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Does Cliff Lee Apply to Cameron Newton?

If you are a sports fan then you’ve probably heard about starting pitcher Cliff Lee and his rejection of the New York Yankees contract offer in favor of fewer years & lesser money from the Philadelphia Phillies. The Yankees offered Cliff Lee 7-years/$148 million ($21.1 million/year), but Lee decided to take a lesser contract for the Phillies and signed for 5-years/$120 million ($24 million/year). The deal could turn into 6-years/$147.5 million if the 6th-year option vests based on Lee’s performances. Essentially Lee left $28 million on the table to play for the Phillies. People are looking at this as Lee choosing the Yankees over the Phillies and that is the right way to think about it. If Lee banks $120 million over 5 years instead of $148 million over 7-years, is he really going to miss that money? I don’t think so.

One of the biggest problems in baseball is trying to figure out future worth. People think the Yankees missed out on Cliff Lee, but it’s only a miss if the money that was going to be used to sign Lee is used in ways that wouldn’t benefit the Yankees as much. The Phillies signed Lee to $24 million per for 5-years, but Lee over the past 3 seasons has an ERA+ of 142. It’s outstanding pitching, but the Phillies are essentially paying Lee in the hopes that from age-32 through age-36, he’ll pitch at an ERA+ of 142 and be able to make 33 starts per season. Let’s survey some of the great pitchers of the last 25 years and see how they did from ages 32-36.

Greg Maddux: 152 ERA+, 34 starts/year
Roger Clemens: 145 ERA+, 31 starts/year
Tom Glavine: 132 ERA+, 35 starts/year
Pedro Martinez: 114 ERA+, 22 starts/year
Curt Schilling: 142 ERA+, 29 starts/year
Randy Johnson: 168 ERA+, 28 starts/year
Mike Mussina: 114 ERA+, 31 starts/year
John Smoltz: 152 ERA+, 8 starts/year (spent age-33 year on DL & came back as reliever)
David Cone: 139 ERA+, 26 starts/year
Andy Pettitte: 117 ERA+, 30 starts/year

Those are some current & recent pitchers who had the longevity at a fairly high level to even remotely get into the idea of Lee being worth $24 million/year over 5-years from ages 32-36. Lee is a lefty which sort of makes him comparable to a lot of these pitchers. He throws harder than Pettitte and Pettitte is much much bigger than Lee. Randy Johnson is an entirely different kind of pitcher. Schilling, Maddux & Clemens were all right handed pitchers. Lee is more of a strikeout pitcher than Tom Glavine. Let’s take a look at Cliff Lee’s pitch totals as a professional:

2000: 44.7
2001: 109.7
2002: 156.3
2003: 132
2004: 179 (became full time starter at major league level)
2005: 202
2006: 200.7
2007: 145.3
2008: 223.3
2009: 231.7
2010: 218.3

Lee showed promise in 2003 & then exploded on the scene for the Cleveland Indians in 2005 when he took 4th place in the AL Cy Young voting. He pretty much sucked in 2006 & 2007. In 2008, Lee came back a completely different pitcher. He simply did not walk anyone anymore and he did an incredible job at keeping the ball in the ballpark.

Now here is the rub. There is nothing that really says Lee isn’t the pitcher he is, but we are talking about risk here and nothing more. Lee spent time on the DL in both 2007 & 2010. Up until 2008, Lee was thought of as a pitcher who might never realize his potential and one that had never gone over 202 innings. He only reached the 200IP mark in 2 of his first 8 professional years.

What the Phillies are basically saying is that they think this guy for the next 5-years is going to be a shade under Greg Maddux. Given Lee’s incredible BB/9 & HR/9 the only comparable pitcher really is Maddux although the Mad Dog didn’t have the K/9 numbers that Lee has. Mike Mussina could be a comparable too, but Mussina doesn’t have the HR/9 numbers that Lee does although he does match him on K/9 ratio. But that risk is even worse as Mussina posted an ERA+ of 114 during the age period we are discussing.

If Lee is good for a 114 ERA+ over the next 5 years then Philadelphia got SCREWED! The Phillies are trying to produce one of the most elite starting rotations in baseball history, but some of that is due also to the fact that the offense is going down fast. Jayson Werth is gone. Carlos Ruiz isn’t having the year he did last year. Ryan Howards’s OPS+ numbers keep dropping. Jimmy Rollins was out half the season last year. Chase Utley missed 50 games. Placido Polanco is a black hole at 3B with no where near the bat required to play a corner infield position. Shane Victorino is just OK and Raul Ibanez is too old & way past his prime. The Phillies were #2 in the NL in runs scored last year. Maybe they can do that again, but my guess is that they aren’t in the top-5 next season. The Phillies almost had to have Cliff Lee.

So did the Rangers & Yankees lose out big time? It’s hard to tell. The Yankees are simply getting old and not replacing their pitching staff with young talent. The Rangers are going to be fine in the AL West even without Lee. It’s just so risky though. Most smart baseball people know there is no such thing as a pitching prospect. The injuries are just too common. The only pitchers in baseball I think that would be worth the risk are:

CC Sabathia
Jon Lester
David Price
Justin Verlander
John Danks
Jered Weaver
Felix Hernandez
Roy Halladay
Adam Wainwright
Josh Johnson
Tim Lincecum
Clayton Kershaw

That’s only 12 pitchers. Cliff Lee isn’t one of them.


Because he’s nothing more than a HUGE risk. There is going to be a team out there who is going to use a first round pick on the guy, give him a ton of money and hope he’s the franchise. Maybe he will be. But if you were setting odds, I’d bet at least 3:1 of him not being the guy that team drafted him to be. I’m not saying he’s another Vince Young, but you cannot get away from the similarities.

The trick for NFL teams is trying to figure out when the potential value is so high that the relative cost of drafting him makes it a must-make transaction.

If the Phillies win a world series or 2 in the next 5 years, then maybe the investment in Lee would have been worthwhile, but my guess is that that money maybe could have been better used on Adrian Beltre to help out the offense. That money could have also been used to keep Lee around in 2010 when the Phillies probably could have used them to win their 3rd NL pennant in a row.

Some team, like the Phillies, are going to take on that risk and draft Cameron Newton in the 1st round of the NFL Draft to be their franchise QB. Conversely, 31 other teams will not have that problem & dream to deal with.

Who do you think is going to be happier in the end? The team that drafts Cameron Newton or the 31 other teams that passed? Who do you think is going to be happier at the end of 6-years? The Phillies? Or the Yankees & Rangers?


December 15, 2010 - Posted by | Auburn, Baseball, Cameron Newton, Cliff Lee, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Texas Rangers

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