Looks like some team out there might give Cliff Lee(notes) a seven-year contract, and coming soon thereafter will be all sorts of hand-wringing about it, about the (fill in your adjective of choice: insanity, stupidity, lunacy, irresponsibility, ridiculousness) of handing that many years and more than $150 million to a 32-year-old pitcher.
Before natural instinct ushers you down that path, too, take a moment to consider everything about Lee – not his age but his place in baseball's current landscape – and you'll recognize why the above premise is dead wrong.
Giving Cliff Lee seven years is precisely the right thing to do.
It is what the New York Yankees should do, or it is what the Texas Rangers should do, and it is what any team that seriously wants Cliff Lee should do. And not just because there are other willing teams out there.
SI.com reported Tuesday that two mystery teams have offered Lee a seven-year contract. Whether this is a convenient leak by Lee's representatives or something substantive matters not. The presumption of a seven-year deal is palpable enough that the Yankees and Rangers, both of whom covet Lee, must adjust their offers accordingly to be taken seriously. What seemed a two-team race just got an injection of intrigue.
The market bends teams to its will, and whether its forces are real or manufactured, they're nonetheless present. While it would be easy for performance and projections to determine a player's value, free agency never works that way. Whatever the hunger was for Jayson Werth(notes), it wasn't close to seven years and $126 million anywhere other than Washington.
Because of such contracts, and others that have blown up in teams' faces, free agency is regarded as wildly inefficient. In some ways, it is. For superstars, however, players of Lee's ilk, free agency treats them like what they are: commodities that ought be cherished and lavished.
To acquire first baseman Adrian Gonzalez(notes), another superstar, Boston gave up three top prospects and will eventually sign him to a long-term deal at market value. He is one of the best players in baseball. And for one of the best players in baseball, Boston will pay market money plus six years of control on Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo and Reymond Fuentes.
Giving Lee a seventh year is equivalent to forfeiting those prospects – the cherry on top, the deal sealer that needn't stand in the way of bringing in a franchise-changing pitcher. The next-best thing on the free-agent market is Carl Pavano(notes). Trading for Zack Greinke(notes) will take a package bigger than the one Gonzalez fetched, and he's due to hit free agency in two years.
Lee, at seven years, is an argument for efficiency.
The team that signs him will get one of the five best pitchers in baseball. Lee's arm is healthy, and his arm action doesn't portend trouble in the future. He is good for at least 210 excellent innings for the next few years. His playoff resume, Game 1 of the World Series this year excepted, is among the best in baseball history. He is not Barry Zito(notes) or Mike Hampton(notes) or Kevin Brown, all $100 million men, all big busts. Lee is a bona fide ace, a stone-cold assassin, something none of those three ever were.
And he's got the set of skills that tends to age well. Today, Lee's fastball sits around 91 mph. Even if he loses two or three mph off it, his ability to command it and his other four pitches – a cutter, changeup, knuckle-curve and slider – will allow him success well into his 30s. The majority of pitchers who succeed as they approach their 40th birthday – Randy Johnson(notes), Curt Schilling(notes), Greg Maddux(notes), Tom Glavine(notes), David Wells, Jamie Moyer(notes) – mix excellent command with great control and equal parts pitchability.
Anyway, it's not like advanced age and awful productivity go hand in hand. A seven-year contract would end in Lee's age-38 season. Over the last 110 seasons, 47 pitchers have qualified for the ERA title at 38. Of those 47, nearly 75 percent posted park-adjusted ERAs, known as ERA+, of 100 (league average) or better. Even more promising: 21 of 47 had adjusted ERAs of 120, or 20 percent better than league average. Most promising: From ages 35-38, left-handers had ERA+ of at least 120 in 40 of 96 seasons and at least league average in 75 of 96.
Because deals in free agency tend to overpay for the first few seasons and hope production doesn't drop off a ledge, the first few years of performance are vital. And that is the final argument to getting Lee: the absolute paucity of available pitchers the next few seasons. If the starting-pitching market this year is the Sahara, next year is the Atacama.
If CC Sabathia(notes) doesn't opt out of the remaining four years and $92 million on his contract – and he indicated recently that he won't – the top pitcher on the market could be Edwin Jackson(notes). Or maybe Wandy Rodriguez(notes). Possibly C.J. Wilson(notes). Each is, at best, a No. 2 starter, probably more like a good No. 3, and it highlights teams' eagerness to lock up starting pitching before it hits free agency.
Consider the top pitchers, by Wins Above Replacement in 2010. The Philadelphia Phillies control Roy Halladay(notes) through 2014, the Detroit Tigers Justin Verlander(notes) through '14, the Florida Marlins Josh Johnson(notes) through '13, the Colorado Rockies Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) through '14, the Seattle Mariners Felix Hernandez(notes) through '14 and the St. Louis Cardinals Adam Wainwright(notes) through '13. While the free agent class following the 2012 season does have a chance to be the greatest pitcher bonanza in ages – Greinke, Francisco Liriano(notes), Jered Weaver(notes), Matt Cain(notes), Cole Hamels(notes), Dan Haren(notes), John Danks(notes) and Chad Billingsley(notes), among others – chances are the majority will sign extensions before then.
Because pitching is a dangerous and risky endeavor, the most reasonable pitchers want guaranteed riches. Seasons can end on one pitch. Careers are lost with one surgery. Lee had a balky back last year, and though it was muscular and thus not chronic, back problems are still scary. If there is any argument against a seven-year contract for Lee, it is that he, like every pitcher, does something wholly unnatural with his arm thousands of times a year, and his body could well break down.
When teams are glad to offer him five or six years, though, it renders the injury argument almost moot. Any contract for a pitcher is a risk. So for a team to hold out for six years when Lee wants seven is some serious nose-cutting, face-spiting behavior.
The Yankees and Rangers are reportedly taking such a tack. Perhaps it's just posturing, or maybe they really will let the key to their 2011 season and well beyond walk away to a team that isn't so stubborn. Negotiation is a complicated dance, and when Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker, let it be known he was seeking seven years for a 32-year-old, it may well have seemed insane and stupid and loony and irresponsible and ridiculous.
Turns out it's just about right.