Free Agent Stock Watch: Cliff Lee

It's not often that a bonafide ace hits the free agent market, but when one does it often leads to a feeding frenzy of big market clubs and mystery teams. Current Rangers ace and former Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee is arguably the best pitcher in baseball, and in a few weeks he will be able to offer his services to the highest bidder on the open market for the first time in his career.

Lee's credentials are undeniable, but teams must still weigh the good against the bad when preparing to offer anyone a contract of this magnitude. Let's break it down…

The Good

  • Lee is a proven workhorse, logging 667.1 innings over the last three seasons. He's thrown at least 200 innings in five of the last six years and made at least 28 starts in six of the last seven years.
  • If you're a believer in WAR, Lee's +20.8 mark since 2008 is second only to Roy Halladay's +21.5 among all pitchers.
  • He's proven himself in the American League, so there won't be any adjustment period as far as that is concerned.
  • Lee's command is off-the-charts, evidenced by a 0.8 BB/9 this season. He also set a new single season record with a 10.28 K/BB ratio (min. 150 innings).
  • Although he mixes in a curveball, Lee is primarily a fastball-cutter-changeup pitcher without huge velocity. As Andy Pettitte and Jamie Moyer have shown, lefthanders with that arsenal can pitch forever as long as they have their health. 

The Bad

  • Lee is on the wrong side of 30, having turned 32 just over a month ago.
  • He battled some back issues last month, and has a history of oblique trouble dating back to 2003. His arm has been relatively free of injury, however.
  • As a Type-A free agent certain to be offered arbitration, any team except Texas will have to forfeit a high draft to sign him.
  • The Yankees have long had interest in Lee (they almost acquired him this summer), and if they get involved in the bidding it would make life very difficult for everyone else.

The Verdict

Despite the back issues, Lee is certain to become one of the two or three highest paid pitchers in baseball in the coming months. Every team would love to be able to add him to their staff, but it's only economically feasible for a handful. The Yankees have a leg up on everyone else not just because they can offer the most money, but also because Lee is close with CC Sabathia from their Cleveland days. 

That said, the Rangers just signed a lucrative television deal that enables them to make a competitive offer, and we'd be foolish to rule out traditional big spenders like the Mets, Red Sox, Angels, and Tigers (regardless of what they've said). Even the Orioles and Nationals have shown a willingness to go big game hunting on the free agent market recently, so don't be surprised if they get involved as well. 

Lee might not be able to secure a seven-year, $161MM deal like Sabathia since he's three years older than CC was when he hit the market, but $20MM annually for five years seems like nothing more than a starting point. 

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