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Walking Around Cliff Lee

Posted By Jon DeRosa On November 11, 2010 @ 4:05 pm In Baseball Musings,Hot Stove,Jon DeRosa,Player Essays | Comments Disabled

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.

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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?


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