Hope it's been worth it.
The three-straight complete game shutouts. The 32-consecutive scoreless innings. The 5-0 win over the Red Sox B-squad.
So here's to the most questionable spending in baseball. And toast to its thinnest farm system.
For all Cliff Lee's accolades, in current and historical context, he and the Philadelphia Phillies' top shelf land in another: $56.7 million in 2011 salary for a five-man rotation. Of that, $40.5 million is wrapped in three arms—two left, one right—in Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, 23 percent of MLB's second-steepest payroll.
Some would argue the investments have paid dividends worth more than their weight in gold. Of the 16 pitchers in the game with less than a 2.88 ERA, the Phillies have three. They padded baseball's best record by a game, now 50-30, after mopping up with the sport's toughest lineup at Citizens Bank Park last night. And for a batting order rife with lefties and underachievement, that security is warmth like no summer night can offer.
Lee personally has been otherworldly of late, dealing his third-consecutive complete game shutout (a franchise first since Robin Roberts in 1950) and whittling his June ERA to 0.21, baseball history's fifth-best month ever.
Do Lee, Halladay and Hamels' salaries make you expect otherworldly performances of them?
It's the stuff Philadelphians take to the streets over, exalting in sugarplum dreams of World Series favoritism.
But should there be a celebration? That's like awarding taxpayers with medals.
Ruben Amaro Jr. is getting exactly what he paid for.
Or overpaid for.
The Phillies' three dealers aren't the National League's only laudable pitchers so far in 2011. Atlanta's Jair Jurrjens sits well under all three pitchers' ERAs at 2.07, and boasts the same 10-3 record as Halladay.
Annibal Sanchez of Florida is 6-1, despite next-to-nothing in support from his lineup or fan base.
The same goes for the 8-2 record Ian Kennedy posted in Arizona, and Clayton Kershaw's 8-3, compiled during the ugliest hour of any franchise's history (ever).
They're not even head-and-shoulders above the best tandem, with Kyle Lohse (2.91 ERA) and Jaime Garcia (3.06 ERA) worth 7 wins apiece in St. Louis, and Dustin Moseley (3.03 ERA) and Tim Stauffer (3.09 ERA) scraping together competitiveness for the Padres.
But Lee, Halladay and Hamels are handily the most handsomely paid. For their troubles, they each net an average of $13.5 million in 2011, a year before Lee's annual earnings jumps to $25 million. (Then it jumps to $18.17 million apiece.)
The top 15 NL pitchers (in ERA terms), meanwhile, earn $2.33 million apiece. But less Lohse's $11.875 million, the best of 2011's rest doesn't crack an average $1.5 million. And six arms—Tommy Hanson (ATL), Jordan Zimmermann (WSH), Kershaw (LAD), Kennedy (ARI), Moseley (SD) and Garcia (STL)—make less than $1 million.
One way to put it: the Phillies pay a $12 million premium, per pitcher, for shaving 0.3 ERA points, and 3 more wins.
Makes the rounds of applause a little less spirited, doesn't it?
Advanced sabermetrics buy you justification, but not much. Lee, Halladay and Hamels crack the top 10 in wins above replacement (WAR) for pitchers, but none falls under Sean Smith of BaseballProjection.com's relevant range for All-Stars (more than 5), let alone MVPs (more than 8), let alone most lavish GM spending prices.
You can rationalize with the value in how deeply they go in games, mileage and big moments that isn't put on shaky closers like Brad Lidge, and fragile ones like he, Jose Contreres and Ryan Madson, all on the DL.
But for that price tag? Still a little steep.
The story for the American League is a different read, with as many high-ticket items—Jered Weaver and Dan Haren (LAA), Josh Beckett (BOS) and Justin Verlander (DET)—as bargain buys.
But the performance on the cheap is out there, evidenced by first halves from Oakland's Gio Gonzalez (7-5, 2.38 ERA for $420k), Seattle's Michael Pineda (7-5, 2.65 ERA for $414k), Texas' Alexi Ogando (7-3, 2.87 ERA for $430k) and the AL's other three top 15 ERA pitchers under contract for less than $1 million, all guys teams lean on for a few years of overachievement before free agency beckons.
That's not the culture for the Phillies, who imported all but one of their pitching prizes, Hamels. Lee 2.0 was acquired via free agency this winter. The first time around, though, in 2009, Amaro brought Lee in from Cleveland via trade, how Philly snatched Oswalt from Houston last summer and Halladay from Toronto in 2009.
The Phillies farm system used to bear fruits like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and, most recently and resoundingly, Domonic Brown, the promising right fielder who tattooed a two-run homer off Beckett yesterday to open the floodgates.
But the 'dealing away prospects for big names' strategy leaves them hamstrung now, a pivotal time for tinkering with the roster before the fall. By liquidating its farm system, the not-too-distant future of the franchise, it's win-now-or-bust for these Phillies, working with a three-year window (max) to vie for World Series.
That's a risky play. If it backfires—and it might—are a decade of lean years worth it?
Crawling before we run, 2011 poses its own problems. The team is rife with holes—relief and right handed hitting are problematic—and pieces to plug them before the trade deadline. How is that supposed to compensate for hot-and-cold hitting like Somalia-to-Antarctica, the difference in the 2010 NCLS?
Amaro shouldn't move Halladay or Lee— could you imagine...?— nor should he have passed on the kind of opportune moments GMs make careers on. But if he had vested more in the farm system, leaning on undervalued dealers like the twentysomethings on the NL top 15, Amaro would have more flexibility for last-minute roster moves, the difference between viable and early vacations.
It makes your mind wander the road Billy Beane's traveled:
There's got to be a way to do better cheaper.