In the heat of the moment, in the pulse of the postseason, when his Rangers were in the midst of a run to the World Series and riding Cliff Lee all the way, managing partner Chuck Greenberg was asked what Lee, the premier pending free agent, was worth. "Cliff Lee," Greenberg answered, "is worth everything that he's going to get." In the wake of a Series loss, in the cold, hard calculations that come with winter, Greenberg will have to ask himself just how accurate that statement was.
With the Yankees expected to be involved in the bidding, the question it could all come down to is this: Is Lee worth something approaching the seven-year, $161 million commitment New York made to CC Sabathia two years ago? Lee and his agent, Darek Braunecker, will obviously argue in the affirmative. The numbers are in their favor, if you look at them in the right light. Take a three-year look at what Lee has done in the regular season, and it's certainly comparable to Sabathia's performance. Over the past three years, Lee was 48-25 with a 2.98 ERA, 17 complete games in 93 starts, five shutouts, 667 1/3 innings pitched, a 1.122 WHIP, a 142 ERA+, 8.8 hits per nine innings, 0.6 home runs per nine, 1.3 walks per nine and 7.2 strikeouts per nine.
In that same span, Sabathia was 57-25 with a 3.07 ERA, 14 complete games in 103 starts, six shutouts, 720 2/3 innings, a 1.150 WHIP, a 142 ERA+, 7.9 hits per nine innings, 0.7 homers per nine, 2.5 walks per nine and 8.1 strikeouts per nine. Then you look at the postseason, when players truly earn their keep, and see that Lee is 7-2 with a 2.13 ERA, three complete games in 10 starts and a 0.816 WHIP. Remember that, at the time CC signed his deal, he hadn't even sniffed the air of October invincibility that Lee, before his shaky World Series against the Giants, had attained. Of course, this comparison with Sabathia begs the beholder to place more weight on Lee's past three seasons than the six that preceded them. Not that Lee wasn't successful in that span -- outside of a brutal 2007 that led to a demotion to Triple-A, he was. But his 94 ERA+ and his 3.1 walks per nine innings in that timeframe suggest he was a different pitcher back then. Sabathia has been a bit more durable than Lee, though Lee has the more desirable frame when you're talking about the long term. He also doesn't rely on high-velocity stuff, which suggests that his repertoire won't require any major overhauls over the length of an extensive deal. Now, it might not take a Sabathia-style contract to land Lee. He is, after all, four years older than Sabathia was at the time he signed his gargantuan contract, and the clock doesn't lie. But nobody would be shocked if Lee received an annual monetary commitment similar to, or even greater than, what Sabathia is pulling in now, even if the length of the deal is shorter. With all the above serving as potential fodder for the conversation, many are speculating that the Rangers are bound to be outbid by the Yankees. At the risk of ruffling the Rangers in the present day, maybe that's not such a bad thing in the long run. It's not that Lee isn't a premier talent. It's not that he wouldn't put the Rangers in a prime position to once again rule the AL West next season. It's not that his performance the past three years hasn't earned him the wooing he and his wife, Kristen, are now receiving. But this is a Rangers team with new ownership, coming off the high of a captivating run to the World Series and eager to show its formerly frustrated fan base that it is serious about becoming a perennial contender. It is an emotional offseason the Rangers are venturing into, and it is the perfect climate to make emotional decisions. We already know about Nolan Ryan's competitive fire. And Greenberg is pretty passionate himself. All baseball fans -- even Yankees fans -- should appreciate that these men care deeply about building a long-lasting winner in a Metroplex market that, until recent developments, had been consumed by the Cowboys. Unfortunately, emotion and competitiveness can also lead to ill-advised decisions if a bidding war erupts against a Yankees team that has seemingly endless revenue resources. History tells us that the longest of long-term contracts with starting pitchers rarely turn out well. Sabathia, at present, seems to be an exception, though he still has five years and $115 million remaining on his deal. The Rangers need only look at their own history with Chan Ho Park and Kevin Millwood to know the kinds of deals that better represent the rule. The teams that signed Barry Zito, Mike Hampton, Gil Meche, Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, among others, know the story all too well, too. The Rangers and Phillies both got Lee in midseason trades that were entirely worth that pool of prospects surrendered. Their clubs reached the World Series, and Lee's postseason performance was the guiding hand to that Promised Land. But this is different. Lee figures to get at least five years, perhaps six. The team that signs the 32-year-old Lee will be forking over cold, hard cash -- and lots of it -- for a long, long time. It's a signing that will surely provide winter warmth and immediate returns. Over the long haul, however, historical precedent doesn't suggest the investment is worth it.
Lee vs. CC, 2008-10