Free Agent Review – Cliff Lee to the Phillies

Wow. That’s pretty much all I can say.

With the news overnight that there may have been as much as $50 million left on the table by one Clifton Phifer Lee, it has been a complete shock to see that Cliff Lee has agreed to sign with the Phillies. The terms appear to be for 5 years, $115 million dollars, with an option for a 6th year that might be reasonably achievable.

From the Phillies Perspective

Honestly, I’m not sure I understand this entirely. Clearly, Lee is more than $10 M better than Joe Blanton ($20M salary for Lee, $10.5M for Blanton), but this seems a bit excessive. Adding Lee now brings them a 4th ace to go with Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt for next season. The part that could really kill the Phillies long term is the amount of money they have tied up. The Phillies will most likely have the highest payroll of any team not playing in the Bronx next year, and have a ton of money committed to their roster already for 2012, 2013, and 2014.

This screams on their part of a win-now move, except that they were already doing that when they acquired Roy Oswalt. For Lee, it really appears pretty clear that he really did not want to go to New York, and would prefer not to stay in Texas either. The fact that the Phillies found that much money in their rotation (their top 4 starters will make over $65 million next year), in addition to the money spent elsewhere on the diamond, makes me think that they believe their window will close in the next 3 years or so.

It also seems likely that the Phillies will look to move at least one higher priced player who may not be as needed as they thought. Joe Blanton seems like a candidate, but the Phillies would probably have to eat a lot of the $21 million he is still owed for 2011-2012. Another candidate might be Raul Ibanez, but I think a team acquiring Ibanez would want almost all of his salary paid for 2011.

From the Rangers Perspective

Honestly, I think that they dodged a bullet here. While they do have new ownership, the offer that they made to Lee (supposedly 6 years $138M with an option year) could have crippled the organization by the end of it. It seems likely that the next move for them will be to go out and trade for Royals’ ace Zack Greinke, but a player I think that they might be able to get to help them somewhat for a lot cheaper could be Derek Lowe. A groundball pitcher is likely to be unaffected by Texas, and since he is owed $30 M over 2 seasons, he probably wouldn’t require as much in the form of prospects in return.

The Rangers do also get the consolation prize of getting the Phillies’ draft pick (the 33rd in the first round), and also a sandwich pick due to Lee being a type A free agent. They should also take some of that money and try to lock up Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz long term very soon. I have to imagine that both players would be likely to take slight discounts to stay there long-term with that added financial security.

My Thoughts

Clearly, the Phillies are now one of the favorites to win the World Series in addition to the National League. Their mix of excellent starting pitching definitely matches anyone else in the league, including the Giants. But it is the fact that their offense should (not necessarily will) be better at most positions that could make the difference. If I was a Phillies fan, I’d be extremely excited for 2011 and probably 2012, and scared out of my mind for 2013 through 2016. This team has a TON of money tied up in players who will be substantially older by then, and currently their farm system seems unlikely to give them the top tier players they will need to replace them eventually.

I think that the Rangers did well here, as they made a substantial run at the top free agent on the market, and did not lose due to offering less money than the eventual victor. I have to imagine that while they may very well go out and acquire Zack Greinke with the depth of their farm system, there may end up being cheaper options which allow them to keep some of that depth still.

The big loser here really seems to be the Yankees, as they have now missed on all 3 of the top free agents on the market, and were not even outbid on Lee. They clearly are not going to go get the next starter on the market, one Carl Pavano. So they will have to look to the trade market most likely, starting with Greinke and seeing who else could potentially be available. They definitely need to address the starting rotation behind C.C. Sabathia, and will feel immense pressure to make a move after the Red Sox have made two gigantic moves already.

Overall, I do find it a bit refreshing that Lee took the (slightly) lesser offer to go where he wanted to play, which is the whole point of free agency really. I’m sure that the union will not be happy with the best free agent on the market not taking the top dollar amount, but it will probably still look good with a lot of players. And who can argue with not taking $138+ M when they still got $115 M?

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