The Cliff Lee Conundrum

Cliff Lee

(Via Federal Baseball)

After seeing Cliff Lee's performances from last year's post-season coupled with this year's current domination of the post-season, I am sure many of us Red Sox fans are drooling over the possibility of being able to sign him and sticking it to the Yankees.  Heck, the prospect of sticking it to the Yankees alone probably makes a good many of us giddy with excitement.

However, that's not what the off-season "Hot Stove" is about, no matter what we would like to think.  So, is Cliff Lee worth going after?  Set aside the certain pitching shuffle that would occur if say Theo & Co. were able to sign him as that is a whole other ball of wax.  Just look at Cliff Lee and the Red Sox.

More after a hop, skip, and a jump away...

I'll begin with this: Lee has a 0.75 ERA, a 34-1 K-to-BB ratio and three straight starts with 10 or Ks this post-season.  This is on top of a great post-season last year with Philadelphia where he went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA and a 33-6 K-to-BB ratio.

Oh and one more thing: He turned 32 this past August.

Therein lies the conundrum: he's really hit his prime, yet his age should have us a bit leery of his continued success.

One could see Cliff Lee starting to come into form in 2005, though he regressed in 2006 and had injury issues in 2007.  He really (and I mean really) broke out in 2008 with an AL Cy Young award winning season and we all know the story from there.  Cliff Lee's pitching statistics really speak for themselves, and they're really hard to argue against.  They scream a 4 year contract worth $55, all the way up to $70 million and maybe I'm even under-estimating here.  After all, if Josh Beckett is worth 4 years/$68 million, shouldn't Cliff Lee be worth 4 years/$80 million?  I'm throwing numbers out there, but they're certainly worth thinking about.

Stats of note: his WAR has been 7.3, 5.0, and 4.3 from 2008 to 2010, respectively (the 2010 season isn't even over yet; I would think his WAR will be higher 5.0 when it's all said and done).

Yet, we seem to forget one thing: he's 32 years old and he's certainly getting any younger.  Can he keep up such a high level of performance in his later years?

Lee's pitching arsenal consists of a  four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, a cut fastball, circle change-up and a knuckle curve; certainly a nice variation and one that could lead one to believe he can adjust to using more breaking pitches and being more of a "control freak" with his pitches as he gets older.  The question still remains: by the time he's 36 or 37 years of age, can he be remotely as good as he is now?  Recent history with pitchers (e.g. Curt Schilling, Andy Pettitte, John Smoltz) has shown that one can pitch into their later years with either consistency and/or a mix of excellent and fair pitching, so who's to say Cliff Lee can't do the same?  After all he's had one groin injury in 2007...

Though it was quite the groin injury as it took him out of his game for pretty much the entire season.

That being said, he certainly has bounced back with a vengeance and there's no telling when he'll start to slow down.  Yet, Theo & Co. have shown a reluctance to sign players to long deals if they're older and Cliff Lee borders on being a little too old, yet still young enough.

Of course, there's the whole money/budget factor thrown in, and quite frankly, it could go either way depending upon what Theo & Co. choose to do elsewhere.  While they may think they're all set with their starting rotation, the past season showed that even the best laid plans get blown to bits, even with contingency plans.  As the old adage states: "you can never have enough pitching;" however, at what cost?  4 years/$75 million?  5 years/$89 million?  We do know that Lee isn't currently represented by Scott Boras, so that may help to keep costs down a little, but that can certainly change.

In the end, there are a myriad of reasons for Cliff Lee "to be or not to be" in a Red Sox uniform come Spring Training 2011 and the topic as a whole makes for a great debate, maybe even a controversy of sorts.

I'm just glad I don't have to make the decision...

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