Cliff Lee is going to be a rich man very soon. Strike that. Cliff Lee is going to be a very, very, very rich man soon. After guiding two different teams to World Series berths in consecutive seasons, Lee will basically be given a blank check to fill out.
Whether it is the Yankees or some other team that signs Lee, there will be considerable risk in signing any player to that big of a contract.
Teams are risking a whole lot less, and could potentially get a lot more, by striking a deal with the Kansas City Royals and acquiring Zack Greinke.
Pitching is a young man's game. Pitchers tend to peak a little earlier than hitters, with the prime years in the mid-20s.
Zack Greinke just turned 27 in October and has not yet seen a huge decline in his stuff. His slider is as good as any pitch in baseball, and he can spot a 93-mph fastball on either side of the plate.
Cliff Lee is a master of the art of pitching. His delivery hides the ball well, and he can throw any pitch at any time. He just turned 32 in late August, so he may begin to see some decline in ability. He currently doesn't throw much harder than 90 mph.
As of this year, age shouldn't be much of a factor. But going forward, Greinke could give a team five extra seasons.
As mentioned before, Greinke is only under contract through the 2012 season. This will limit the risk teams have to gamble on.
Signing a pitcher to a long term deal is always a risk—look no further than Colorado signing Mike Hampton back in the early 2000s. Usually, the shorter the deal the better, for most ball clubs.
Lee is becoming a free agent at the peak of his value. Teams are willing to pay high end for his service over the next few years, but most of the negotiating is going to be how long the contract will be. Lee will likely want close to seven years, which means a club may have to pay a 39-year-old pitcher like he is still in his prime.
The prime of a pitcher usually runs from ages 24 to about 33. Cliff Lee is right at the outskirts of said prime, yet he is going to be signed until his late 30s.
At age 32, there may very well be three to five very good years left for Lee. But the risk of diminished skills or injury increases with every year pitched.
There have been examples of pitchers like Lee having success in their late 30s. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte can be the template to success for Lee in the coming years. All were able to overcome diminishing skills to be very successful pitchers late in their careers.
Zack Greinke, on the other hand, has just entered his prime seasons. He is 27 and has five years left before he is even Cliff Lee's current age. Greinke could end up having eight or nine very good seasons remaining, including a few years where he still has his dominant stuff.
No matter what pitcher a team decides to acquire, they are going to have to give up valuable assets.
The Kansas City Royals will be looking for multiple good, nearly MLB-ready prospects that they can add to their already impressive crop of minor leaguers in any deal for Zack Greinke.
This may put off some teams who like to hold on to their cheap, young players. But they would have control over Greinke for two seasons and could trade him later on if they are not competing for a playoff spot. Teams may even get better prospects in return for Greinke than what they had to give up for him.
Case in point of this theory is, ironically, Cliff Lee. Philadelphia traded Lee to Seattle last offseason for a crop of, at least to this point, under-performing minor leaguers. When Seattle then traded Lee to Texas, the crop they got back was much more impressive.
This was due to Texas being in a penant race and needing an ace to help them make a run at a World Series. Teams are more likely to give up more when the times call for it.
Also, in Greinke's case, if the team does keep him, they probably are playing well and making a run at the playoffs. So you could get two good years out of Greinke, and if he walks after the contract, you would receive two first-round picks for compensation. Either way, a team can't really get hurt as far as the price for Greinke.
In Lee's case, not only does a team need to pay his massive contract demands but also lose the first-round pick in the 2011 MLB draft, which is predicted to be a deep draft.
The team that signs Lee also takes on a contract that becomes nearly un-tradeable if Lee is not performing well.
Injury is the biggest risk in signing any big-time, free-agent pitcher. The millions wasted on injured pitchers reads like a cautionary tale to teams kicking the tires on Cliff Lee.
Carl Pavano may be the obvious recent example of the risks of signing a big-time free-agent pitcher.
Pavano signed a four year, $40 million contract with the Yankees. During his four seasons with the Yankees, from 2005-2008, Pavano pitched just 145 innings, with an ERA of 5.00.
At the time of the signing of Pavano, he basically was Cliff Lee: a great pitcher entering free agency in his prime and coming off three great years for his previous club.
Greinke has just as good a chance as Lee to get injured. It's possibly even more likely, due to his added velocity and torque on his slider. But the risk on two seasons, $22 million dollars is much less than Lee's estimated six years and possibly $140 million dollars.