Monday, November 8, 2010

Keeping Cliff Lee In Perspective

Let's go back to November 2008, precisely two years ago. Dating back to 2001, the Yankees were at that time coming off a World Series loss, an ALDS loss, a World Series loss, an ALCS loss, an ALDS loss, an ALDS loss, and ALDS loss, and a missed postseason entirely. Seven playoff appearances in eight seasons, with two pennants and resulting trips to the World Series, an outstanding stretch for most teams, was not by Yankees standards. Especially considering where they were coming from in the late 90's. This is even more true when you isolate 2005-2008, the three straight ALDS exits and the missed playoffs. The Yankees were in a rut, had been in a weird extended transition period from the championship years, and needed a fresh look. For them to get back to achieving accomplishment by their standards, they actually needed one quite badly.

They got that fresh look in the form of C.C. Sabathia to front their rotation, Mark Teixeira to run alongside Rodriguez as a second 1A bat in the middle of the lineup, and A.J. Burnett offering upside in the middle of the rotation. Given their recent downward playoff trend, the limbo their rotation had been in since the early 2000's, and the retirement of 20 game winner Mike Mussina that very off-season, the Yankees needed C.C. Sabathia. He was the perfect guy at the perfect time. They probably would have - and rightfully should have - paid him whatever it took to sign him to front and stabilize a rotation that needed fronting and stabilization. Given the lack of a running mate for Rodriguez in the middle of the lineup, the inconsistency with which the offense hit good pitching, and their primary competition being the team that had been out-dueling for much of the last five seasons, the Yankees also needed Mark Teixeira. Not need the way they needed Sabathia, and not need by most teams standards. But by the Yankees, they needed a player like this. Especially since it's so rare for talents like Sabathia and Teixeira to hit the free agent market in their late 20's, thus the middle of their prime.

The Yankees do not need Cliff Lee like they needed C.C. Sabathia. They don't even need him like they needed Mark Teixeira. Since that 2008 offseason the Yankees have won the World Series and come within two games of getting back there. Not only do they have an ace in Sabathia, but Phil Hughes is emerging as an impact starter behind him. Not only do they have Teixeira to run with Rodriguez in the middle of the order, Robinson Cano has emerged to do the same thing. So much so, it might not be long before Rodriguez and Teixeira are running alongside Cano. Without C.C. Sabathia and/or Mark Teixeira, the 2009 Yankees were not going to the World Series. Because they have them, and because of these other developments, the 2011 Yankees could very well go to the World Series without Cliff Lee.

That's not to say I don't want him, or that the Yankees shouldn't go after him extremely aggressively. I do and they should. But it's not a throw whatever amount of money it takes at him situation. Not only because of the Yankees situation, but also because of Cliff Lee's. He's 32 years old. Sabathia and Teixeira were both 28 when they signed their contracts. Big difference. What's more, Sabathia and Teixeira were proven superstars over a long period of time with a prototypical superstar career trajectories. While Cliff Lee has been uber-consistent and dominant for three consecutive seasons - which is more than enough from a performance perspective - his overall history is a bit more spotty. This doesn't necessarily mean anything. It's not like a prototypical vs. spotty career trajectory changes where players are presently. It's just to say that Sabathia and Teixeira were locks. Save injury, there was a 0.01% chance of them not continuing to perform at an elite level. Lee is still close to a lock, but because of his age and his history there is a little something in there that makes the chance of him not continuing to perform at an elite level at a little bit more than 0.01%.

I mean, people were going nuts about Sabathia's "workload", because they were afraid he was going to do for the Yankees exactly what he's done in his first two years. I can only imagine what they'll be saying about Lee if the Yankees sign him.

It would be great to have Lee, no doubt about it. He would increase their chance of winning it all next year exponentially, and I don't want my sentiments here to understate that. I really, really want this guy, and think the Yankees should try to pay well above market to get him. Signing him also very much fits in line with going all out trying to win in this window before the Yankees lose and/or don't have Rivera, Jeter, Posada, and Pettitte performing at high levels.

With that said, the Yankees don't need him. They got within two games of the World Series this year, and you didn't feel at any point that they were playing above their heads. If anything, you felt that they underperformed. Only Hughes and Gardner really exceeded preseason expectations. Certain guys will likely regress due to age, others will have bounceback seasons. If those two things cancel each other out, the Yankees should be in a similar spot in 2011 without Lee, maybe better considering they might add players besides Lee. It would be great to have him because he puts them in a much better spot from an already good spot. But not signing him is not going to virtually preclude them from achieving their goal of winning the World Series in 2011.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

PF

I strongly agree with the sentiment of this post. The only question I have is, what are you hearing about Andy Pettitte? I keep hearing rumors that he's leaning towards retirement. If that's not the case, then Lee is certainly someone that would be a tremendous bonus, but not a necessity. If Pettitte calls it quits, then that ups the urgency for Cliff Lee.

Also, even with all of this in mind, wouldn't everyone here be surprised if Cliff Lee ended up anywhere other than New York?

--the Gunn

the gm said...

This is a great post, Pat. There are many things to talk about when it comes to Cliff Lee. How much money did he earn himself between October 1st and October 24th, and how much did he lose between October 24th and now? Is the story about his wife hating New York real or just a way to jack up the price? How much will teams consider the Josh Beckett years?

By the way, your argument about how long ago Lee's Josh Beckett-type years were was convincing enough for me. I don't think he'll go 33-0 anywhere he goes, but I also think the chances he becomes Carl Pavano are close to zero.

I agree with you that the Yankees aren't desperate for Cliff Lee for all the reasons you state.

I also think something you missed, and something I'm very curious about, is Phil Hughes. I read NoMaas a few weeks ago and simply can't believe how people could be so bearish on Hughes. Holy crap. They're now projecting him as a league average starter? That's harsh. Am I just looking at the wrong sample, or do Yankees fans really feel that way about Philly Franchise?

More importantly, how do you feel?

He's two years (actually 22 months) younger than Clay Buchholz. Fact, not opinion. In 2008, Clay Buchholz was playing around with walkie talkies in AA. Fact, not opinion.

Even if the Yankees don't get Cliff Lee, they might still have their Cliff Lee - but a lot younger and a lot cheaper - sitting in the middle of their rotation.

the gm said...

An addendum: I know Hughes is a righty and Lee is a lefty. But I also know that outs recorded by righties are worth just as much as outs recorded by lefties. Otherwise, my 52-MPH fastball might have been valued more.

Patrick said...

with pettitte it seems to be the same deal it's been since after 2007. i don't think the chances of him retiring versus coming back are much different. certainly there hasn't been anything i've seen or heard indicating any change. he'll either come back on another one year deal or retire, and that decision will probably come when his body is recovered from the season sometime in december.

i missed phil hughes? i mentioned him as a big difference between the position the yankees are in now and the one they were in after 2008.

not sure what you're referring to with people being bearish on hughes. i haven't heard much other than 2010 being a big success and step forward in terms of his individual development, not to mention his contributions to the yankees. i'm sure there are some people who see him as a league average starter (which wouldn't be the worse thing in the world if he can give innings) and some who see him as even worse than that, which is also obviously possible. but most things i've seen and heard project him slotting into the top-middle of the rotation for a championship competitor, much like he did in 2010.

Patrick said...

on where lee ends up, people are always going to connect a free agent like him to the yankees. but i think the surprise if he ends up elsewhere will be less than it would have been had sabathia ended up elsewhere. much less. i think that is so because other teams sense exactly what we're talking about here, that the yankees might not do whatever it takes to sign him. i also think texas, with their new ownership group and 2010 success, really wants to make a run at him.

and that is where the yankees need to draw the line. which is really my whole point, drawing a line. if some team wants to keep driving the price up, the yankees shouldn't just go with them the way they can. the way i would have advocated for them to do with sabathia. if a team wants to give lee a sabathia/santana type deal at 32, great. i don't think the yankees should go to those lengths. they don't need him enough to take on the risks associated with that type of deal. 5/$115? sure. i'm interested to see if the lee market will get to that point (sabathia/santana AAV for 5 years instead of 6 or 7), go beyond that, or come up short of that. i would think that has to be the range.

Ross Kaplan said...

I totally agree with you on Lee. His age and his recent emergence as a top flight starter are two of my central concerns. I'm still unclear as to how he went from a decent, but not great pitcher from 2004 - 2007, to an absolute stud from 2008 until now.

My only question is if the Yankees don't sign Lee then who do they sign. I agree that even if Pettitte retires Lee still is not an absolute must sign, even if the urgency to sign him will be greater. After Lee, the available free agent pitchers get awfully ugly with the likes of Kuroda, Pavano and Westbrook. Do the Yankees try to trade for someone, Greinke is out of the question, he's so mentally fragile he'd be admitted to Bellevue the second he lands at JFK. Or maybe they try to give Joba another chance of earning his way into the rotation or take a chance with Webb. Either way these are not viable options for a team always looking to contend for a World Series. I only hope Cashman isn't desperate enough to give Lee more than 4 years.

TimC said...

Who do you guys expect to be in the Yankee rotation next season (including separate rotations with and without Lee, with and without Pettite if you would like) and what do you expect those guys to do? And in terms of 'need', I think the Rangers need Lee more than the Yankees and that might prove to drive the price straight up, in terms of salary and, perhaps more importantly, years.

Anonymous said...

Guys,

I really wanted to write something smart to contribute, but I'm finding it hard to today. Pat makes an obvious point and then beats a dead horse for the following 17 paragraphs. Yes the Yankees don't need Lee as much as they need Sabathia. The end.

Read somewhere on ESPN I think that the Sox are looking at Jason Werth. Thoughts?

Lastly, bad spot by TimC on saturday night thinking that the Native Americans would beat the Raiders on the road. Obviously TimC overestimated the capabilities of a few former Patriot assistant coaches.

Speaking of Saturday night, just a complete all around performance by B. Cheney. He filled up the stat sheet in all the typical B. Cheney categories.

Anonymous said...

Bandi

Great post. Especially the points about Cheney. The man's efforts by themselves led Tim to come refer to himself as "Five-Time Guy." Anytime Tim is inspired at that level you know somebody must be doing something right.

Bandi/DV

The I can't tell you guys how unexcited I am about Jayson Werth. He seems like a right-handed JD Drew only with worse facial. There's no question the Sox will sign him to a five year, 85 million dollar deal. None whatsoever.

--the Gunn

Anonymous said...

Good point on the facial hair Gunn. Werth's facial hair brings to mind B-list actor Stephen Lang's rendition of George Pickett in the 1992 classic movie Gettysburg. Look it up. Not sure why he thought that was a good idea.

Ross Kaplan said...

Bandi, I love the Gettysburg reference. We really need to bring some of that sweet Civil War era facial hair.

Another strike against Werth, the guy spells his first name with a "y" (Jayson). You never ever trust a guy who spells their name in a manner in which no one else in the world does. I mean Bandi doesn't go around spelling his name Jhonn, that's just ridiculous

the gm at work said...

Pat,

I will changed "missed" to "devoted half a sentence to." My sincerest apologies.

Putting the pissing match aside, I read a slew of comments on Yankee blogs comparing Hughes to Ross Ohlendorf and Ian Kennedy and killing Cashman for his lack of pitcher development. As you said, not that there's anything wrong with Ohlendorf or Kennedy. But I think it's premature to put Hughes in the same category because of a lackluster second half. Once again, when Clay Buchholz was his age, he was a year removed from his no-hitter and literally sitting in the dugout in Portland, reunited with Mike Cather.

I'd handicap the Rangers as the front-runners for Lee, bringing your points to light. Lee helped make this team relevant again, and I think he would bring unmeasurable value to the franchise by keeping the current team more intact. He would provide more value to Texas than even the Yankees.

Werth guys,

I'm sure he'll be addressed at some point in the next two weeks. Well done on the Gettysburg reference.

Patrick said...

ross -

i don't think anyone can say exactly what happens when a player makes a jump like lee did later in their careers. one thing that really jumps out for him is the increase in command, that definitely had a lot to do with it. but i doubt that explains all of it. he just put it all together after his shortened and unsuccessful 2007 season. i think you can give lee 5 years without being desperate, but i wouldn't go any higher than that.

ross/timc -

sabathia
lee
hughes
burnett
pettitte

this is obviously the ideal 2011 opening day rotation. if you can't get one of lee or pettitte, you really need to get the other. filling one spot with a pretty solid first 4 is very different from filling two spots with a less solid first 3. you could have a competition among guys like ivan nova for the 5th spot, just like this year. can't do that for two spots, they'd have to figure something pretty significant out if they don't get one of lee or pettitte.

i think you're exactly right, timc, that the rangers are not just going to get pushed over in this thing, and could get aggressive with years and/or dollars.

bandi/gunn/dv -

i'm a big fan of jayson werth. he'd have some of his opposite field power sapped playing half of his games in fenway, but that would be made up and then some with the power increase he would get to left playing half of his games in fenway. he's a righty with power that has a swing with lift. those guys usually crush it for the red sox (lowell).

the differences between werth and drew are too many to fully outline. two quick important points, werth actually consistently swings the bat to try and change the game, which is what you want in the middle of the order, not walks and called strike threes. werth had 75 xbh this year. SEVENTY-FIVE! drew had 48. granted, that was in less games, but that leads me to my second point. werth is a gamer. he's played 159 and 156 games the last two seasons. drew has never played more than 140 in a boston uniform. of course, i don't point this out just to show werth plays more, although that is valuable of and within itself. but it is also a general attitude/approach thing. werth has what you want, drew doesn't.

dv -

you simply have to get out of the comments sections, at least as far as letting that guide consensus feelings. people have all sorts of different opinions if you read enough of them. that doesn't mean they all matter. look at our own. if you paid attention to gunn/timc/ross you'd be in good shape. if you let bandi guide your perceptions you'd be in a lot of trouble. the comments sections lead you astray on mark teixeira and i certainly wouldn't let those guide your sense of how people feel about phil hughes.

the gm at work said...

Pat,

Glad you have not gone soft on your boy.

I think my views on Werth are closer to yours than the Gunn's. The biggest worry I have about the guy is that he might go Ricky Williams/Dave Chappelle on whoever signs him, abruptly quitting baseball and going to South Africa to get away from people.

I have also seen him play some obnoxious flute solos on television.

TimC said...

We all love five-time guys but the thought Jason Werth being another five YEAR guy...I'll clear space on the Liverpool bandwagon for you guys.

the gm said...

The GM: I don't understand the five-time guy thing.

Tim C: Neither will your readers.