Today I made a significant trade in one of my fantasy baseball leagues. This is the league where I am the commissioner of an 18-team, head to head, mixed, points league where pitching is the key to success. Thus far, my staff has not performed up to standards that are even below my mediocre expectations. I have Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, Aaron Harang, Ted Lilly, Jhoulys Chacin, Javier Vazquez, Heath Bell, Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg. We start any six pitchers, and wins and saves are both worth ten points. Additionally, quality starts are worth five, strikeouts are worth two each, and there are negative points for losses, blown saves, walks, and earned runs allowed. I have suffered from poor production and some poor decision-making as I had Chacin on the bench for one of his big starts, and my unwarranted faith in Vazquez has led me to mock his being on the bereavement list.
Every year I tend to make at least one blockbuster acquisition, so I began thinking big in order to improve my pitching. I knew I would have to make an enticing offer to someone who needed some offense, so I decided to reap the benefits of Lance Berkman’s insane start to the season. I recently sang the praises of the Big Puma (see http://fantasyjudgment.wordpress.com/2011/05/06/passing-judgment-the-resurgence-of-lance-berkman/) as he has enjoyed a renaissance thus far in 2011. But the reality is that he cannot maintain this pace over the course of the season. He is very likely going to miss some time at some point due to injuries, and his 35-year old body cannot sustain playing everyday in the outfield. So I offered Berkman and Kevin Gregg for Cliff Lee figuring it would be rejected but hopeful there would be a counteroffer. Sure enough, my fellow league member preferred a starter and asked for Harang. It was a done deal for me.
Cliff Lee is also a topic I have written about before (see http://fantasyjudgment.wordpress.com/2010/12/14/cliffs-notes-my-thoughts-on-the-cliff-lee-signing/). I made the arguments that Lee is a good pitcher, but his mediocre regular seasons in 2009 and 2010 seem to be forgotten due to his dominant playoff performances the last couple years. And for the purposes of fantasy baseball, the regular season is all that counts. While my thoughts on Lee remain the same, he is still a tremendous upgrade for me. He has been victimized by poor run support, but that should change going forward because Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, and Domonic Brown are not far away from joining the already respectable lineup. Even in a loss, Lee will still throw a quality start with a lot of strikeouts and few walks.
As I stated before, pitching is what wins championships in the OBFBL. I have won the league three times (1999, 2002, and 2007), and each time was because I had multiple dominant pitchers. This year is one of the only years I have ever gone with the multiple stud closer route (Bell and Marmom). With saves being worth as much as wins, they ranked near the top of all pitchers in 2010, so it was a relative no-brainer to draft them given who was available. Now adding Lee into the mix should give me a more formidable staff.
The beauty of making fantasy baseball trades is that there is always a nervous sensation you get because you wonder whether you are getting screwed or whether you will come to regret your decision. I have never regretted any trade I have ever made, even if things just didn’t work out. I don’t trade out of desperation or from a position of weakness. I target what my specific needs are and figure out the least I can give up to acquire that need. That is what I did here. Sure I will miss Berkman’s bat in my lineup, but I am counting on him tailing off at some point. Now I need to acquire another hitter, and with the pitching excess I have, that is the direction I will go.
The other key to making effective fantasy baseball trades is to be patient and have some self-restraint. I previously wrote about not over-reacting so early in the season (see http://fantasyjudgment.wordpress.com/2011/04/12/passing-judgment-dont-overreact-after-one-week/), and it directly applies to making smart trades and decisions. I was not happy with how my team performed after five weeks and seven games (we play divisional doubleheaders every few weeks), but I waited until the right opportunity presented itself to get the best deal possible. If I made this offer a few weeks ago, it likely would have been rejected because my fellow league owner would have wanted to wait and see how Lee would continue to do, and he may not have believed in Berkman after such a small sample. But now 20% into the season, there was a large enough body of work to convince him that Berkman was worth acquiring for a #1 fantasy starting pitcher. It also helped that Harang has been so good thus far because he would have had no value earlier in the year. So, in the words of the great Jedi master, Yoda, “Patient must you be.”
Besides having some personal medical issues this week (no worries – everything is fine now), it was not a good 7 days to be a fan of the sports teams that I root for. I have become immune and accustomed to disappointment when it comes to my sports allegiances (outside of a couple Giants’ Super Bowl victories over the last couple decades). But generally speaking, I normally don’t have much to root for in terms of my teams’ successes.
Starting last Monday, the news broke that Cliff Lee signed with his “mystery team”, the Philadelphia Phillies. Of course, this was bittersweet since at first I was elated when I heard the Yankees were out of the running for him. Like many others, I assumed this meant that Lee decided to re-sign with the Texas Rangers. But not only did he turn down the two known offers that were made, he actually approached the Phillies and ended up signing with them giving Philadelphia arguably the deepest and most talented starting rotation in baseball. All this means is that any chance the Mets had of winning 5 games against the Phillies in 2011 pretty much went out the window. The Mets were not going to compete for anything this season anyway, especially when the biggest news they have made is signing Ronny Paulino and D.J. Carrasco. But knowing that the already dominant Phillies just added another Cy Young Award winner to their staff for the next 5 years is pretty demoralizing. Every other team in the NL East has made moves and gotten better. The Mets have stood still with their hands in their empty pockets and now may be looking up at the Nationals from the cellar of the division.
So also last Monday, the Giants did win a Monday Night game against the Vikings in Detroit. That was very positive as it put them into a 1st place tie with the Eagles setting up the showdown this past weekend. I think we all know where this is going as the Giants pulled off a monumental, epic, titanic and catastrophic collapse against the Eagles by allowing 28 points in the last 8 minutes of the game. This is easily the worst loss in the Giants’ regular season history. From the breakdowns on offense, defense, special teams, and coaching, it was a team effort to allow the Eagles back into the game and let alone able to win it in regulation. Rookie punter Matt Dodge should be sent out of Dodge after the way he has performed this season and specifically at the end of this game. How and why he kicked the ball in bounds to DeSean Jackson is beyond anyone’s comprehension. But regardless of all that, the Giants still do control their own destiny for the playoffs as they can lock up the wild card by winning their own games. However, how will a collapse like this effect their performance and focus for the next couple weeks? This is where Tom Coughlin’s true grit, guts and value as a coach will shine through. He has to focus his team on next week and forget about what happened against the Eagles. Irrespective of whether the players can do that, the fans probably cannot do so that easily. I was laying in a hospital bed watching that debacle and nearly suffered from cardiac arrest from it. It was painful to watch as the Giants simply shut themselves down in all facets of the game. The sad thing is that in the back of my cynical mind, I still had a bad feeling about the game, even at 31-10 with 8 minutes left. I could just taste it in my mouth that something was going to go wrong, and it sure did.
Besides the Mets and Giants woes, I had to endure a mixed bag of emotions with the Knicks this past week as well. After defeating Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets last Sunday, the Knicks had themselves an 8-game winning streak heading into the biggest home games in a decade against Boston and Miami. The hype was all there as ESPN was prominently featuring the Knicks all week during their renaissance. So last Wednesday night, the Knicks were in control of the Celtics the entire game until the very last few seconds when Paul Pierce pierced the hearts of Knicks’ fans with his beautiful jump shot with .4 seconds left on the clock. As if that wasn’t enough, Amar’e Stoudamire then hit a 3-pointer just after the buzzer went off teasing us all. No matter what the result was, the overall consensus was that the Knicks had arrived and could hang with any team. They played their hearts out and provided one of the best NBA games in recent history. This all led towards the further hype of the game against Miami where LeBron James would make his MSG debut as a member of the Heat. After a wild and passionate first half, the Knicks found themselves tied with Miami at 57-57 and looking like they were going to be competitive all night. Then the 2nd half started and the Knicks proved to be no match for the Heat. Miami pulled away in the 3rd quarter and went on to a blowout victory. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night the Knicks went to Cleveland to the play LeBron’s former team and still couldn’t beat the Cavaliers. So after an 8-game winning streak and riding high, the Knicks now lost three in a row in heart-breaking and crushing fashion.
Sports is all about momentum – riding the high’s and surviving the low’s. It is the same for the players who play the games and the fans who cheer for them. This week was definitely a severe low for me personally with my sports allegiances. But after being used to such disappointment, this too will pass. It was just kind of amazing that there was a perfect storm of suck-titude between the Mets, Giants and Knicks. Oh yeah, I was also eliminated from the playoffs in both my fantasy football leagues. When it rains, it pours. Let’s just hope it doesn’t collapse the foam roof on top of my house.
I recently wrote an article arguing that Cliff Lee is overrated when comparing his overall body of work to the contracts he was being offered in terms of length and cost. I did not include the Philadelphia Phillies in that article because at the time, there was no indication that they were even a consideration for Lee since no reports surfaced of any contract negotiations. Now that the Phillies have come in and swept Lee away from the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers, I must swallow some pride and admit a couple things. First off, I still believe that Cliff Lee is overrated and that the Phillies will being grossly overpaying after three years. Second, I must give credit to the Phillies for being aggressive and pursuing Lee to include him in arguably one of the greatest starting pitching rotations of all-time. Lee will be the #2 man behind 2010 Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, and in front of Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. In many respects, when Lee is at the top of his game he is the left-handed version of Halladay. Opponents surely are not looking forward to facing the Phillies. The Phillies, who just saw their best right-handed hitter and starting RF Jayson Werth bolt to Washington, did not stand still. They probably realized that there was not a better option to plug in to right field, so they have essentially changed their overall philosophy. They are not going to bludgeon teams with their offense anymore, which still contains Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Instead, they have gone the other direction to dominate the league with pitching. So I applaud Ruben Amaro and the rest of the Phillies’ organization for being so flexible and creative. And yes, it pains me as a Mets’ fan to say that.
Most importantly, I must give credit to Cliff Lee. In current times, professional athletes seek the most amount of money they possibly can – which they are entitled to do so. Most times, the pursuit of the most money leads players to teams and organizations where there is little chance of succeeding as a team (See Jayson Werth article at http://fantasyjudgment.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/nationals-will-not-get-their-moneys-werth/). Here, Cliff Lee left several million dollars on the table from both the Yankees and Rangers’ contract offers. Granted, he had very good chances of winning had he signed with New York or Texas, but he realized the situation he would be in if he signed with the Phillies and joined their starting rotation. He also clearly enjoyed his time in Philadelphia after being traded there in 2009 and helping lead the Phillies to the World Series. Kudos to Lee for deciding to play on a team that he enjoyed being a part of and that gives him an excellent chance of winning a championship. No one can ever say he went for the money. And maybe he is overpriced and not deserving of more years and dollars than Roy Halladay. But he will certainly be worth more to the Phillies than Jayson Werth was to them or will be to the Nationals.
This may sound sacrilegious, but is Cliff Lee really worth the years and money that are being offered in negotiations? There is no dispute that he is the top free agent available and is arguably one of the best pitchers in baseball – right now. But the notion that he deserves a 6 or 7-year contract at a salary equal to or greater than some of the game’s best pitchers is questionable. I haven’t seen anyone else make this argument regarding Cliff Lee. All I read in the papers, blogs, websites, Twitter and Facebook is how multiple teams are justifiably making insane contract offers to a 32-year old pitcher with a history of back injuries and one amazing season on his resume. Yes, adding Cliff Lee to any team would make them instantly better. The Yankees, Rangers, Angels, Nationals and every other team in Major League Baseball would love to have Cliff Lee in their starting rotation. But at what cost? It is clear that the economic prosperity of Major League Baseball and some of its teams, as well as the market value of free agents, is dictating the terms of contracts being offered. That is fine, but my criticism is the gross over-evaluation of the most elite free agent pitcher on the market this year.
I realize that a baseball player’s value and success has many intangible aspects to consider. That is why Derek Jeter just signed a 3 year/$51M contract as a 36-year old shortstop entering the final stages of his career. Jeter has intrinsic value as an iconic New York Yankee, and he has 15 years of being one of the league’s most clutch performers in the biggest of spotlights. But what can the Yankees realistically expect from an aging Jeter who has lost a step or two and isn’t getting any younger? His statistics and actual on-field performance does not equate to the contract he received. The years and numbers being offered to Cliff Lee elicit the same questions.
Over his 8-year career, Lee is 102-61 with a 3.85 ERA. He has had a very interesting career with many ups and downs. After being acquired by the Indians in the infamous Bartolo Colon trade with Omar Minaya and the Montreal Expos (the trade that sent Colon to Montreal for Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips), he had a couple cups of coffee with Cleveland in 2002 and 2003. He found some success between 2004-2006 by going 46-24 including an 18-win season in 2005. But if you look deeper at his numbers, his ERA’s ranged between 3.79 and 5.43 during that time. He also did not possess the same walk/strikeout ratio that we have grown accustomed to more recently. During a dismal 2007 season, he was demoted to the minors to work on his mechanics and find himself. He certainly did because his 2008 Cy Young season was one of the best statistical performances in recent history. He went 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA, and in 223 innings he only walked 34 batters. This dominant control would become Lee’s signature attribute. He only walked 43 batters in 231 innings in 2009, and more amazingly, he only walked 18 batters in 212 innings in 2010. That’s right, only 18 walks in the entire 2010 season split between Seattle and Texas. However, his overall record the past two years was a collective 26-22 with a 3.20 ERA.
There were some mitigating factors for his mediocre win/loss record since 2009. He was traded in the middle of each season, including switching to the unfamiliar National League in 2009. After he was traded to Seattle before the 2010 season, he was recovering from an injury and missed the beginning of the season. The Mariners were also one of the worst offensive teams in baseball, so run support was not there for him. Surprisngly, after he was traded to the Texas Rangers, who possessed a far superior offense and bullpen, Lee’s performance took a nose-dive down the stretch. He compiled a 4-6 record with a 3.98 ERA in his 15 starts with the Rangers. There were rumblings about his previous back injuries flaring up, and it seemed to make sense given his inconsistent pitching. However, once the calendar turned to October, Lee became a different pitcher.
Cliff Lee has pitched in the past two post-seasons with the Phillies and the Rangers. In 2009, he went 4-0 including two wins against the Yankees in the World Series. He didn’t just win these games – he dominated them. He carried this success over to the 2010 playoffs where he went 3-0 in the first two rounds of the playoffs, including another dominant performance against the Yankees in the ALCS. Through his first seven post-season games, he was 7-0 with a sub-2.00 ERA. However, the 2010 World Series would not see Lee achieve the same success as he lost twice to the eventual champion San Francisco Giants. He didn’t just lose, he got knocked around and looked like anything but a dominant ace pitcher. And that is the lasting memory we have of the 2010 season.
So here we are during the off-season and Lee is getting offers of 6-7 years at $150M. Yes, he is a good pitcher with some terrific success in the post-season prior to the World Series. But if you break down his numbers and consider where he is in his career, he has likely maxed out by now. At 32, he is almost beyond his prime and is coming off two very mediocre seasons. His 2008 season is one for the record books and is unlikely to be repeated, especially by someone without the history of consistency. Other pitchers who have received similar contracts, such as Roy Halladay, Johan Santana and C.C. Sabathia, all had resumes consisting of multiple years of domination and consistency. They are all generally around the same age and they all have likely reached their pinnacle of success in terms of statistical performance. Here comes Cliff Lee seemingly out of nowhere since 2008 now commanding the same type of contract that these other stud pitchers have. It is likely that if Lee signs with the Yankees, Rangers or Angels he will have success because these are all very good teams. At 32, he likely does have a few more years left where those lofty expectations can be met. But as we all know in the post-steroid era, baseball players typically do not get better once they reach their mid-30′s. Especially a starting pitcher with a history of back injuries. No one can fault Lee for seeking a contract of 7 years, especially when there are multiple teams willing to give it to him. But the sensible thing for all teams involved would have been offering a 3 or 4 year contract to maximize their rate of return. Even if Lee is successful and helps put a team over the top, what will this contract look like when he is 37, 38 or 39 years old and a shell of his former self? Maybe these teams have so much financial security that they don’t even care. So why should we care?
We should care because as profitable as baseball is right now, there is no guarantee that things will remain the way they are. Teams are generating more revenue and income than ever, thanks in part to television networks and overall interest and attendance at games. But money does not grow on trees, so a team that makes a financial commitment like this had better be prepared to suffer through a devaluation at the end of the contract. In 2016, whoever signs Lee and is paying him $23M will likely not be receiving their money’s worth for his performance. That is just human nature. But this contract could become an albatross and prevent the team from making other moves that it needs to. Basically, signing Cliff Lee to such a contract is for a short-term goal with long-term repercussions. But again I ask, is he really worth it? His playoff performances the last two years seem to have masked the reality that Cliff Lee has had a very pedestrian career outside of his ridiculous 2008 season. He is not likely going to get better, and he must accept the pressure and responsibility of being in the spotlight as one of the highest paid athletes in all of professional sports. He is a simple man from Arkansas. He is not flashy, he does not get in trouble, and he seems to enjoy his lifestyle living in relative obscurity. This will all change once he signs on a dotted line for the projected years and dollars that have been offered.
In summation, I am not saying that Cliff Lee isn’t a good pitcher or that teams wouldn’t be better with him on their pitching staff. What I am saying is that he is being treated like an all-time great and someone who can be counted on for numbers that correlate to the dollars he is about to earn. His overall resume does not demonstrate that. He will help whomever he chooses to sign with, but what will that sentiment be a few years down the road?
Comments? Thoughts? Questions?