Looking Ahead: Cliff Lee


If the byline looks a bit unfamiliar, that’s because we’ve brought aboard a couple of guys to help out on weekends. Welcome JMK from Mystique and Aura and also the RAB comments.

Photo Credit: Charlie Neibergall/AP

It’s never too early to speculate on whom the Yankees will target during the free agency period. Popular logic suggests Cliff Lee will be among the bigger names this winter, and for good reason. With only three rotation spots filled next year – who can tell what role Joba Chamberlain will find himself in next year or Pettitte’s retirement status or if Javy figures it out and returns – Lee might just fit the bill as the perfect #2 starter in 2011.

With the extensions of Josh Beckett, Matt Cain, Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez, the next best options in the FA pool are Brandon Webb, Ben Sheets and Javy Vazquez. With fewer elite pitchers entering free agency these days than ever, the chance to lock up one of the best pitchers to be available for the foreseeable future, coupled with the likely impending need in the rotation, seem to indicate that Lee in pinstripes next year is as good a guess as any.

Though Mr. Lee is undoubtedly one of the best pitchers in the game right now and the Yankees are likely to have a spot needing to be filled, he’s not without questions. The Arkansas native has only really been an “elite” starting pitcher since 2008; he’d also likely sign somewhere around the range of a 4 or 5-year, $80-100 million contract, which at the tail end would mean the Yankees’ top 3 starters will be in their mid-30′s, all making around $20 million each. That’s generally something you’d like to avoid, particularly as many of the key members of the team are already on the wrong side of 30, with long contracts limiting flexibility.

His injury history, too, isn’t spectacular, though nothing suggests chronic problems or elbow concerns. His eye-popping numbers of late are also a bit skewed by his high LOB%, which is very unlikely to sustain itself. They’ll level off at around 70% (they’re currently in the high 70′s), which will increase his ERA. His strikeout rate, while good, isn’t fantastic, either.

Now, for the good news — Cliff Lee is really, really, really good. I can’t stress that enough. I was even reaching looking to find noticeable flaws in Lee’s game. Cliff Lee may not be Nolan Ryan, but his strikeout rate — around 7 per 9 — doesn’t make him John Lannan. It’s not a concern. And despite some of the minute issues I may have, he’s easily the top free agent available and I think has demonstrated that he’s likely to be worth every penny, provided he’s blessed with good health.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s hard not to like AJ Burnett, but his Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde act makes him a better fit as a #3 starter. You’d really prefer more consistency out of your #2 starter, especially on a team that makes the playoffs as often as the Yankees. In contrast to Burnett, Cliff Lee doesn’t have such eccentricities. In 2008 and 2009 Lee threw up a combined 13.8 WAR and he was amazingly consistent as well, throwing 10 complete games within that span and generally suffocating opposing offenses. For a sense of perspective, Roy Halladay has a WAR of 14.7 within the same time period. Clearly Halladay is a better pitcher with a longer track record, but the age, similarities in performance and stuff, and likely contract demands make the two a fairly good comp. Again, he’s really good.

On top of that, just like Halladay, the Yankees have also expressed interest in acquiring the 31-year-old lefty before, at the trade deadline in 2009. When asked to surrender Joba or Hughes and more, the Yankees understandably balked. Now, with Hughes seemingly firmly entrenched in the rotation and Lee almost certain to test the market, the strategy to not surrender prized young arms seems to have been the right one.

To boot, Lee is likely to age well as he starts to leave his peak. With a repertoire of four pitches – the best is said to be a nasty circle changeup – all of which are refined options he can command well, he shouldn’t have much trouble adjusting, even if his fastball drops a bit. I also haven’t seen worries about his pitching mechanics, although they’re a bit unorthodox. Larry LaRue, beat writer for The News Tribune had a little preview on Lee’s arsenal earlier this year.

“As for pitches. Lee relies on a fastball that sits around 89-92. He’s doesn’t throw exceptionally hard, but his fastball moves and when he’s right he can keep put it on the corners whenever he wants. Lee also throws a cut fastball that is usually around 85-87. It rides in on right-hander hitters and if he’s throwing it well you’ll see him break plenty of bats. Lee also has a curveball that’s more of an overhand variety. It isn’t quite as nasty as Erik Bedard’s curveball, but Lee’s can be effective, particularly to lefties.

And of course there’s the changeup which Adam Moore called “filthy” and “borderline unfair.” It’s a circle change (you can see the grip in the photo at the top) that has plenty of downward movement. And because of Lee’s simple and consistent mechanics and arm motion, it’s nearly impossible to pick up early. You will see several guys making that lunging swing for balls tonight. But it isn’t just about swings and misses with that pitch. You’ll often see plenty of swings where guys are out on their front foot and rolling over on the change up for easy ground balls.”

I’ve talked about how different Lee has been since his masterful Cy Young season in 2008, but how did he improve so much from earlier? Is it even sustainable or are we likely to see him fall back to his awful, injury-plagued 2007 or his good and mediocre years that preceded it? The team’s been burned before by throwing big money on long deals to inconsistent guys past 30. Considering the construction of the team and the money at stake, this isn’t a guy you can whiff on. So is Lee just a flash in the pan likely to drop off a few years into the deal or implode entirely?

Having looked at the data, I think he’s the real deal. His GB rate improved from the mid 30′s to the low-to-mid 40′s, and he also saw his HR/FB rate drop from the range of 8-12% to 5-6% the last few seasons. Much of this can be attributed to the addition of the cut fastball, better velocity on his 4-seamer and a curveball that is effective against lefties. He’s been able to elicit more swings on balls outside the zone over the past few years than earlier in his career, a harbinger moving forward. In fact, even in his mediocre-to-good seasons in the mid-00′s, he was close to or below average in O-Swing %. That’s definitely something he’s put behind him, which is even more impressive considering his walk rates are microscopic these days. Don’t get me wrong — ideally you’d like more than two seasons on which to hold your hat on, but his peripherals are trending positively and he hasn’t had flukey BABip luck in that span.

Obviously there are a myriad of factors that could make this potential pairing more or less likely to happen. Maybe Javy turns it around, dominates and re-signs at the conclusion of the season. The team could also place “the starter in the bullpen” Joba back in the rotation, filling a potential hole. Maybe Andy comes back again. Hell, at this rate Phil Hughes might become a #2 starter by the end of the year, negating some of the need for a big FA starting pitching acquisition. The M’s could also fall out of the AL West race and end up trading Lee; who knows, he may even sign a long-term deal if the suitor is right. The Yankees could instead target Carl Crawford and fill left field for years. (I’d be highly surprised if the team could retain Jeter, Rivera and sign Lee and Crawford in the same off-season.)

Basically, there are too many variables to play out. But in the end, Cliff Lee, even depite a relatively short track record as an elite pitcher on the wrong side of 30, with some injury hiccups, and likely to have big contract demands, should be the guy to sign next year if he keeps this up and he’s available.

Categories : Hot Stove League


  1. Hey ZZ says:

    Phil Hughes Lee might just fit the bill as the perfect #2 starter in 2011.

    Fix that for you :)

  2. JoeyH says:

    Great post man. Welcome. And Gotta figure that Lee would be attracted to the prospect of being team mates with CC again.

  3. vin says:

    Really good post.

    “Don’t get me wrong — ideally you’d like more than two seasons on which to hold your hat on…”

    If we had more than two seasons, he’d go by the name “Roy Halladay.”

  4. Tank the Frank says:

    Fantastic post JMK! Well done.

    Although I disagree 100 percent.

    “Cliff Lee, HAS even depite a relatively short track record as an elite pitcher on the wrong side of 30, with some injury hiccups, and likely to have big contract demands, should NOT be the guy to sign next year if he keeps this up and he’s available.”

    That would be my argument in a nutshell.

  5. Steve H says:

    When asked to surrender Joba or Hughes and more, the Yankees understandably balked. Now, with Hughes seemingly firmly entrenched in the rotation and Lee almost certain to test the market, the strategy to not surrender prized young arms seems to have been the right one.

    What, Melky and IPK couldn’t get it done?

    But seriously, it’s like déjà vu all over again if they get Lee ala CC for just money.

  6. Steve H says:

    The key to this of course is Brett Gardner. If Gardner can prove that he’s a legit MLB starter (and he only needs to be a #7-9 hitter), we can put any money set aside for Werth/Crawford and go get Lee, while likely shifting Grandy to LF and Gardner to CF. I would much rather have Lee than Werth or Crawford, even at bigger bucks.

    • pat says:

      I would much rather have Lee than Werth or Crawford, even at bigger bucks.


    • JobaWockeeZ says:

      Really? I’d much prefer a Crawford/Werth contract for 4/60 than a Lee contract with 5/100.

      • Steve H says:

        I think Lee will age better than the other two, and a LF is easier to find than a top 10 pitcher in baseball. A great LF for this team is a luxury considering how good the OF is. If you sign Crawford/Werth you still need to find another starter, though it could be Javy/Pettitte, etc. it’s still going to cost money. If net net Gardner+Lee costs the same as Crawford+Javy, I’d lean towards the Lee side.

    • If he plays good defense, Gardner could play like he did last year and I’d be fine with him as a starter. I’d really, really like to have another starting pitcher in front of Burnett and Hughes, assuming Pettite retires, and I’m not sure that’s going to be Vazquez. With Felix and Verlander signed to long-term deals, there’s just not likely to be much better than Lee available for a while. So if they’ve got the money for it, I think Lee, or a pitcher anyway, should be priority #1 after this year.

    • Marcos says:

      I would love to get both Lee and Werth (who wouldn’t).
      Imagine that lineup
      1. SS Jeter R
      2. LF Granderson
      3. 1B Teix S
      4. 3B A-Rod R
      5. 2B Cano L
      6. RF Werth R
      7. DH/C Posada/Swisher S (Posada catches 2/5 days)
      8. C/DH Montero R
      9. CF Gardner L

      When posada/swisher is your 7th bat… DANG!

      and imagine your rotation

      1. CC Sabathia L
      2. AJ Burnett R
      3. Clif Lee L
      4. Hughes R
      5. Joba R


  7. Reggie C. says:

    Did you purposefully Limit Javy as a possibility for the 2011 rotation to a single sentence? As ineffective as he’s been, one sentence is all the consideration Javy’s getting these days. How much exactly does Javy have to turn it around to be considered a 2011 candidate? If Javy’s outpitched by the entire current rotation but still manages a 4.00 ERA/1.40 WHIP, do you think that suffices as next season’s 5th starter?

    • Steve H says:

      If you’re considering Javy as a 5th starter, are you going to pay him $12+ million a year though? If Javy and Lee are both free agents you’re only going to be able to sign one. Lee is definitely the better pitcher. Even if Javy turns it around, which I expect he will, Lee will be in more demand next year, and with CC and AJ’s contracts, there’s only room for one.

    • I limited Joba’s possibility to a single sentence and Andy’s as well. I didn’t want to tackle the entirety of the starting rotation possibilities. Instead, I chose to focus on Lee’s strengths, weaknesses and a brief look at some of the possible external circumstances. No slight meant to Javy, Andy or Joba.

  8. radnom says:

    The way I see it is that there are three options for the two open rotation spots (listed in order of preference):

    Lee + Joba: No significant price increase over Andy/Javy this year.

    Joba plus one of Andy/Javy/Sheets/Webb/etc: Price is decreased compared to this year.

    Two from Andy/Javy/Sheets/Webb/etc: Again, price is about the same but you have two proven options.

    I think that Lee + Joba is the best option. When you have as strong a 1/2/3/4 as the Yankees would giving a Joba a chance to develop in the 5 hole is a no brainer.
    The second option contains a lot more uncertainty but allows for the team to spend money elsewhere (like LF).

    The third option costs as much as the first but offers much less upside in return for a little more ‘certainty’. Certainty in the 5 spot of the rotation isn’t all that essential, I would rather have the best overall pitcher (Lee) and take my chances with Joba’s upside out of the five hole.

    • Steve H says:

      I agree. I think Lee certainly would allow Joba to ease back into the rotation as the #5 guy, and while he would be somewhat of a question mark, as the #5 he’s no more of question mark than Hughes this year.

  9. Mike HC says:

    Good article. Lee would definitely be an excellent addition if we can get him.

    Two other factors to consider as well:

    1) CC’s opt out after next year. With the potential of CC opting out of his deal, would the Yanks want to sign another starter for protection? Would they not want to sign another guy, and save money in order to offer CC an even larger deal after his third year?

    2) How expensive Joba and Hughes will continue to get. I don’t really know about the arbitration process and when these guys can become free agents, but depending on how much the Yanks will have to start paying them, or if they want to prematurely lock them up etc … will also be factors

    • I don’t see Sabathia opting out, but that’s a good point.

      • Steve H says:

        I don’t see it either, and if he does, I highly doubt he ends up elsewhere. He’s already proven he can handle NY, he knows he can continue to contend for titles (and wins and the HOF) here, and he knows the most money will be here. Unless he’s truly homesick and wants to go to California he’ll likely want to stick around. Wait, he’s never pitched in California???? Yeah, I’m guessing that media narrative was a bunch of crap.

        NY is clearly the best place for CC going forward.

        • Meh, I can buy that he’s a West Coast guy and wants to pitch in California, but none of the teams out there are in a position to give him a contract like the Yankees will. I can also buy that he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of pitching in New York, and wanted to give himself a way out. But he seems comfortable here now, he looks like he fits in well in the clubhouse, he’s had on-field success, to say the least, and the fans love him already. I guess he might opt out to try to re-structure a deal, but he’s going to get $23 million in AAV over those last 4 years on his current deal, and I can’t see him getting more than that anywhere else.

          • Steve H says:

            Yeah, me might want to go back to Cali, but all of the stuff you typed below that likely outweighs pitching in Cali. He can retire at 40 and spend the rest of his life in Cali if he wants.

  10. mike c says:


  11. King says:

    IMO there is no question if Lee is healthy come the end of the 2010 season he’s the Yankees #1 FA target.

    The Yanks won’t have a problem giving him $20m per season, what there worried about in completing such a deal is the years and that in the end that will most likely be the deal breaker either way.

    Ideally the Yanks will only want to commit to 3 years but would most likely go to 4 years and Lee is going to want 6 years but will easily compromise to 5 years. The question is will one or the other go the extra mile by going 1 year longer or a 1 year shorter then they want to?

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