangers would have played in the World Series. Case closed.

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