Cliff Lee Signing: What We Learned

It's safe to say that prior to yesterday, not many people were predicting Cliff Lee would sign a five-year deal with the Phillies.  The Yankees essentially offered Lee $148MM over seven years, so he turned down two more years and an extra $28MM in guaranteed money.  Here's what we learned:

  • It's unfair to make assumptions about a player's priorities.  There was a lot of talk about how Lee's number one goal was the biggest possible contract.  We also heard about how the Rangers had the advantage of playing near Lee's Arkansas home.  Now it appears the player's comfort with a previous team trumped all else, but we'll wait until Lee explains his choice at the press conference.
  • Players can leave big money on the table.  Before Lee, the best recent example of a player signing a far below-market contract was Roy Halladay's three-year, $60MM extension with the Phillies.  It's rarer in free agency, but Mark Teixeira reportedly turned down the best offer two years ago.  This winter, Jorge de la Rosa, Jake Westbrook, Hiroki Kuroda, and Jon Garland are a few examples of players who probably could have gotten more money elsewhere.
  • Teams can change their minds.  The Phillies traded Lee to Seattle a year ago in part because they reportedly didn't think they could afford to extend him.  Something changed since then - perhaps Jayson Werth's agent?  We also should note that a player being unexpectedly traded doesn't mean he'll hold a grudge.
  • The Yankees can miss out on a targeted free agent.  If a free agent seeks top dollar and the Yankees want him, they'll probably win the bidding.  But a player can turn down the biggest offer and still be set for life, as Lee is. 
  • Every offseason has big surprises.  A couple of years ago I couldn't believe John Smoltz and Trevor Hoffman signed with new teams.  This year there were at least rumblings that the Red Sox could get Carl Crawford and the Nationals liked Jayson Werth.  But the Phillies were not seen as legitimate contenders for Lee, nor was their interest telegraphed prior to yesterday.  Mystery teams can be real and even succeed in signing a top free agent.  In reality, plenty of teams operate entirely under the radar without leaks to the media.
  • You can never have too much pitching.  Front-end starting pitching is exceedingly rare.  Unless C.C. Sabathia opts out, there will be no free agent aces available after the 2011 season.  The availability of an ace prompts teams to move parts around to make it work, and sometimes put more money toward the rotation even when the offense needs help.  The Royals should trade Zack Greinke for nothing less than a king's ransom.

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