I Dream Of (Cliff) Lee

Posted Saturday June 1, 2013 at 5:37:59 pm in Real Sports

Remember that old saying? One ace pitcher away from a World Series? Certainly applicable to the 2012 rendition of the Baltimore Orioles. But what about the 2013 version?

Cliff Lee is a workhorse. An elite pitching workhorse. Let me quantify that remark.

From 2008 to 2012, Cliff Lee has averaged 222 innings pitched per year. He's put together an average ERA+ of 142. An ERA of 2.89. And a W-L record of 71-42 (.628). Some peripherals:

  • 1.101 WHIP
  • 8.6 H/9
  • 1.3 BB/9
  • 7.9 SO/9

He's thrown 23 complete games in that 5 year time span. He's averaged nearly 7 1/3 IP per game. He walks only 33 guys per year. 

He's been injured for a significant amount of time *once* in a 9 year time span. And that was back in 2007 when he played for the Cleveland Indians.

It's easy to talk about his accolades. But what are his drawbacks?

Well, he's 34. And while he's signed through 2015 with a 2016 vesting option (good things), the price of that contract is rather hefty. The original deal has him signed through 2015 (2011-2015) with a 5 year $120 million contract. He's making $25 million a year, and when (if) his vesting option kicks in: he'll make $27.5 million that year. FWIW, the conditions of that vesting option is that he pitches 200 IP in 2015 or a combined 400 IP in 2014-2015. If he continues to be as healthy and durable as he has over the last 5 years, that option should vest.

So, those are the big numbers. $25 million a year, 34 years old. He'll be 36 by the time his contract ends (37 if his option kicks in). But, if you think there aren't pitchers out there that can be effective and durable from age 34-37, I present to you Hiroki Kuroda.

Kuroda is currently pitching for the New York Yankees at the age of 38. And he's downright filthy:

  • 2.39 ERA
  • 1.005 WHIP
  • 1.9 BB/9
  • 6.1 SO/9
  • 174 ERA+

From 2009-2012 (his age 34-37 years), he's pitched for two clubs: the Dodgers and the Yankees. During that time span he's averaged the following stats:

  • 3.34 ERA
  • 184 IP
  • 1.174 WHIP
  • 2.1 BB/9
  • 7.0 SO/9
  • 117 ERA+

Another comp is Father Time himself: Andy Pettitte. Still pitching for the New York Geriatrics (Yankees) at the age of 40. His age 34-37 years:

  • 4.24 ERA
  • 207 IP
  • 1.415 WHIP
  • 2.9 BB/9
  • 6.8 SO/9
  • 106 ERA+

And let's list another New York Geriatric (and former Oriole). Mr. Mike Mussina. Mussina retired in 2008 after finally winning 20 games at the age of 39. He finished that year pitching 200 1/3 IP with an ERA of 3.37 and a WHIP of 1.223. During his age 34-37 years:

  • 3.93 ERA
  • 189 IP
  • 1.210 WHIP
  • 1.9 BB/9
  • 7.6 SO/9
  • 113 ERA+

Now, Kuroda, Mussina and Pettitte aren't on the same level as Lee. Kuroda certainly comes close, but Lee pitches much deeper into games. Strikes out more guys. Walks less guys. And pitches more innings per year. All worthwhile attributes going forward.

So, durability is there for Lee. The age factor should always be a concern, but there are pitchers out there not only pitching effectively, but very effectively during the years that most consider to be injury prone years. 

But what the hell is it going to take to get Lee? Well, the first is for Ruben Amaro, general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, to actually want to trade Lee. And that's not going to be easy with the Phillies hovering around .500 with a 26-29 record. Amaro has proven in the past that he won't trade his star pitchers if he has any hopes or dreams of making the playoffs. 

The problem with the Phillies is that their division has a heavy weight in the Atlanta Braves (currently 32-22 and 6.5 games above the Phillies) as well as the Nationals (meandering currently at 28-27). Currently the Cincinnati Reds (34-21) and the Pittsburgh Pirates (34-21) have the two Wild Card spots. The Phillies are currently 8 games out of the Wild Card.

A little break down of the Philadelphia Phillies:

  • Offense: 3.49 R/G, good for 14th in the NL. Only the Miami Marlins with 2.76 R/G are worse. By comparison, the worst AL club in R/G is the White Sox with 3.52.
  • Pitching: 4.40 R/G, 11th in the NL with an ERA of 4.29 (13th).
  • Defense: .693 defensive efficiency (7th), 31 errors allowed (6th)

Their starters have a 4.23 ERA. Their relievers a 4.44 ERA.

There isn't really a stand out component for the Phillies. And the only thing they have going for them is that they play in the same division as the Miami Marlins (currently 14-41), so they get to beat up on them throughout the year much like the AL West gets to beat up on the Houston Astros.

Ruben Amaro is the first barrier. Unless the Phillies pitching staff comes around, they just don't have the offense to carry them. This is the breakdown of their starting pitching options so far this year:

What that requires is Cole Hamels to turn it around big time and the offense to not be as bad as it has been. That's a big obstacle, but Amaro isn't the type that will tank a season so early.

The next barrier is the cost to play. If Cliff Lee is on the market, the Phillies are going to have many suitors. The Orioles certainly have the money. But a $25 million contract is going to be hard to take in with a number of guys that need to be signed long term: Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, maybe Jason Hammel. The club does have Brian Roberts and his $10 million/year contract coming off the books at the end of the season, but Cliff Lee would turn a $90 million/year team into something like a $115-$120 million/year team going forward. And you know who that has to go through: Peter Angelos.

Are you keeping track, yet? Ruben Amaro #1. Peter Angelos #2. What's the 3rd?

What do the Orioles have to give up to get Cliff Lee?

Now this is the harder question. Cliff Lee is an elite pitcher. His WAR (according to FanGraphs) over the last 4 years:

  • 2009: 6.5
  • 2010: 7.0
  • 2011: 6.4
  • 2012: 4.9

This year he's already accumulated 2.0. If you assume the typical $5 million/WAR estimation, he's been worth his contract and then some. So getting the Phillies to eat a good portion of the contract is most likely out of the equation. They may eat something like $5 million/year, but let's not expect much more than that.

So what player(s) would the Orioles have to give up? The conversation is most likely going to start with a Dylan Bundy or a Kevin Gausman. The Orioles and the Phillies are going to be cautious with Dylan Bundy given his elbow situation, so you can assume he's off the radar. Jonathan Schoop is currently resting a stress fracture in his back (and out 4 weeks) so count him out. That leaves Kevin Gausman.

Now, Kevin Gausman has been very ineffective in his first 2 starts in the majors (currently sporting an 11.00 ERA). But anyone that expects that continue throughout the length of his career is being reactionary. This is a kid who throws a 95-99 mph fastball with a change-up in the low 80's. I've said it time and time again, that's very Pedro Martinez-esque. He's young, cheap and the #2 prospect in the Orioles system. His problem is simply a matter of getting his slider and 2 seamer more developed. He's proven that he has command (walked only 5 guys in 46 innings in the minors). He's proven that he can strike out hitters (49 in 46 innings). His issue is with his secondary pitches and keeping hitters off balance. He can't just throw fastballs up here and expect to get guys out over the long haul.

Either way, I suspect Kevin Gausman is going to be the guy that the Phillies want. And in order to get quality, you're going to have to give up quality. Would others have to be thrown in to get Lee? I certainly would hope not. 

Joe Sheehan of Sports Illustrated and Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter fame had the following to say about a Cliff Lee trade scenario:

Profar, alone, maybe. Maybe. Plus? Hell, no. 

In case you're wondering who Profar is, it's Jurickson Profar. One of the best prospects in the game and currently playing for the Texas Rangers. His rough equivalent in the Orioles camp would be Manny Machado

So, maybe you give up an additional player in a potential Lee for Gausman swap, but it wouldn't be an A or B level prospect. Maybe a future reliever with a high ceiling. In addition the Phillies should cover some of his contract, perhaps $5 million a year.

The question comes down to: would you trade Gausman for Lee with the Phillies chipping in some money (not much) for Lee's contract?

I think you'd need to sit down long and hard over that question. It's not easy, but it's not an offensive trade scenario. Would I rather have Gausman? Yes, but that's because I think he has a very bright future ahead of him. But thinking of what it would actually take and that is the most realistic on what the Phillies would want? It'd have to be Gausman (Unless the O's could package together something like Eduardo Rodriguez and others. But I'm not quite sure all of what would have to be included).

The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer’s view