Cliff Lee is a really good pitcher. He’s become a modern-day Curt Schilling: dominating the playoffs unimaginably well. He is healthy. He has no makeup issues to worry about. But we still shouldn’t sign him.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Cliff Lee is going to make bank this off season. He is going to command somewhere around 20 million dollars for 5-6 years, possibly more. If I’m wrong about that, and Lee signs a Halladay-like short term deal, my argument in this post doesn’t really apply.
Cliff Lee is going to turn 32 years old next season. At some point, old players start to decline. It tends to start around 34-35, and descend rather steeply after that. The Yankees were lucky when Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte were productive into their mid and late 30s. They were the exception to the rule. We can count on our players beginning to decline around that age.
One player declining is not a big deal. The Yankees can afford it. The problem is that the Yankees’ “New Core”© are almost all right around the same age. Mark Teixeira will be 31 next year. Nick Swisher will be 30. Curtis Granderson will be 30. Alex Rodriguez will be 35. C.C. Sabathia will be 30. They are all right around the same age as Cliff Lee. Our younger core includes Brett Gardner, Phil Hughes, and Robinson Cano. Besides those guys, all of the players that we will be counting on for production (assuming guys like Granderson and Swisher stick around) will start to decline somewhere around 2014-2015.
The Yankees can afford to have a lot of high-priced players on the team. What they can’t afford is to have their high-priced players sitting on the bench. The Yankees will be writing in Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia, etc in to the lineup every as regulars until their contracts expire. If they play poorly or below expectations, then the Yankees have to make up that production elsewhere. This is why the team should spread their risk out among a diverse set of ages. At any given time, they shouldn’t let the majority of their lineup (or, more accurately, the majority of their payroll) decline all at the same time.
That’s part of the bargain you make for a free agent, right? You pay for a few late years of a guy’s prime, and then keep paying him through his decline years. I’m aware of that, and fine with it. But timing is what its all about.
Getting locked into an aging and declining team is how the New York Yankees become the New York Knicks. We all saw the 2005-2008 Yankees start to get locked into this problem. Luckily, the aging Yankee veterans defied the odds and were productive far in to their 30s. The Yankees can’t count on that happening again. They’ll be stuck with a mediocre team until the contracts clear out. The team needs those expensive contracts to clear out one at a time instead of all at once. Cliff Lee’s contract puts him right there with Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia.
The team needs to aim younger than Cliff Lee. They need a guy in the Hughes/Cano/Gardner age group, not someone in advanced age. Or they need to sign someone to a shorter, cheaper contract. Who is that guy? I’m not too sure. He may not exist. But he should be in his mid to late 20s, or be a very short term commitment. Zach Greinke comes to mind. There are also internal solutions in the minor leagues, which I will be talking a lot about this winter.
I’m going to be a fan of the New York Yankees in the second half of this decade. I want the team to be in it for a shot at the World Series every year. Panicking following “only” getting to Game 6 of the ALCS and feeling like they have to sign the biggest guy out there is a quick way to ruin things. It reeks of the mid-2000s short-term philosophy of the team. Cliff Lee is a great pitcher, but he’s not the right pitcher for us.