What Does Cliff Lee's Return to the Philadelphia Phillies Mean?

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What Does Cliff Lee's Return to the Philadelphia Phillies Mean?
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Lee returns to the Phillies

I certainly didn’t see this coming.

There was no way that the Phillies could sign Cliff Lee.  While a lot of Phillies fans may have had it in the back of their minds as a wonderful fantasy scenario, most of us were sure that it wasn’t going to happen. 

As I’ve said before, the only team that would make a move like this is the Yankees, and the Phillies are not the Yankees.  Sure, they’ve spent a lot of money in recent years, but you kept hearing their front office talk about payroll limits and financial flexibility, which are terms you never hear  in the Bronx.

But then you wake up one morning, turn on SportsCenter to see that the Phillies have signed Cliff Lee, and you joyously realize that your team will not let money stand in the way of obtaining a player that they want.

To be fair, they did sign Lee for below market value.  He is passing up higher offers from the Yankees and the Rangers.  One rumored offer from the Yankees is said to be worth $30 million more than what the Phillies offered him.  So it isn’t like they simply outpriced the competition as the Yankees were attempting to do.

This does re-raise the question as to why the Phillies traded him in the first place.

The main reason the Phillies gave for trading him was a desire to re-stock their farm system.  On recent years, they had traded away several top prospects in various deals.  Due to this, their system was a bit depleted, and they saw trading Lee as an easy way to remedy that.

Most people didn’t fully believe this explanation, mostly because the prospects they received in exchange for Lee were underwhelming. 

The Mariners gave up pitchers Phillippe Aumont and Juan Ramirez, along with outfielder Tyson Gillies.  None of them appeared to be a can't-miss prospect, and they all had disappointing 2010 seasons.

Since the prospect haul wasn’t overwhelming, most people figured that the deal had to be about money.  Lee would be a free agent after the 2010 season, and reports were that he was looking to get the biggest deal that he could.

The Phillies—who up until yesterday had an informal policy of never giving a pitcher a contract longer than four years—didn’t think that they’d be able to match what Lee would get on the open market.  Supposedly, they had offered Lee a hefty extension last year (although reportedly less than what he eventually received), and they were rejected.

They were then faced with the prospect of both Lee and outfielder Jayson Werth hitting freee agency after the 2010 season.  Both would be among the most coveted free agents, and both would be sure to receive large new contracts.  (And as we’ve seen, this did indeed happen.) 

The Phillies would then have holes in both their pitching rotation and lineup.  So they decided to preemptively address one of the issues by trading for Roy Halladay and dealing away Lee.  Halladay had expressed a desire to come to Philadelphia, and to prove it, he signed a contract extension for significantly less than he would have been expected to get in free agency.

After the trade, Lee expressed disappointment.  He had hoped to remain in Philadelphia and thought that there was significant progress being made towards a contract extension.  Most people believed that he did want to stay in Philadelphia, but not to the point where he’d take a below market deal similar to Halladay’s. 

As it turns out, Lee was telling the truth.  He really did want to stay in Philadelphia. 

While I’m happy about the signing, there are a few concerns with the deal.

While Lee isn’t seen as an injury risk, they are paying him a lot of money into his 30s.  Even the best conditioned pitchers can have injury problems as they get older. 

Look at the contract the Mets gave Johan Santana a few years ago.  Like Lee, he was considered one of the best pitchers in baseball and seemed like a good risk.  But he has suffered from injuries the past couple of seasons, and his contract now seems like a tremendous burden on the Mets payroll.

Of course, the fact that the Phillies have four ace-level pitchers on their staff mitigates the injury risk of each one, somewhat.  Even if Lee gets hurt, they can still rely on Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.

Signing Lee also doesn’t help the fact that the Phillies are an aging team.  Their core is all in their 30s, and some of their players are showing signs of decline.  Most people thought that the Phillies would look to get younger, not older.

On the other hand, since the team is aging, and the window for contention is supposedly closing, it makes sense to sign Lee and try to win a championship now.  As the Phillies well know, championship-caliber talent doesn’t come around that often, so you’d better try to win when you have the chance.

I’m also slightly worried that Phillies fans have mythologized Lee a bit.  His 2009 postseason was excellent, but he also was a bit shaky in September of that season.  And as the Yankees showed in the most recent World Series, he can be beaten in the postseason.  His presence alone does not guarantee a title.

So now that Lee is once again a Phillie, what have we learned?

 

1. When it comes to baseball rumors, don’t believe anything until it is official

Oftentimes, rumors are started by agents or team officials just to put pressure on the other party in negotiations.  Until you hear an official announcement, it’s almost impossible to know just what to believe.

Up until yesterday, everyone thought that Lee would sign with either the Yankees or Rangers.  The Phillies weren’t even thought of as a possibility.  And remember that nobody seemed to have any clue that Werth would sign with the Nationals, either.

 

2. Sometimes it really isn’t all about the money

Obviously Lee is not being underpaid.  He’s still going to be one of the highest paid players in baseball.  But he didn’t take the highest contract available, either.  Lee wanted to play for the Phillies, so that’s where he signed.

As the phrase goes, money talks and bulls**t walks.  Many times players say they want to stay somewhere but end up following the money.  It’s nice to see that Lee actually stuck by what he said.

He certainly didn’t seem to want to go to the Yankees, despite the money they were willing to pay him.  I’m sure the fact that Yankees fans spit on his wife during a playoff game didn’t exactly endear the New York fanbase to him.

And for whatever reason, he didn’t seem to want to stay with the Rangers, either, despite making it to the World Series with them. 

I’m sure his agent isn’t as happy as he could be.  There are rumors that his agent was the one pushing the idea that Lee wanted to be the highest-paid pitcher in baseball.  But maybe if the agent hadn’t pushed that idea, Lee never would have left Philadelphia to begin with.

 

3. It’s good to be a fan of a big market team. 

You can’t simply buy a World Series title, but having a lot of money to spend is a huge help.

Baseball teams are divided into several financial classes.  There are some small-market teams with very limited financial resources.  These teams can’t afford to pay for expensive free agents, and they expect to lose their stars once they hit free agency. 

Teams like this can only hope to contend by developing good young players and hope that they all mature around the same time.  Unfortunately for them, this is rare, and the small market teams will often go long stretches between playoff seasons. 

Even when it happens, the window for contention is limited for the poor teams.  Those young players eventually become free agents and go looking for a large contract which their team can not match.  The team must either trade them for prospects before that happens or risk losing them for nothing.

For an example, see the recent Tampa Bay Rays teams.  Their young core matured to the point where they were contenders for a few seasons, but now they are starting to lose players.  Outfielder Carl Crawford recently signed with the Red Sox, and they may have to trade pitcher Matt Garza as well.  Will the Rays still be contenders without them?  It is possible, but their chances are diminished.

On the other end of the spectrum are the rich teams.  These teams typically play in the country’s biggest markets, have stadiums that make a lot of money and have expensive television contracts.  Money is usually not an obstacle for these teams when acquiring players.

A common misconception is that the rich teams go out and simply outspend everyone else for the best free agents.  But, that is not always the case.  Oftentimes, the biggest contracts are given out by middle-class teams looking to make an impact, similar to what the Nationals did with Jayson Werth.

The biggest difference is that the rich teams can afford multiple stars as well as expensive complementary players.  A small-market team like the Twins can sign star catcher Joe Mauer to a big deal.  But as a result, they can’t really afford other expensive players to go with him.  They have to surround him with either young players or fringe free agents and hope that they overperform.

On the other hand, even though the Phillies are paying a lot of money to stars like Halladay, Lee, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley (and most teams couldn’t afford those four players alone), they can still afford higher priced supporting players like Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco.

Another advantage held by rich teams is that they can afford to make mistakes.  The Red Sox spent a fortune to acquire Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, and he has been a disappointment.  But that didn’t stop them from signing Crawford to a huge deal. 

If a smaller market team made that kind of mistake, their payroll would be crippled, and they’d probably be forced to trade some people away.  They certainly wouldn’t be able to sign yet another high priced free agent.

Ten years ago, this economic disparity bothered me greatly.  The Phillies were part of the lower-middle class, and the Yankees were coming off another championship, thanks in part to their large payroll.  It felt like the Phillies would never be serious contenders simply because they couldn’t match the financial resources of the rich teams. 

Much has changed in 10 years.  The Phillies built a new stadium, which has been a huge source of revenue for the team.  They are also experiencing an unprecedented surge in popularity.  As a result, ticket sales are maxing out, they sell a ton of merchandise, and television ratings are up—meaning they receive even more money from the broadcast rights.

Now, the Phillies are clearly part of baseball’s upper class.  They spend a lot of money and are seen as a desired destination for free agents.

Baseball’s financial system clearly has some problems.  But when dealing with an imperfect system, it’s always better to be on the good side.  I’ve seen it from both sides, and this is much better.

I’m sure fans of other teams will complain about the Phillies trying to buy a championship.  I’ve already heard a lot of “Yankees of the National League” talk.  I can understand people’s anger.  If I was a fan of the Rays or Pittsburgh Pirates, I would probably feel the same way.  If it’s any consolation, Phillies fans had to endure many years of suffering before we got to this point.

 

4. The Phillies could have re-signed Jayson Werth if they wanted to

Obviously, despite their earlier claims of maxing out their payroll, there was still money available.  And they did in fact offer Werth a sizable deal.  But they weren’t going to give him the money—and perhaps more importantly, the number of years—that the Nationals did.

Unlike Lee, Werth didn’t want to stay in Philadelphia enough to take a below-market deal, and I don’t really blame him.  Werth’s early career was derailed by injuries, and he never received a big contract.  He had already won a World Series as a complimentary player, so why not take the money and see if he can help another team win as one of the main stars?

It seems that the Phillies felt that if they were going to pay someone that much money, they’d be better off spending it on a top pitcher like Lee.  Werth has been a very good player for the Phillies, but they seem to feel the same way that I do.  The lineup is based around Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.  Werth is a very good compliment to them, but ultimately he can be replaced.

 

5. The Phillies will be good in 2011

As I said earlier, you can’t buy a World Series title.  But you can certainly put yourself in good position to win one, and that’s what the Phillies have done.

The Phillies lineup does have some questions considering how they underperformed last year.  But despite all their problems, they still managed to score the second-most runs in the National League and win 97 games.

Barring a severe decline in performance by their stars (doubtful based on everyone’s track record) or injury problems (much more likely due to past injury history and advancing age), the Phillies should make the playoffs. 

Predicting a playoff winner is much more difficult, as playoff victories seem to be more due to matchups and which team gets hot at the right time.  Still, being able to send out an ace-caliber pitcher every game will give the Phillies a huge advantage in the postseason as well.

So for Phillies fans, everything should seem great this morning.  Cliff Lee is back, and the Phillies once again look like favorites for the World Series.

 

Originally published on my blog: Stranger in a Strange Land

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