The Case Against Cliff Lee
Whether free agent Cliff Lee chooses to re-sign with the Rangers because of Arlington's proximity to his Arkansas home or bolts to New York for the extra dough, his decision undoubtedly shapes the future of both teams significantly. Yet in all that's been said and written about Lee, rarely does the question of whether it's prudent to sign him to such a massive long-term contract seem to come up.
He's often described as one of the most dominant postseason pitchers of all time, but he has just two playoff runs under his belt, and three of his four starts in the World Series were hardly historic performances. In Game 5 of the 2009 World Series, Lee followed his nine-inning, 10-strikeout masterpiece in Game 1 with a stinker, allowing five runs and three walks in a fortunate Game 5 win for the Phillies over the Yankees.
In Game 1 of this year's World Series with two-time National League Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum tagged for four runs early on, the Rangers should have grabbed the momentum in San Francisco with an easy victory, but Lee pitched less than five innings and allowed seven runs. Then, of course, with the Rangers on the brink of losing the World Series in Game 5 and Lincecum on his way to an eight-inning, 10-strikeout performance, Lee served up a three-run homer to Edgar Renteria, effectively ending the season with one bad pitch. (Renteria had three home runs all season and didn't have a three-RBI game all year.)
This isn't to suggest that Lee isn't great. He's awesome. But, again, is he worth a deal that's likely to be at least $23 million per year for six years? Certainly Lee's performance over the course of the regular season is a better indication of what the winner of the Lee sweepstakes is gonna get for their money. And, hey, he's been pretty good in the regular season too (although his 15 starts with Texas produced mixed results), but just how good?
Below, we've compiled the stats for five lefthanders over the course of six seasons. Why six? We did Lee a favor and subtracted his first full season in 2004 when he struggled with a 5.43 ERA and 1.50 WHIP. So one of the stat lines below is what Lee has done from 2005 to 2010, during what most would call his prime between the ages of 26 and 31.
See if you can pick out which one's him.
Player A: 95-59 record, 3.61 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 1,337.2 innings, 1,018 strikeouts, 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings, 208 games started
Player B: 85-49, 3.64 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 1,167.1 IP, 874 K, 6.7 SO/9, 174 GS
Player C: 82-49, 3.35 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 1,202.1 IP, 820 K, 6.1 SO/9, 184 GS
Player D: 89-47, 3.64 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 1,195.1 IP, 858 K, 6.5 SO/9, 181 GS
Player E: 89-54, 3.34 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 1,255 IP, 986 K, 7.1 SO/9, 179 GS
Pretty tough, huh? It becomes apparent pretty quickly that these five players performed nearly identically over their respective six-year time periods.
So who are the other four?
Well, from the photo above, it's clear that Denny Neagle is one of them. Neagle's (Player D) stats sync up quite nicely with Lee (Player B), don't they? Neagle's numbers are from 1995 to 2000 while he too was between 26 and 31, and, like Lee, Neagle was a two-time All-Star during that time period ('95, '97), won 20 games ('97), played for four teams (Pirates, Braves, Reds and Yankees) and was headed into free agency.
After signing a five-year, $51 million contract with the Colorado Rockies in December 2000, the wheels came off immediately for Neagle. He went 19-23 with a 5.57 ERA over the next three years and then missed the 2004 season while recovering from ligament and elbow surgeries. The Rockies ultimately terminated his contract in late 2004 after he was arrested for allegedly paying a woman $40 for oral sex.
Former Milwaukee Brewers ace Teddy Higuera's (Player E) stats are also from the same age range as Lee and Neagle, and it was right before he inked a four-year, $13 million deal, which was quite expensive when it was signed in 1990. Higuera subsequently tore his rotator cuff and posted a 5-10 record and 6.34 ERA over the life of the contract.
The final two comparisons, Barry Zito (Player A) and Mike Hampton (Player C), peaked earlier than the others, so we looked at Zito's ages 23 to 28 seasons and Hampton's ages 22 to 27 years. After that span, Hampton signed and eight-year, $121 million deal with the Rockies, and Zito signed a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Giants, who demoted him to the bullpen in 2008 and kept him off their postseason roster this year. After four healthy seasons in San Francisco, Zito's record is 17 games below .500. Hampton was traded to Braves following two years and a 5.75 ERA in Colorado and never repeated his success from Houston. He later missed the entire 2006 and 2007 seasons with an elbow injury to his throwing arm.
Cliff Lee's 32 years old and looking earn more money annually than any other pitcher in baseball -- more in dough and years than, say, Roy Halladay, who inked a three-year, $60 million contract extension with the Phillies less than a year ago. So as it appears likely that the Yankees' checkbook will win out over a short flight to Little Rock, it's important to remember that history suggests the return on investment is far more likely to resemble that of Barry Zito than Sandy Koufax.