The Holy Grail Of Free Agency

With all due respect to Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, the two corner outfielders don’t hold a candle to Cliff Lee when it comes to his importance this off season.  You don’t need Ian McKellen lecturing you on an early version of Da Vinci’s Last Supper to decode that Lee is the Holy Grail of baseball’s offseason.

As Buster Olney wrote today in his column for ESPN, Cliff Lee is the most important domino to fall this offseason because his decision on whose millions of dollars he accepts will set off a Rube Goldberg machine of transactions.

While the Yankees are perennial favourites in any free agent chase, the Rangers shouldn’t be underestimated in their pursuit to retain Lee.  According to the New York Post, Texas is preparing to set the bar with a five year offer for the 32 year old lefty.

Outbidding the New York Yankees for one of the best players in baseball seems like it’s exactly the type of splash that a new ownership group, armed with an enormous television contract, might try to make.  But is it the right one?

Ken Rosenthal says that the Rangers should be happy if they lose Cliff Lee.

Lee would be a tremendous asset. But for five years, $120 million or whatever the final price will be … well, let the Yankees take that gamble. Lee will turn 33 next Aug. 30 — in the first year of his new deal.

If the Yankees end up winning the Lee sweepstakes, Texas is freed up to go after the trade market’s biggest asset, Zack Greinke, as well as other free agent position players like Crawford and Werth.

It’s hard to imagine any team celebrating the loss of a player that they gave up their top prospect to acquire, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Lee isn’t always as miraculous as he was this past season.  His minuscule walk rate in 2010 was a little more than a third of his career norm.

There’s going to be regression from those numbers in the coming year, and as Rosenthal mentions, Lee is past the point at which most pitchers are at their peak.

The situation reminds me a little bit of A.J. Burnett opting out of the final year of his contract in Toronto.  At the time, it was felt by Blue Jays fans that the team had to resign Burnett, who was coming off his best season in the Majors at age 31, rather than lose him to their divisional rivals in New York.

The Jays were rumoured to have put together a three year deal to keep him with the team, but Burnett understandably took the better five year deal with the Yankees which guaranteed $82.5 million.

Looking at his numbers in New York this past season, one has to wonder if letting Burnett walk wasn’t one of the shrewder moves of J.P. Ricciardi’s tenure as GM with the Blue Jays.

While Lee is a different type of pitcher and has shown more consistency in recent times compared with what Burnett had done at that point in his career, he’s also a bit older than Burnett was when he signed his contract in New York.  It’s not unreasonable to wonder if Lee isn’t Burnett’s heir apparent.

As much as it may hurt the Rangers to have to give up Justin Smoak for a half season of Lee, they turned that into a trip to the World Series, and they’ll still collect two picks once he signs elsewhere.

It also doesn’t hurt that the Rangers have several options for the rotation including stretching out Neftali Feliz’s arm for the coming season.

There’s an old saying in baseball that suggests that the best moves a team makes are sometimes the moves that they don’t make.  Perhaps that should be modernized to read: The best moves a team makes are sometimes the Yankees outbidding them.

Comments (11)

  1. I don’t know if Burnett comparisons are fair in Lee’s case. Burnett was always a guy who had awful control but got by because he had great “stuff”; Lee also has very good stuff, but he’s pretty much the ideal control pitcher. “Stuff” declines with age, but control doesn’t (at least not as dramatically, if at all). I think it’s inevitable that Lee won’t be worth his contract when he’s 38, but I can’t imagine his contract falling into the same “colossal failure” category as Burnett’s.

    I read a couple of articles the other day about $/WAR for free agents and I’m not sure if anyone has looked at this, but I’d be interested to see some kind of analysis of the relationship between $/WAR and vs. total WAR provided by free agents. That is, it seems (and kind of makes sense) that guys who are going to put up a higher WAR total would tend to sign for more money per win above replacement provided. It seems inevitable that whichever team signs Lee is going to have to overpay for each win above replacement, but that’s because Lee is going to give you more wins above replacement than the more cost-effective options. In that sense, the idea of “overpaying” becomes a bit foggier, I think.

  2. They’re definitely two different types of pitchers. But my comparison is more centred around the timing of a big multi-year deal in a player’s career that outbids the team that the player finished the year with.

    Still, if Lee puts up similar walk rate numbers next year, I would be shocked. Sure, control vs. stuff is different, but Jamie Moyer types are just as rare as Nolan Ryans or Roger Clemens. It would be interesting to compare “control” pitchers and “stuff” pitcher to see who actually lasts longer.

    I assume I’ve been reading the same recent spat of articles at Sabernomics, Tango’s blog and Baseball Analysts. My mind asplodes trying to understand how they derive their $ value to WAR.

    I haven’t seen any place where they put a premium on the third or fourth win above replacement versus the second. But it kind of makes sense in theory considering there’s a finite number of players on a roster.

  3. I think the biggest difference for elite guys is years, not AAV. They get more years and more total dollars, which brings down their per Win value.

    • We might be saying the same thing, but just to clarify: one year contracts have a higher value, lower $/WAR than multi-year deals which have a lower value, higher $/WAR. Right?

  4. I think I’m trying to say what I read here:

    http://baseballanalysts.com/archives/2010/11/whats_a_free_ag.php

  5. I actually don’t think Lederer is making a distinction between one year and multi year deals. And he’s going by past performance instead of predicting future.

    One of Tango’s guys had a rebuttal on his blog.

  6. Yeah, I read that too. I guess what I was getting at was more that $/WAR is a nice way to compare the relative values of contracts in a vacuum, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. A 3 WAR guy making $1 million/year is obviously nice to have, but a 6 WAR player making $10 million/year isn’t necessarily a worse way to spend your money – yes he’s making more money per win added, but he’s also adding more wins for his one roster spot (which itself has value, like Parkes said, because roster spots are finite).

  7. I guess I should have used more realistic numbers in the post above to make my point clear, but hopefully I got it across anyways.

    • You make a really good point. I think it kind of makes $/WAR useless unless you narrow it down to 1-2 WAR player, 2-3 WAR player, etc.

  8. Yankee fans spit at Cliff Lee’s wife. If he signs with the Yankees, expect half of his ginormous contract to go to his wife in the divorce.

    I mean, really.

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