- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
ST. LOUIS -- Imagine that you bought a new car with the odometer barely moved, and five-year financing made the payments heavier toward the back end of the deal. For almost two full years, you've gotten a chance to run it at full speed.
In that time, you've put a lot of miles on the car. You have started to notice a few pings in the engine. The tread on the tires has started to show signs of wear. Depreciation has begun -- really, from the first day you signed the papers.
Then, out of the blue, someone offers you this deal: They'll take the car off your hands and all the payments, including the whopper balloon bill that's due at the end.
Unless the car came with some sentimental value, you'd take that extraordinary proposal in a second.
In a parallel world, these are generally the circumstances that the Philadelphia Phillies are in today with pitcher Cliff Lee. The best business decision for them is to take the opportunity to dump his contract on the Los Angeles Dodgers. "A no-brainer," said a high-ranking rival official. "From a business standpoint, it's an easy call."
To review: The Phillies signed Lee after the 2010 season to a heavily backloaded five-year, $120 million deal, and as of today, the left-hander is still owed about $95 million. Lee, who turns 34 years old at the end of this month, is set to make about $7.5 million for the rest of this season and $25 million for each of the next three seasons. At the outset of the 2016 season, Lee has a $27.5 million option with a $12.5 million buyout. Lee will be 37 years old when the 2016 season begins, so unless he develops a really hard knuckleball and becomes the next version of R.A. Dickey, there is almost no chance that the Phillies (or any other team) would pick up that option and give Lee the highest salary of any pitcher in the majors when he's at such an advanced age.
So, in effect, Lee is owed $87.5 million for the next three seasons of work, when he will be the highest-paid player in the majors. His deal could cost $102.5 million over four years, if his option vests.
The Phillies talked with other teams about Lee before the July 31 trade deadline, and then on Friday, the Dodgers were awarded a waiver claim on the left-hander. The Phillies essentially have three options: They can try to work out a trade with the Dodgers; they could just give Lee away, like the Toronto Blue Jays a few years ago when they allowed the Chicago White Sox to take Alex Rios on waivers; or they could pull Lee back from waivers.
The Phillies are keeping Lee, Ruben Amaro said the other day. But Amaro tends to change his mind, and it would be in the best interest of the Phillies if he did so in this situation. Dumping Lee is the smart play, although it would take some guts. There would have to be an admission of miscalculation -- first in the initial valuation of the player, and also a conversation about why the Phillies didn't work out a deal before the deadline for a prospect, such as the Rangers' Mike Olt.
The Phillies told other teams they wouldn't eat any of the money owed to Lee, which made any deal impossible in the minds of rival executives. If the Phillies had been more flexible, they might've gotten more traction in their trade talks and gotten a good young player in return for the lefty.
That's not really an option on Aug. 5, so it's spilled milk at this point. There's not much sense in worrying about it. The Phillies should focus on what's to come.
Last year, in the first season of Lee's deal, he continued to pitch like one of baseball's best pitchers, going 17-6 with a 2.40 ERA. This year, not so much, and some of his erosion in performance can probably be blamed on the Phillies' overall struggles. Lee has a 3.73 ERA, and he's allowed a much higher rate of homers.
"He's still a really good pitcher," said one scout the other day.
But is he going to be worth $29 million annually for the next three seasons, which is essentially what the Phillies would owe him?
One really smart general manager noted this summer that when you sign a player to a long-term deal (five or more years) what you are realistically hoping for is peak performance in the first couple of seasons, then a period in the middle of the deal when the player is still good -- but maybe not as great as he once was -- before a steep decline at the end of the deal.
The Washington Nationals would probably jump at the chance to step away from the Jayson Werth contract. The Boston Red Sox would love to get out of the last five years of the Carl Crawford deal. If the New York Yankees were offered a parachute on the last five seasons of the Alex Rodriguez deal, they'd take it. The Phillies owe about $110 million to Ryan Howard through the next four years and two months -- and of course they should welcome the chance to get out of that contract.
Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols and Joey Votto all signed massive contracts, and at the back end of those deals, their teams will be paying more for legacy than for production. The Yankees got to the end of Derek Jeter's 10-year deal and then negotiated a cut in salary for him by about 40 percent. Nobody, besides Barry Bonds and a few others, gets better as they advance well past their 30th birthday.
The Phillies have already gotten the first couple of years of the Lee deal, when the odometer was at its lowest, and what they have is a chance to walk away from the deal when Lee's performance is most likely to decline and when he's about to get even more expensive.
The Phillies have saved a lot of money already in unloading the contracts of Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence, and if they get rid of Lee's contract, they could put themselves in position to be much more aggressive. They've made mistakes and they're paying for them, but now the Dodgers -- with their bottomless wallet -- are essentially offering them a bailout. The Phillies would be crazy to pass it up, unless they are confident he's going to perform at a $29 million level during the next three seasons.
The modern manager
The Dodgers have led the NL West for a lot of this summer, and the White Sox are at the top of the AL Central. It's little wonder, then, that the new managerial model being sought are those cut from the Don Mattingly/Robin Ventura/Mike Matheny mold.
In other words: Understated and not given to overreaction; accomplished in a prior playing career; respectful; hard-working with an ability to deal well with others, whether it be someone on staff in player development or a clubhouse kid or a team trainer; and open-minded in dealing with the information being generated by front offices.
Mattingly, Ventura and Matheny are all very much alike in how they deal with players, the front office and the media: honestly, directly and consistently. Members of the Cardinals organization raved here on Saturday about how well Matheny has done this year in replacing the legendary Tony La Russa -- and without any previous managerial experience. The same has been true of Ventura, whose players have responded to his focus on daily preparation.
Meanwhile: Ozzie Guillen remains distinctly old school. He dropped a lot of F-bombs after the Marlins' most recent loss.
• Scott Rolen got another big hit, and the Cincinnati Reds continue to separate themselves in the NL Central; they've taken the first two games in their series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The tension is mounting in this series, Bill Brink writes.
• Felix Hernandez wouldn't be human if his concentration hadn't wavered from time to time in recent years. The Seattle Mariners haven't been very good, they've been out of contention and a lot of the starts Hernandez has made have been meaningless in the standings.
But like a bull seeing a cape, the King always seems to respond when he faces a good team, such as the Yankees, and he dominated them on Saturday. From Larry Stone's story:
- "That was special stuff today," [manager Eric] Wedge said. "I told him, that's probably the most impressive start I've ever seen as a manager. And I've seen a lot of good and great pitchers pitch over the years."
The Phillies have three options with Cliff Lee: work out a trade with, let another team simply take him (and his salary) from waivers or pull him off waivers and keep him. Buster Olney writes that Philadelphia shouldn't choose the latter.