Headed into the 2010 season, it was clear that Cliff Lee and Josh Beckett were the two best starting pitchers on the 2011 free agent market. Brandon Webb is a familiar name, but his health was (and still is) in question. Ted Lilly was an all-star last season, but let’s be honest, he’s not in either Lee or Beckett’s league. Javier Vazquez put together a remarkable 2009 season with the Braves, but given his age (34 in June) and previous talk of retirement, it’s doubtful that any team would give him a long term deal.
So barring something unforeseen, that left us with Lee and Beckett as the consensus two best free agent starting pitchers.
That statement was true until Monday when the Red Sox announced that they had come to terms with Josh Beckett on a 4 year/$68 million dollar contract extension that will keep him with the Red Sox until after the 2014 season. Just like that, the 2011 free agent market lost one of its biggest names.
On the surface, Cliff Lee would seem to be the obvious beneficiary of Josh Beckett’s contract extension. Even though Lee is currently on the DL, there is no doubt moving forward that Lee is going to be the most sought after free agent on the market. Beckett was Lee’s primary competition this winter, which as we saw with Matt Holliday and Jason Bay this winter, can work against a player (Bay) on the open market. Now that Beckett is off the market, teams looking for a bona fide ace in the free agent market will only have one place to look: Cliff Lee.
But could Beckett’s extension actually work against Lee this winter? In terms of total value, the answer to that is maybe. Back in October, there were rumblings that Lee was going to be looking for C.C Sabathia money when he hit the free agent market, but after watching John Lackey sign for $82 million and Beckett settling for $68 million, it seems rather far fetched to think that Lee will be able to land a deal exceeding $126 million the Giants gave Barry Zito, let alone a Sabathia-esque $160 million. Also remember that when the Yankees signed Sabathia, he was just entering his baseball prime at 28 years old. In contrast, when Cliff Lee signs somewhere this winter, he will be 32 years old, which makes it far less likely to think that he will command a deal beyond five years.
In addition, now that the Red Sox have Beckett, Lackey, and Lester locked up long term and the Yankees have Sabathia and Burnett signed to huge deals, baseball’s two biggest franchises have little urgency to throw a crazy amount of money Lee’s way. That’s not to say that another team won’t be willing to commit $80 million plus to Lee, but not having the Yankees and Red Sox involved the bidding could drive the price down.
Given all those variables, C.C Sabathia is not a fair comparable for Cliff Lee. And Josh Beckett is not the perfect comparable for Lee either. But if Josh Beckett, who is two years younger than Lee and already has a proven track record settles for $68 million, is it unreasonable to think that Cliff Lee will have a tough time cracking the $100 million dollar mark this winter? Perhaps.
Then again, a lot can change on the open market. All it takes is one motivated team for Lee’s price tag to skyrocket beyond John Lackey territory and into the $100 million dollar range. The Cardinals proved that this winter when they signed Matt Holliday to a deal worth $120 million when there was no other team bidding anything near that amount.
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves here. Get healthy, Cliff.