As the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers battle for position in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, reports have swirled of offers from both teams offering up to seven years in length for the 32-year-old Arkansas native.
A seven year deal would last Cliff Lee through age 39, an age that most starters have already long been deteriorating physically. There were just four pitchers in the 39-and-over club this past season: Jaime Moyer, Tim Wakefield, Miguel Batista and Brian Moehler. None of them have played up to the demands of a $140M contract, the range of money the Yankees have reportedly offered Lee. Of course, to be fair, none of these four pitchers have been as dominant as Cliff Lee can be.
Then again, neither had Cliff Lee until 2008, his fourth full season for the Cleveland Indians and his age 29 season. In those previous four seasons, Lee was 51-32 with a 4.76 ERA. In 2007, the season before his Cy Young turnaround season, Lee had an ERA of 5.38 in 16 starts and was sent down to Triple-A Buffalo in July. All signs pointed to a disappointing end to Cliff Lee's professional baseball career.
Things did turn around for the left-hander though, as Cliff Lee returned in 2008 and had himself a career year. He went 22-3 with a phenomenal 2.54 ERA and won the American League Cy Young Award. In one full season, Cliff Lee went from a flop to the top. He followed his 2008 performance with a stellar 2009 season, landing with the defending World Champion Philadelphia Phillies following a midseason trade. Lee went 4-0 in the playoffs, including two big victories against the New York Yankees, but the Phillies ultimately lost the series 4-2 in part to struggles surrounding the rest of the Philadelphia pitching staff.
Cliff Lee found himself in Seattle following a trade that would bring Roy Halladay to the Phillies. Cliff Lee was great for the Mariners, going 8-3 with a 2.34 ERA in his first 13 starts. Despite this, he was traded midseason once again, this time to division-rival Texas.
The Cliff Lee pickup put Texas in prime position for the playoffs, and with the help of a power hitting roster and a young, impressive pitching staff, the Rangers worked their way all the way into the 2010 World Series. Unfortunately much like the previous year, Lee and the Rangers were removed quite easily by the San Francisco Giants, losing the series 4-1. Lee struggled thoroughly in his Game 1 and Game 5 starts, posting an ERA of 6.94 and allowing the series-clinching home run in Game 5 to Edgar Renteria.
Despite his recent success, there is much to be concerned with when looking at Cliff Lee for such a long-term deal. As was aforementioned, Cliff Lee is 32 years old already and will be 39 by the time a seven year deal would be up. Most pitchers' struggles begin long before this age and Cliff Lee would be making a lot of money for someone who likely won't be performing up to par.
Then there's the possibility that Lee has very well already hit his peak. It is very rare for someone to turn their career around so suddenly as Cliff Lee did and it's even rarer to do it at the age he did and sustain that success for a long period of time afterward. Cliff Lee is not C.C. Sabathia, he is not 28 years old and it's quite possible he's already used most of what he's got left in him.
Considering the Yankees' history with big pitcher signings in the past and most recently A.J. Burnett, Brian Cashman and company should be a bit more cautious when pursuing Cliff Lee. Cliff Lee is demanding a contract that is outside his range at this point and both the Yankees and Rangers would be foolish to tie themselves up with a pitcher for seven years who may only give them 3-5 good years, if that.
Unfortunately, it does appear that Cliff Lee will ultimately get what he wants and if that is the case, it's likely the always eager Yankees will be the ones to suffer for it. I guess it's really as Lee's agent Darek Braunecker said, "It's good to be Cliff Lee."
It most certainly is.