Dec 112010

The waiting game being played out between Cliff Lee and the Yankees and Rangers has to be disconcerting to most Yankee fans by now. Recent reports during the winter meetings that he and/or his agent met with the Texas Rangers brass 4 times, and the Yanks only twice, adds further fuel to the fire that he’s leaning toward Texas, or at least giving them every opportunity to come up with an offer he can live with.

To paraphrase the great Football coach Vince Lombardi, Cliff Lee isn’t everything, he’s the only thing. I know that some fans think that the Yanks, with their enormous resources, will find someone comparable who can take the ball every 5th day and give the team a chance to win. Now of course they’ll find somebody, they’re not going to forfeit every 5th game in 2011. You can always find a Chad Gaudin-type floating around in free agency or the waiver wires. Maybe there’s a mid-rotation starter out there to be had via trade from a team like the White Sox, whose GM Kenny Williams is always up for a deal. But the notion that it will be someone comparable to Cliff Lee, someone with top of the rotation ability, is simply unfounded. Or in the case of Zach Grienke, I would argue ill conceived.

With this in mind, I wanted to take a minute to ponder what the Yankee rotation would look like without Lee. As things stand currently, that would mean Ivan Nova would be the Yankee #5 starter with CC, Burnett, Hughes and Pettitte filling out the starting five. The Yanks generally don’t like to enter a season barely having 5 starters, which is what this rotation would represent. The team would look better if they pick up a back of the rotation type on a 1 year deal, so if things go south they can always cut bait around mid-season. Looking at the list of available free agent starters they would be choosing from pitchers such as Bruce Chen, Jeff Francis, Dave Bush, Freddy Garcia, Brian Burres, Rodrigo Lopez, Jeff Suppan, or Kevin Millwood. Those are the healthy guys, for a more speculative bet on upside you have your choice of Erik Bedard, Brandon Webb, Brad Penny, Justin Duchscherer, Chien-Ming Wang, Chris Young, and Ben Sheets. We don’t even need to discuss Carl Pavano. I have trouble making a case for anything above a minor league invite or a low base incentive-laden deal for any pitcher on that list. Given the dearth of available starters and the sky-high prices free agents are going for this year, any of the guys with even a hint of ability on that list will command more than that.  

Further complicating matters is that, as we all know, Andy Pettitte is currently leaning towards retirement. We can all hope that if the Yankee situation is desperate enough, Andy will come in riding on a white horse and save the day. But we can’t count on that. Living with Ivan Nova as your #5 is one thing, but penciling him in as your #4 and filling in with someone from that above list or the next guy on the Yankee depth chart (David Phelps or Hector Noesi) is something they simply can’t live with. Not in the AL East, not with the Red Sox making the upgrades they already have this off season. If Andy retires, I have to think the Yanks would revisit Joba Chamberlain in the starting rotation. They may even let him and Nova battle things out in spring training if just the 5th spot is open. That’s what they did with him and Hughes this past spring, and Ivan Nova has never been viewed by prospect watchers as having the ability of Phil. Despite his sub-par 2010 campaign, Joba still has more upside as a starter than Nova, who lacks a true swing and miss pitch and relies mostly on his heavy, sinking fastball. We know it’s not their preference, but if Andy bows out and they come in second in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, I think revisiting Joba the starter becomes unavoidable as things stand currently.

(The following is being syndicated from The Captain’s Blog).

In an effort to evaluate whether the Yankees and Rangers are setting themselves up for a fall by offering a long-term contract to Cliff Lee, many have invoked similar deals that were given to the likes of Barry Zito, Johan Santana, C.C. Sabathia, Mike Hampton, Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina. Even if all those pitchers were similar to Lee, it would still be foolish to draw any meaningful conclusion from such a small sample size.

There really is no point in comparing Lee to other pitchers who signed similar long-term contracts. At best it is an anecdotal pursuit. After all, the question we need to answer is whether Lee will be productive over the term of the proposed contract, and a better way to do that is by looking at every starter who pitched from 32 to 38 (the ages Lee would be under a seven-year contract).

Relative Performance of Starters, Ages 32 to 38, Since 1901

  Total ERA+ >= 100 ERA+ >= 120
Lefties 37 32 15
Righties 80 65 19

Note: Includes all pitchers who threw at least 1,000 innings between the ages of 32 and 38 and started at least 75% of their games.

Since 1901, 397 starters (75%-plus of all games in the rotation) pitched between the ages of 32 and 38. Of that total, 117, or 29%, pitched at least 1,000 innings, of which 83% had an ERA+ of 100 or higher and 29% had an ERA+ of at least 120. Among lefties, the percentage of starters with an ERA+ of 120 or better jumps to 41%.

Based on the data above, it seems that if a starting pitcher is able to stay healthy, he’ll likely be at least league average during his age 32 to 38 seasons. And, if he is a lefty, there is close to an even chance that he’ll be well above average. Looked at in this light, the key question regarding Cliff Lee is whether he will stay healthy over the length of a seven-year deal. Although he has suffered from minor abdominal and back issues during his career, Lee has managed to pitch at least 200 innings in five of the last six seasons (in 2007, he was sent to the minor leagues). The ace lefty also has a reputation for being in good condition and a tireless worker, so there is no reason to think complacency or a premature break down will develop. In other words, Lee fits the profile of a pitcher who should continue to log innings as he progresses deeper into his career. And, once you come to that conclusion, it becomes much more likely that he’ll justify a six- or seven-year contract.

Listed below for further comparison are the top-20 left handed pitchers who meet the criteria referenced above. After his soon-to-be new contract expires, will Lee’s name be added to this list? That remains to be seen, but soon we’ll know whether its the Yankees or Rangers that are sure going to hope so.

Top-20 Left Handed Starters, Ages 32-38, Since 1901

Player From To IP Age GS ERA+
Randy Johnson 1996 2002 1548.2 32-38 210 176
Lefty Grove 1932 1938 1628.1 32-38 183 149
Harry Brecheen 1947 1953 1191 32-38 157 131
Steve Carlton 1977 1983 1854.2 32-38 242 130
Warren Spahn 1953 1959 1929 32-38 240 127
Whitey Ford 1959 1965 1695.2 32-38 243 125
Carl Hubbell 1935 1941 1579.2 32-38 191 125
Thornton Lee 1939 1945 1308 32-38 159 125
Tom Glavine 1998 2004 1544 32-38 239 124
Al Leiter 1998 2004 1360 32-38 213 124
Preacher Roe 1948 1954 1277.1 32-38 173 124
Eppa Rixey 1923 1929 1779.2 32-38 221 123
Eddie Plank 1908 1914 1704.2 32-38 205 123
Tommy John 1976 1981 1322.1 33-38 184 123
Eddie Lopat 1950 1955 1104.1 32-37 148 121
Jamie Moyer 1995 2001 1291 32-38 194 115
Andy Pettitte 2004 2010 1262.2 32-38 203 115
Mike Cuellar 1969 1975 1921.1 32-38 264 114
Chuck Finley 1995 2001 1373.1 32-38 215 114
David Wells 1995 2001 1421.2 32-38 210 113

Note: Includes all left handed pitchers who threw at least 1,000 innings between the ages of 32 and 38 and started at least 75% of their games.

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