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?
Let me premise this article by first stating that people are entitled to seek as much money as they possibly can from an employer to do their job. Additionally, people are entitled to make decisions that most benefit themselves and their families. Finally, owners of a business are entitled to spend their own money however they desire in an effort to improve their business and make more money. That all being said, the 7-year/$126 million contract that Jayson Werth signed with the Washington Nationals is an absolute joke and an embarassment to Major League Baseball.
Not only did the Nationals overpay and outbid everyone else for the services of an aging, injury-prone corner outfielder who clearly benefited from hitting in a loaded lineup and bandbox ballpark, but they also set the market for other eligible free agents with unrealistic demands and expectations. Let me first say that I have always liked Jayson Werth as a ballplayer. I thought he was going to be a superstar when he came up through the Dodgers farm system. But various injuries derailed his progress and he never had the chance to showcase his talents for a full season in Los Angeles. Eventually the Dodgers got tired of waiting for him to develop and stay healthy, so the Phillies intelligently picked him up and gave him an opportunity just as their renaissance began in 2007. Werth plays the game of baseball with reckless abandon at times, and has proven to be a clutch performer in the playoffs. He is gritty, gutty, and likes to get his jersey dirty. He fit perfectly in the Phillies’ lineup batting behind the powerful and prolific left-handed bats of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Werth was the reason why opposing teams had to make pitching changes as he provided the right-handed pop in the middle of their batting order. And he did produce. From 2008-2010 when Werth was playing everyday and staying healthy, he averaged 29 HR’s, 84 RBI’s, and a .279 batting average. These were good numbers for a player that was arguably the 3rd best player in the Phillies’ lineup.
Werth was clearly not the focus of the Phillies’ offensive firepower. But he developed a nice niche in Philadelphia as their rabid fan base quickly grew to embrace his style of play. Plus, he was playing on a team that made back-back World Series appearances, including one championship, and four consecutive NL East division titles. He was on a team with a pitching staff comprised of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels – a staff that will keep the Phillies in contention every year as long as they stay healthy. He was part of a team that could almost be considered a dynasty given their recent and projected success. Generally speaking, Jayson Werth was a significant piece of a larger puzzle.
Now he has signed a contract with the Washington Nationals. The Nationals, whose legacy stems from the Montreal Expos, do not have a rich history of success. They have been unable to lure free agents to their team for a variety of reasons. Knowing that, the Nationals offered Werth more years and more dollars than any other team would ever have offered. In doing so, they got their man. But what did they get? Werth will be 32 during the 2011 season, and his contract will expire when he is 39 years old. This is a player with a significant history of injuries. Granted he has been healthy for the last 2 and a half seasons, but as we all know in this post-steroid era, players generally do not get better with age as they approach their mid-30′s. The Nationals are also expecting him to be the focus of their offensive attack in addition to Ryan Zimmerman. There is no other legitimate threat on the Nationals’ roster as we speak, so Werth is likely to be exposed on an island in comparison to his role on the Phillies. Furthermore, Nationals Ballpark is not considered a hitter’s haven like Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Werth does have undeniable power, but those lazy fly balls that reached the seats in Philly will turn into F8′s in DC. Werth has been brought in to replace Adam Dunn, who recently signed a free agent contract with the Chicago White Sox. He will never be able to replicate Dunn’s power, although he will be expected to – especially since he signed for more than twice of what Dunn got from Chicago.
The last point I want to make in all of this is something that is probably unfair to be commenting on, but as a fan, I feel obligated to do so. Sure, I understand that playing baseball is a job. Jayson Werth goes to work everyday, just like I do. Except, he gets to go play baseball at a ballpark whereas I have to drive, take two trains, walk across Manhattan and go into an office building. An ancillary part of Jayson Werth’s job, as well as every other professional athlete, is an innate desire to win. Not just personal success, but team success. Players will make their money, but receiving a championship ring or trophy is a true sense of professional accomplishment for a player. Werth attained this success in 2008 with the Phillies. He almost tasted it again in 2009 when the Phillies lost to the Yankees. Given the team that the Phillies still have, it was very likely he would have a chance to taste it again and again. However, deciding to sign with the Nationals almost assures him that he will not ever taste this type of victory again. Look, I am not saying the Washington Nationals can never be successful. Of course they can – with some creative moves, money spent wisely, and development of young players, the Nationals certainly can become a contender in the NL East. But the chance of this happening during the remainder of Werth’s productive years is slim. In other words, there are reasons why no other big name free agents have ever signed with the Nationals until now. Werth probably could have gotten his $17-18M per year from the Phillies, but not for as many years. The Nationals had to commit to those years to lure him, and lure him they did. How productive do you think Werth will be at 38 years old making $18M? If he is in his prime right now and average 29 HR’s and 84 RBI in a great lineup, what kind of numbers will be average in the next 7 years as he ages and hits in a weak lineup and cavernous ballpark? My guess is he will be earning approximately $1,000,000 per homerun he hits.
At the end of the day, good for Jayson Werth for earning this contract. Who would ever turn down an offer like this if one was given to you? No one. Werth has his championship ring already. Now he can set himself up for life and provide for his family in ways he never could have imagined a few years ago. And who knows, maybe Werth and the Nationals will have the last laugh. Come 2012, Stephen Strasburg will be back, Bryce Harper will likely be in the big leagues, and they may have acquired a few more key pieces. Maybe by then the Phillies will have aged too much and the Nationals could be knocking on their doorsteps. But even if all of that happens, this ground-breaking contract will still not be “Werth” what they are paying.
Let me know what you think. Email me at email@example.com, find me on Twitter @FantasyJudgment, or leave a comment below.
THE SUPREME COURT OF FANTASY JUDGMENT
John Doe v. Fantasy Football League Commissioner
ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI FROM
THE GRIDIRON FANTASY FOOTBALL LEAGUE
Decided October 13, 2010
Cite as 2 F.J. 21 (October 2010)
A fantasy football league called the Gridiron Fantasy Football League (hereinafter referred to as “Gridiron”) is comprised of ten (10) teams who compete against each other on a weekly basis during the National Football League (“NFL”) season using the statistics of professional players as a basis for accumulating points in head-to-head competition with opponents to determine which fantasy team won or lost. Gridiron is hosted on the Yahoo fantasy football platform. The league’s roster requirements contain 14 spots which include the following weekly starters: QB (1), RB (2), WR (3), RB/WR (1), TE (1), K (1), DEF (1), and IDP (1). In addition to these eleven starting positions, each team is only entitled to three reserve spots which can be comprised of any eligible players. These specific rules and parameters have been in place since 2004.
There is no formal league Constitution which delineates the rules, requirements and guidelines of the league. Rather, the league Commissioner inputs this information through Yahoo and it is made available to all teams upon successfully registering their teams on the league’s website after the Commissioner sends out invitations. This information is available at all times. The league Commissioner arbitrarily sets up the parameters of the league, including the number of players eligible on the roster. There is no process for challenging such decisions, and there is no available method of voting to approve any such decisions. By registering for the league and participating in the draft, the other league owners tacitly assent to the rules created by the league Commissioner.
Before participating in the league draft, as well as continuing on an ongoing weekly basis when decisions are to be made for each team’s starting lineup, information is made publicly available regarding the NFL schedule, specifically which teams have a bye on a particular week. Gridiron league members must make corresponding roster moves to ensure they have a lineup of players that are active each week. Additionally, it is common practice to strategize before and during the fantasy football draft regarding the NFL schedule so as to not select too many players that share a similar bye week. In the event a league member has more than three players on a bye week, the result will be an automatic 0 points for that unfilled starting roster spot. This information and the resultant consequences is known to all league members.
During NFL Week 5, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks all had their annually scheduled bye week (See www.nfl.com/schedules). The plaintiff in this case, who has requested to remain anonymous, had a roster that contained Tom Brady (QB-NE), Wes Welker (WR-NE), Hines Ward (WR-PIT), Brandon Marshall (WR-MIA), and Pittsburgh’s defense. Because the league only permits three bench players and the plaintiff did not want to drop any of these aforementioned players, the plaintiff was forced to have two positions in his starting lineup that were not active, and thus, he received 0 points from them.
The plaintiff subsequently lost his Week 5 matchup by 12 points according to the scoring system put in place by the league Commissioner. Based on past performances and projected statistics, it is likely that the plaintiff would have won his Week 5 game had he been able to fill a starting lineup of all active players.
The plaintiff has filed this complaint with the Supreme Court of Fantasy Judgment seeking a mid-season amendment to the rules of the league by allowing additional roster spots for more bench players.
(1) Should the league rules be modified in mid-season to accommodate additional roster spots?
The Supreme Court of Fantasy Judgment is a strong advocate for having written Constitutions that govern fantasy sports leagues. There are a myriad of reasons why the Court believes having a Constitution in place is the best way to run and maintain a fantasy league. One of the primary reasons behind this rationale is that all league members are aware of the rules and guidelines in place that govern the administration and function of the fantasy league. When a league Commissioner writes out the rules and distributes them to the league, it shifts the burden onto the league members to read, understand, and adhere to the rules that are delineated. If a league member has an issue, question or challenge to one of the rules in the Constitution, they are welcome to raise this with the Commissioner before signing it or agreeing to its codification.
Despite not having a formal document that codifies all of the league’s rules and guidelines, the Gridiron league Commissioner did set the rules up well before the draft and posted them on the league’s website for everyone to see. This process does constitute notice for the league members that they are aware of the rules. It also demonstrates that league members have knowledge that the Commissioner is the ultimate authority for decision-making and that there is no formal appellate process within the league.
Irrespective of whether there is a valid reason to increase the number of roster spots, there is no valid reason to change the rules during the middle of the season outside of extreme and unforeseeable consequences. Here, the fact that the plaintiff did not have enough eligible starting players was clearly foreseeable and was a direct result of his own contributory negligence. Changing rules, especially ones that are so vital to the foundation of the league, should not be done in the middle of a season unless there is a gross miscarriage of justice that warrants an immediate amendment to an existing rule. There is no such prejudice, harm, or undue burden on the plaintiff or any other league member that would warrant such drastic action. That being said, this is an issue that should be addressed during the off-season and before the Commissioner sets up the parameters for the 2011 season. If there is enough desire for additional roster spots, then the plaintiff and his fellow league members should collectively address the issue with the Commissioner in a logical and pragmatic manner. The Commissioner will still maintain the ultimate authority whether to implement such changes, but at the very least the forum will be more appropriate to discuss such an issue when the fantasy football season is not ongoing.
The rules of the league are clear and the plaintiff tacitly agreed to them by accepting the invitation to re-join the league. He had every opportunity to plan his draft according to the NFL schedule, as well as make subsequent transactions to modify his roster in anticipation of the Week 5 teams on their bye. The Court hereby decides that the rules regarding roster requirements and bench spots shall not be modified or amended during the 2010 fantasy football season. The resulting loss suffered by the plaintiff during Week 5 shall stand and no further action is required by the Gridiron league Commissioner.
IT IS SO ORDERED.