After a night’s sleep it hasn’t gotten any less surprising. Cliff Lee to the Phillies is about as shocking a free agent turn of events as I can remember. I guess the fans in Philadelphia were lulled to sleep, and so was the rest of baseball. Everyone assumed the Phillies wouldn’t be after Lee because they wouldn’t want to spend that much money. The difference between not wanting to spend it and not being able to was an area that only team ownership and Ruben Amaro were familiar with. As it turns out, the money is obviously there, and signing Cliff Lee is to them worth the exception.
I still haven’t seen an official tally for the deal. The first reports were for 5 years and 100 million. Now, it seems like that number is actually 120 million. There is obviously a huge difference. At 5 years/100 million Lee is really leaving a lot on the table and sticking it to the Yankees and Rangers. At 5/120, he’s got a 24 million dollar annual value, and I wouldn’t bend over backwards praising him for being selfless. I imagine not having to live in the NYC area is going to save him a bit of cash right off the top, so while its great that Lee was willing to take a bit less to play for the Phils, let’s not act like he signed for the mid-level exemption to borrow a phrase from my beloved NBA.
Since the Phillies are secretive about what their budget really is, it is hard to know exactly how this contract will impact the rest of their business. Don’t expect any freeze on ticket prices, though. It appears Blanton will be gone. The bench and middle relief are going to be spots where the Phillies save a little cash. Moving forward, I’d guess this is probably bad news for Jimmy Rollins if he wants any kind of significant money. Any saved money for 2012 is going to have to go to the outfield. For Cole Hamels, by the time he would come around to a big contract, there will probably be enough money off the books (goodbye Roy Oswalt?) for that to happen. But remember the Phillies are going to need a new LF, a new 3B, a new SS, and a new closer during the course of this contract.
Is This the Best Rotation Ever?
On paper it looks very formidable. I think the tendency here is to take what is current and elevate it to the highest level. In this case it could very well be true, but I guess the only comparison out there is the ’97 Braves who had Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz and Neagle. There is something more glamorous about the names Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Oswalt, especially here in Philly. I think the perception is this rotation blows the Braves out of the water, but I imagine that isn’t the case statistically. The recent success of the Phillies’ pitchers in the post-season is what would put them over the top. Wherever the rotation stacks up historically the fact is the Phillies will probably be significant favorites to win the vast majority of their games based solely on the pitching matchup. They’ll have an “ace” caliber pitcher out there for 130 starts if they stay healthy. Considering half the National League probably doesn’t have an ace, that’s an overwhelming advantage.
What it Means for 2011:
The Phillies will be burdened with the highest expectations I can remember in Philadelphia sports history. The Flyers are obviously out based on scope of popularity. Someone older than me can maybe address the Moses Malone to the Sixers move. I know the Sixers were a million times more popular in town then, and they had tortured the fans with playoff losses for about 6 straight years. They had even tried the slogan, “We owe you one.” The only thing I think could possibly compare would be T.O. coming to Philly. The Eagles have the advantage of being the most popular team (at least I think they still do), and they were the biggest show in town at that point. T.O. was certainly more of a final piece. Finally, we have a #1 WR. Lee seems like extravagance in comparison, but I’m not sure when T.O. came here if it was, now we must win the Super Bowl.
Like I said earlier, the Phillies have to be favorites simply because these four guys will start 130 games. If you were being conservative, you’d say they should win 80 of them without much trouble. Go .500 the rest of the way, and they are right back at 96 wins. And, there’s nothing extreme about that prediction, and it doesn’t really hinge on the offense or bullpen at all. Those are the two big questions, though. A good bullpen and an above average offense will turn this team into a juggernaut, but those are significant question marks.
Much of this plan, brining Lee back, seems to be contingent on players returning to form. Utley, Rollins, Lidge, Howard and Ibanez to a lesser extent, but I think the Phillies are expecting a natural upshot in production from these guys and that is why they feel Lee is such a coup. The blip on the radar theory on Utley and company is a lot more comforting than the starting to decline theory. We’re not going to know what is going on until the season starts, but the Phillies are counting on a bounce back from these guys. If they weren’t this money wouldn’t have gone to Cliff Lee. It puts a little bit of pressure on the offense. Oddly enough, better starting pitching could put them under the microscope a little more. Instead of getting blown out, or simply having an off night, there could be a lot more, “you couldn’t come up with 3 or 4 runs?” The Phillies will have to score less to win probably, but every time they don’t score it will probably get noticed a lot more.
The one thing this deal doesn’t do for the Phillies is make them younger. You look three years down the road and you have Utley/Howard/Lee and Halladay hovering around their mid-30s. Jimmy Rollins will either be right there with them, or gone. Ibanez and Polanco will likely be gone. Oswalt could be gone. They will be facing a big decision on Cole Hamels. So, the deal is great right now, but in a few years the Phillies will have almost 100 million dollars committed to 4 aging players and it is hard to know right now who is going to be complimenting them. As fun as the last two years have been with the signings and trades, the real test will be plugging the holes and keeping this team running come 2013/2014. Of course, no real reason to worry about that now. Live in the moment, bask in the rotation.
Uh, Cliff, I’m trying to go to bed here. Couldn’t this have waited until morning? Well, no one will ever accuse me of having inside information. Scroll down one post to see my thoughts on the Phillies being players in name only in the Lee sweepstakes. I can’t wait to see the terms of this deal. I guess it really can’t be judged from a financial/business perspective until the details are known. In baseball terms it gives the Phillies the best starting rotation anyone can remember and puts the expectations for the team at unprecedented levels. Anything less than a World Series trophy acceptable at this point? Final move by Ruben Amaro in what appears to be a plan to shift the Phils from a team that outscores you to a team that you simply can’t score on.
First rumor on the contract…5 years and 100 million with a vesting option for a sixth year. Quite a discount.
The Phillies are now the Miami Heat of the MLB?
More coming in the morning….