Now that we know the basic structure of Cliff Lee’s contract with the Phillies – 5 years, $120 million, plus a vesting option for a sixth year that could take it to $135 million in overall value – we could break down the contract in terms of what the Phillies are expecting in terms of wins and future inflation. But, in this case, I’m not sure it is all that necessary, because the Phillies don’t need a certain level of performance needed to justify their high bid since they got Cliff Lee with a bid that was slightly lower than what New York and Texas offered.
In many cases, free agents become almost instantly untradeable due to the Winner’s Curse, as the signing team only gets to become the signing team by paying an amount that no other team in baseball is willing to match. But that’s not what happened here. Both Texas and New York were willing to commit similar dollars and years to Lee, but he simply chose to go to Philadelphia instead.
So, the Phillies have an ace pitcher who signed a contract that we know at least two clubs would take tomorrow if they could. I’d imagine there are probably other franchises who would also be willing to take Lee on this contract, but didn’t get involved in the bidding because they knew he wouldn’t consider signing with them. Unlike most premium free agents signed to long term megadeals, Lee actually has some trade value.
Of course, the Phillies won’t be trading him again anytime soon, but any contract where you could trade him if you needed to instantly carries less risk, as it essentially gives you an out clause. So, while guaranteeing five years to a 32-year-old pitcher certainly carries some risk, it is mitigated in some ways in this particular deal.
There is also another interesting aspect to this deal that is perhaps unique to the Phillies. In some ways, they’ve already mortgaged their future by building an older roster and locking in players like Ryan Howard to big money deals. Even if Lee is not overly productive in the last few years of this deal, it may not end up causing that much damage to the Phillies, as they may be unlikely to contend at that point anyway.
By likely upgrading from Joe Blanton to Cliff Lee, they bolster their chances of contention while Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are still productive players and Jimmy Rollins and Roy Oswalt are still under contract. They are borrowing from their future to improve their present, but given the age of the players on their roster and their future commitments to guys like Howard, borrowing from the future is not a bad idea, as it was unlikely that they were going to be able to sustain excellence into 2014 or 2015. Trading value from years where winning is not likely into years where it is possible is certainly a good swap, and that’s the move the Phillies just made.
Despite the size of the contract and Lee’s age, the upside outweighs the downside here. This is a good move for the Phillies organization, and kudos to Ruben Amaro for deciding to fix one of his larger mistakes.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.