Lee's always been an incredible bargain, but payday's coming soon
Lee has a chance to become the game's fourth $100 million pitcher
Lee has actually outpitched CC over two years, not just one game
The McCourts' battle over Dodgers ownership gets messier
NEW YORK -- Every trade or signing that's involved underrated pitching star Cliff Lee looks like an incredible bargain so far. But pretty soon it will be Lee's turn.
The Phillies will surely try to lock up Lee this winter, and he has a chance to become the game's fourth $100 million pitcher, joining CC Sabathia (whom he outdueled in a 6-1 Game 1 victory Wednesday night), Johan Santana and Barry Zito, who got $161 million, $137.5 million and $126 million, respectively.
The undervaluing of Lee, who makes $5.75 million this year (or just under half Oliver Perez's salary), began right at the beginning, as he originally came to Cleveland in a package of three great prospects, with Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips, all of whom turned out to be major league stars, for veteran pitcher Bartolo Colon.
That may be the best trade for prospects in a quarter century. But another great trade was yet to come.
First came the great signing in 2006. Lee inked a long-term deal ($15 million for four years) that gave him security, and he looked very wise to do so after he was sent to the minors to work out some kinks when he was hurt two years ago. But now that he's won a Cy Young Award, blown through the National League playoffs with a 0.74 ERA and dominated a stacked Yankees lineup in his World Series debut, he looks like the biggest bargain in baseball once again.
This summer, when several teams were looking for pitching but prospects were at a premium, the Phillies landed Lee for four solid-to-good minor leaguers in what might be the trade of the year. The Indians received pitchers Jason Knapp and Carlos Carrasco, plus catcher Lou Marson and infielder Jason Donald, all decent prospects with potential but no one in the category of Dominic Brown, Michael Taylor or Kyle Drabek, who are considered Philly's three best prospects. Knapp, the best of that package, needed microfracture shoulder surgery soon after going to Cleveland, and one scout said he sees the others as major league contributors but something short of stars. "A steal for Philly," was that one scout's opinion, though to be fair, it's tough to judge trades for prospects when they are made.
Though, Lee's already made Philly's side of it worth it. Lee has been underappreciated for years, but that should change now that he has shown his stuff on the big stage.
Perhaps it's that he throws only 92 mph and relies on control and a varied repertoire. The Phillies' scouting staff, including Charlie Kerfeld, Howie Freiling, Jim Fregosi Jr. and Gordon Lakey, were all enamored with Lee at the trading deadline ("He mixes four pitches," Freiling says about why they loved Lee). And with the Blues Jays requesting J.A. Happ plus Drabek and Brown, it was a no-brainer trade for Phillies rookie GM Ruben Amaro, who pounced quickly, leaving the Jays in the lurch and giving the Phillies the upper hand in the NL.
Finally, it looks like Lee's primed for a major payday this winter. The Indians passed last winter, knowing their small-market dollars wouldn't do the trick. But Philly knows what it has in Lee, and more to the point, it has the loot after two straight World Series appearances.
Before Lee became a one-man postseason dynamo, it was presumed he'd shoot to be in the range of A.J. Burnett's $82.5-million, five-year deal. Coincidentally, the Burnett deal was negotiated by Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker, who had another deal close to that waiting in Atlanta if Burnett didn't want to go to New York (turns out he did). Burnett's contract is considered a coup for the player and was seen as a potential measuring stick for Lee and John Lackey. But according to a friend of Lee's, "Cliff's always been worth more." (So is free agent Lackey, who could also join the $100 million club this winter.)
As for who makes a fair comp, the friend said in mid-gem Wednesday night, "Looks like the comp is on the mound the next inning." That was a not-so-subtle hint at CC Sabathia's $161 million deal, a record for a pitcher. Over the last two years, Lee is 37-17 and Sabathia is 36-18, with Lee's record coming mostly in Cleveland and Sabathia's mostly out of Cleveland. Lee's ERA is just under 3 during that time period while Sabathia's is just over 3.
So Lee has actually outpitched CC over two years, not just one game.
However, even if Lee is viewed as comparable to Sabathia (and the numbers indicate he is), there are a couple differences that favor Sabathia. CC was only 28 when he signed the richest pitching deal, whereas Lee is 31. Also, Sabathia was a free agent, whereas the Phillies hold a bargain $9 million option for 2010, which is as good as exercised already.
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