Friday, October 15, 2010

Cliff Lee

Lee's been amazing each of the last three seasons.  By several measures, Lee was the best pitcher in baseball this season.  Not just when he was with Seattle.  Not just in the American League.  Best pitcher in baseball.  Better than King Felix.  Better than Roy Halladay.  Better than Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Johnson, Jon Lester, CC Sabathia.  Go ahead and name any pitcher, Cliff Lee was better.  Sure his record was a pedestrian 12-9 and his ERA was good, not great (3.18), but most knowledgeable baseball fans know W-L record and ERA are pretty poor performance measures.  Only when you look at his controllable secondary statistics do you begin to recognize the beauty of Cliff Lee.  In 2010, Cliff Lee became only the second pitcher in baseball history to post a K/BB ratio above 10.00 (10.28).  He posted an FIP (a defense independent version of ERA) of 2.58, which shows that Lee's ERA was slightly misrepresented by poor defense in Texas, thus actually better than his ERA showed.  Lastly, he was worth 7.0 Wins Above Replacement, which was good for best in baseball among pitchers, by almost half a win.  Cliff Lee was an absolute beast.

Like I said, I really like Cliff Lee...right now.  He's a soon to be free agent going into his age-32 season in 2011.  He does a lot of things very well.  He avoids walks.  He misses bats.  He induces ground balls, and doesn't give up home runs at a high rate.   So, what's not to like?  Well, his age for one.  32 year old pitchers don't tend to get better.  Sure there are exceptions to the rule, but for the most part it just doesn't happen without some sort of illegal supplement.  He might've been worth 7.0 WAR now in 2010, but how much will he be worth in 2014 or 2015?  If you were to conservatively regress his performance (based on his three year WAR average of 7.0 WAR per season) at 0.5 wins per season for his age 32-33 seasons, 0.75 wins for age 34-35 seasons, and 1.00 win for age 36-37 seasons, here's how he looks.

2011 (age 32) - 6.5 WAR
2012 (age 33) - 6.0 WAR
2013 (age 34) - 5.25 WAR
2014 (age 35 - 4.50 WAR
2015 (age 36) - 3.50 WAR
2016 (age 37) - 2.50 WAR

For those counting at home, based on my crude model, Lee will be worth approximately 28.5 WAR over the next six seasons.  Not bad actually.  Assuming no major injuries, he projects out pretty well over the course of his next contract assuming some team meets his demand of 6 years $120M.  Sure, he won't provide enough value to be worth what he's getting paid during the last couple of seasons of his contract, but he'll provide more than enough value on the front end to justify his contract.  This remains true as long as the average value of a win on the free agent market remains at or above $4.2M.

That said, I'm not overly enthused with the idea of the Red Sox signing Cliff Lee?  Why not?  Well, first there's the issue of there not being a spot in the rotation for him.  Signing him requires some sort of roster move that I just don't see happening without some sort of a miracle.   (Although I could be swayed by some truly out of the box, but realistic ideas.)  Lester and Buchholz are young studs who are virtually untouchable, and for good reason.  Beckett and Lackey are on the wrong side of 30, just signed long term deals, and coming off of disappointing seasons.  Perhaps it's just me, but they just don't scream viable trade bait.  I could be wrong though.  Then, there's Dice-K.  Oh, Dice-K, how you frustrate me with your insane pitch counts, high walk totals, and maddening inconsistency--and that's only through four innings.  You would be the ideal candidate to trade, but your agent is Scott Boras and you have a no trade clause.  This makes moving Dice-K not only highly unlikely, but also someone we shouldn't waste time dreaming about playing in another uniform.  We're probably stuck with him for another two seasons.  So why exactly should we sign Lee?

Well, the obvious answer is to keep him from signing with the Yankees, but really, that's a terrible reason.  No team should ever sign a player with the sole purpose of keeping him from another team.  Moves like that lead to long-term personnel mistakes.  My biggest issue with signing Lee is that my WAR age regression makes the two assumptions:  (1) he regresses at the exact rate I expect him to, and (2) he's completely healthy.  Neither assumptions are guarantees--especially the injury factor.  Pitchers have a tendency to get hurt.  It's their nature.  Throwing a ball at 90+ MPH is unnatural.  The injury factor becomes more pronounced as a player gets older.  Take a look at guys like Mike Hampton and Kevin Brown.  Both pitchers, like Lee will, signed huge $100M+ 7-8 year contracts after they turned 30.  Both pitchers suffered nagging injuries that robbed them of significant playing time during their big money contract.  I'm not saying this will happen to Lee, but it becomes a lot more likely the older he gets.  So why take the risk?  If some team, including the Red Sox, could find a way to talk him down to a 3 year $60M contract with a non-guaranteed fourth year option, similar to the one given to Roy Halladay (his closest comp in age and recent performance), then I could get behind the signing.  Three years is a lot less risky than six in terms of projecting performance and potential for injury.  This would give the Red Sox (or any other team for that matter) additional piece of mind knowing that the contract Lee signed would not become an albatross, and allow for greater levels of payroll flexibility.  All of this in exchange for employing a potential game changing front line starting pitcher.  Unfortunately, the 3/$60M contract is nothing but a pipe dream.  It's not going to happen.  He's going to get his 6/$120, or at the very least 5/$100M, and he'll likely get it from the Yankees.  Despite his immense talents, I see him as a player that is just too risky for the Red Sox to sign.  With a deep rotation full of high leverage starters, it seems like a much smarter move for the Sox to focus on filling one of their many lineup holes via free agency.  May I suggest Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth?

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