MLB Free Agency: 10 Reasons Cliff Lee Will Hold Up over Long-Term Deal

Matt Goldberg@@tipofgoldbergCorrespondent INovember 23, 2010

MLB Free Agency: 10 Reasons Cliff Lee Will Hold Up over Long-Term Deal

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    ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 01:  Cliff Lee #33 of the Texas Rangers pitches against the San Francisco Giants in Game Five of the 2010 MLB World Series at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on November 1, 2010 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty
    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Cliff Lee of the Texas Rangers (at least for now) is the prized free agent pitcher heading into the 2011 season.

    He is widely considered to be the biggest prize of all free agents.

    Where will he wind up and, presumably, pitch for the next five or so years? It appears to be a two-horse race between the Rangers and the favored New York Yankees.

    The 32-year-old southpaw is projected by many to be able to command something in the vicinity of 5-years at a total of  $110 million or so. He may insist on, and receive, a six-year contract in that same $20-22 million per year neighborhood.

    Nice neighborhood, by the way.

    Any way you phrase it, there is a lot of risk involved in handing out that kind of long-term dough for any pitcher—especially a pitcher in his 30s who missed several starts this year due to injuries, however minor.

    Regardless of whether he stays in Texas, goes to New York or plays (however improbably) for someone else, I project that Lee is a good risk—both performance-wise and health-wise. 

    What follows is a power ranking of 10 reasons to support this premise.

Does Cliff Lee Compare to a Halladay or a CC, or (gasp) a Zito?

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    SAN FRANCISCO - OCTOBER 21:  Roy Halladay #34 of the Philadelphia Phillies throws a pitch against the San Francisco Giants in Game Five of the NLCS during the 2010 MLB Playoffs at AT&T Park on October 21, 2010 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Most of our crystal ball have been broken for some time now, but we have statistics and a feel for the game to guide us. Hopefully, these diamond-shaped compasses give us some clarity.

    In considering big-name pitchers who signed large contracts upon switching teams in recent years, one would think that the Phillies are delighted with Roy Halladay, and the Yankees feel very good about CC Sabathia. The Red Sox may not be quite so bullish about the $15-plus million (per year) they paid for six years of John Lackey.

    The world champion Giants are fortunate that they can win a title without getting much of anything from Barry Zito (essentially a seven-year deal that started at $10 million and escalates to $20 mil.)

    I will use Halladay and Sabathia as examples throughout. Keep in mind that Halladay is essentially receiving $20 million per year for five years from the Phillies starting at age 33.

    Sabathia, who came to the Yankees at age 28, has completed two years of a seven-year pact that will pay him $23 million a year for the next five. 

    Lee will turn 33 toward the end of the 2011 season. This next contract will be his first huge payday. 

    My semi-reliable crystal ball tells me that Lee has a good chance to earn his Halladay-like or CC-ish contract because…

10. He’s Seemingly Impervious to Pressure

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    ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 01:  Cliff Lee #33 of the Texas Rangers runs across the World Series logo on his way to the dugout at the end of an inning against the San Francisco Giants in Game Five of the 2010 MLB World Series at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington
    Elsa/Getty Images

    This one is more intangible in nature.

    If you observe Cliff Lee’s demeanor in every public setting—from his frank, fluid media sessions to his great dugout composure, to the pitcher’s mound where he plies his trade so well—you notice one thing. Despite whatever fires burn inside, he is one very cool customer.

    Although intangible, this will serve him quite well. Whether he deals with the high expectations of being the man in Texas or the almost impossible expectations of being CC’s co-ace in the Bronx.

    Either way, it’s nice to be blessed with that cool.

    I did not even have that quality in Little League, although I had above-average Little League stuff.

9. He's Still Chasing His First Championship

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    ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 01:  Cliff Lee #33 of the Texas Rangers watches a 3-run home run hit by Edgar Renteria #16 of the San Francisco Giants leave the ballpark in Game Five of the 2010 MLB World Series at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on November 1, 20
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Cliff Lee has pitched quite memorably in the last two postseasons. 

    He was arguably the main reason why his Phillies reached the World Series in 2009, and his Rangers competed in their very first Fall Classic this past year.

    In 2009, Lee won his two starts in very convincing fashion against the Yanks, although he showed that he was human in losing two decisions to the Giants this past year.

    It must be gnawing at him that he pitched brilliantly in two postseasons without a ring to show for it. If motivation is the key to fulfilling his contract, that will serve him and his new/current team very well.

8. His Legacy—Lee Needs Several Big Years for Cooperstown

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    COOPERSTOWN, NY - JULY 24:  A patron of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum takes a photograph of the plaques of inducted members during induction weekend on July 24, 2010 in Cooperstown, New York.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Cliff Lee has one Cy Young award (2008 for the Indians) and an enviable postseason resume (7-2, 2.13 ERA) with even better inside numbers), yet he is a long way from getting into the Hall of Fame without a ticket.

    His career record is 102-61, with a 3.85 ERA. The ERA is mostly owed to the fairly-average start to his career before that breakout 2008 campaign.

    One would think that he is far from satisfied and that he will be motivated to put up another 100 wins or so to have a shot at Cooperstown. Whoever nabs Lee this offseason will not be getting a pitcher content to rest on his laurels. 

    Cliff still has more laurels to earn, as he earns those big bucks and tries for the ultimate baseball destination:  Cooperstown, NY. 

7. Friendly Rivalry with CC

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    NEW YORK - OCTOBER 20:  CC Sabathia #52 of the New York Yankees celebrates after he forced Josh Hamilton #32 of the Texas Rangers to ground into a double play to end the top of the fifth inning of Game Five of the ALCS during the 2010 MLB Playoffs at Yank
    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    By all accounts—as I don’t get to socialize with either—Lee and Sabathia are friends from their Indians days, as are their wives.

    I don’t mean that in a politically incorrect way, but the team is not named the Cleveland Native Americans.

    Where was I?

    I don’t know if this means that he will (presumably) take the money and run to New York. But one senses that the two of them would be just fine as co-aces.

    It’s not like they are NFL quarterbacks.

    If they do become teammates again, it may be an interesting juxtaposition between the lanky Lee and the massive Sabathia, who is the more accomplished regular season pitcher (157-88, 3.57) but has yet to shine in the playoffs (7-4. 4.66).

    If Lee stays in Texas, they may again have duels on the big stage, as they did in the 2009 World Series. 

    Lee won their Game 1 showdown, but CC got the ring.

6. Pitching for the…New York Rangers?

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    NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 17:  Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers in action against against the Boston Bruins during their game on November 17, 2010 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
    Al Bello/Getty Images

    For one of the top three or four pitchers in the game over the last three years, it’s remarkable that Cliff Lee has pitched for four teams since July 30, 2009—the Indians, the Phillies, the Mariners and the Rangers.

    The Rangers shocked the baseball world by acquiring Lee in midseason when everyone knew he’d join the Yankees at the time.

    Perhaps he’s still torn and will pitch for the New York Rangers. Or, he may play goalie for them. 

    He may be from Arkansas, but as we said, he’s a very cool customer.

    Okay, back to reality.

5. Late Bloomer

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    NEW YORK - APRIL 16:  Cliff Lee #31 of the Cleveland Indians pitches against the New York Yankees during opening day at the new Yankee Stadium on April 16, 2009 in the Bronx borough of New York City. This is the first regular season MLB game being played
    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    This description would seem to be tailor-made for Lee, who truly became an elite pitcher in 2008 at age 29.

    Prior to 2008, his won-loss record was a strong 54-36, although his best ERA in any full season was 3.79 in 2005. 

    Lee is clearly in his prime now, judging by his last three regular seasons and postseasons. He pitches more intelligently, with historically good control, and he has certainly figured out the keys to his success.

    While his regular season record is not as gaudy as either Halladay’s or Sabathia’s, consider also that his workload has been much less. I’m citing stats, heading into the first year of their big contracts (Sabathia, age 28, 2009); Halladay (age 33, 2010) and Lee (32, 2011).

    PITCHER

    W-L

    ERA

      IP

    AGE

    Halladay

    148-76

    3.42

    2047

    33

    Sabathia

    117-73

    3.65

    1660

    28

    Lee

    102-61

    3.85

    1409

    32

    My argument is not that Lee is better than either Halladay or Sabathia. 

    My supposition is that given his comparatively light career workload, Cliff has plenty left in the tank and a later prime than most star pitchers.

4. His Stress-Free Delivery

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    ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 01:  Starting pitcher Cliff Lee #33 of the Texas Rangers pitches against the San Francisco Giants in Game Five of the 2010 MLB World Series at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on November 1, 2010 in Arlington, Texas. The Giants won 3
    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Let’s take a break from some of that numeric analysis to channel the mental image you get when picturing Cliff Lee on the hill. 

    Do you picture that easygoing, classic delivery that does not look the least bit forced? 

    Along with the comparatively light workload that he carries into his age 32-33
    season, that easygoing, classic delivery will serve Lee (and his employer) very well as he starts to hit his mid-30s. 

3. Not the Fastest Pitcher on the Block

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    ST. LOUIS - OCTOBER 2: Starter Ubaldo Jimenez #38 of the Colorado Rockies pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on October 2, 2010 in St. Louis, Missouri.  The Cardinals beat the Rockies 1-0 in 11 innings.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Get
    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Even when Cliff Lee is on top of his game (you may consider any of his eight postseason starts, preceding the 2010 World Series), his hallmark is not a blazing fastball. 

    He does have a terrific fastball, but it is his pinpoint control and late movement that makes it special—not his sheer velocity.

    In boxing vernacular, Lee’s more of a boxer than a slugger. One projects that even if/when his velocity starts to go down a little, he’s a smart enough pitcher to make the necessary adjustments.

    Per www.fangraphs.com, the numbers show that Lee’s average fastball velocity is 91.3 MPH, which is middle-of-the-pack territory. He’s not nearly as slow as RA Dickey (83.9), but he’s also not nearly as intimidating as Ubaldo Jimenez (96.1).

    Since you implicitly asked, Sabathia is listed at 93.5, Halladay at 92.6. 

    Cliff does not rack up great strikeout numbers, although he did lead all of baseball in strikeout-to-walk ratio, because of…

2. Cliff’s Crazy Control

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    ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 01:  Edgar Renteria #16 of the San Francisco Giants hits a 3-run homer to centerfield against starting pitcher Cliff Lee #33 of the Texas Rangers in the top of the seventh inning of Game Five of the 2010 MLB World Series at Ranger
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    One of the keys to Lee’s success is his incredible control.  

    Consider his 2010 numbers, compiled with Seattle and Texas.

    28 Games, 212.1 IP, 185 strikeouts and are you ready for this…18 walks.

    In the postseason, he started five games, pitched 35.2 innings, struck out 47 and walked...two batters.

    Two!

    It should be impossible to have a majors-leading 10.28:1 K/BB ratio when anything above 4:1 is pretty special. But he managed to do so, and then he trumped it with an impossible 23.5:1 K/BB ratio in the playoffs.

    Does that single stat make him the best pitcher in the game? No. 

    But that—along with other stats cited—make him a uniquely mature pitcher who really knows how to pitch.

1. Lee Just May Be the Best Active Big-Game Pitcher

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    ST PETERSBURG, FL - OCTOBER 12:  :  Pitcher Cliff Lee #33 of the Texas Rangers celebrates his team's victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 5 of the ALDS at Tropicana Field on October 12, 2010 in St. Petersburg, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
    J. Meric/Getty Images

    Perhaps some baseball pundits got a little carried away when they anointed Cliff Lee—after dominating the Rays and the Yankees in the 2010 postseason—as perhaps the best big game pitcher ever, along with the likes of Koufax, Gibson and Mathewson.

    The baseball gods may have decreed that Lee—and in reality, those hyperbole-minded pundits—be punished with a dose of reality in the form of a surprising, feisty San Francisco Giants lineup who pounced on him in Game 1 and waited him out in Game 5.

    More power to the deserving Giants, but the fact remains that Lee’s 7-2 postseason record, with the tiny 2.13 ERA and silly 80-8 K/BB, still put him on the very short list of best active big-game pitchers.

    No disrespect to Mariano Rivera, as we’re talking starters.

    So, take your pick of the field (Halladay? Lincecum? Cain?). I’ll still take Lee in a big spot for my team.

    This only slightly-tarnished postseason record of Lee’s is about to make him one very rich hurler. His very ability to come through in the clutch makes him an acceptable risk for that five-year (do I hear six?), $110 (do I hear $132) million-dollar mega-deal.

Now It’s Your Turn: Agree, Disagree and Discuss

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    SEATTLE - JULY 09:  Cliff Lee of the Seattle Mariners speaks at a press conference announcing his trade to the Texas Rangers for first baseman Justin Smoak, pitcher Blake Beavan, Double-A Frisco reliever Josh Lueke and second baseman Matt Lawson at Safeco
    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Thanks for reading, and feel free to weigh in below with your spirited, knowledgeable takes on this article.

    For more information on Matt Goldberg’s new books, other writings and appearances, please e-mail: matt@tipofthegoldberg.com