Andrew Baggarly captured my thoughts perfectly with his tweet.
I for one don't really see what all the fuss is about with Cliff Lee. He'll turn 33 next August, and be 37 when the deal is up (38 if the 6th year option vests) and he's getting paid to be a #1 starter (no matter where he lands in the rotation) on a team that already has 2 (possibly 3) of them, and while he has been a very good pitcher, he pitched to the tune of a 3.98 ERA for the Rangers during the regular season last year playing against the anemic offenses in the AL West down the stretch run. He pitched very well vs Tampa Bay and the Yankees in the ALDS and ALCS, but got beat twice by the Giants in the World Series, going 0-2 with a 6.94 ERA and getting out pitched twice by Tim Lincecum. The Giants were able to get to Lee by being very aggressive (as opposed to the Yanks and Rays who try to wait pitchers out) and I'm willing to bet that more than one team took notice of how well that strategy worked.
Cliff Lee had a rocky start to his career, being somewhere between average and bad from 2002-2007 before he won the CY award in 2008 (He was even sent down to the minors in 2007). Lee's transformation came when he cut his walk rate down to 1.4/9 IP in 2008. His K/9 rate has been steady around 7 for his entire career, meaning that he didn't learn new stuff, become more deceptive or start throwing harder, he simply started walking fewer batters. His BAA has been fairly consistent throughout his career with a best of .240 in 2010 and a worst of .284 in 2007 (.260 career) also meaning that he isn't getting harder to hit, just harder to reach base against, possibly because hitters were waiting for free passes and finding themselves behind in the count much more often.
So what exactly am I trying to say? Well.. lets let some numbers talk.
Let's call this first pitcher "Z"
|AL (7 yrs)||102||63||.618||3.55||222||1430.1||1228||564||125||1.250||7.7||0.9||3.5||6.9|
And here are the numbers for Cliff Lee:
|162 Game Avg.||16||9||3.85||218||219||93||112||1.256||9.1||1.0||2.2||6.9|
Any guesses on who "Z" is? Well, its Barry Zito's statistics before signing his mega-deal with the Giants (where he has been almost worthless since). Zito had more wins, a better winning %, a lower ERA, a lower WHIP, and a lower BAA than Mr. Lee. And Lee is supposedly the second coming? Really? Remember all the so called experts telling us how Zito wasn't as good as people thought he was, and that his numbers told a different story than the public perception did. Well, isn't that the case with Cliff Lee also? I'm not saying that Lee is going to wet himself every time he takes the mound like Zito has seemed to do recently, but I am saying that he is not one of the very elite pitchers in the game. He never was and never will be.
One could argue that his true value lies in his postseason performances, I would counter that he doesn't own a ring and he was out-pitched by Tim Lincecum while facing a much weaker lineup than Lincecum was. (Also remember that Zito outdueled Johan in the Metrodome in the 2006 ALDS). Even if he is a tremendous postseason pitcher, paying someone that amount of money for such a limited sample size is completely ridiculous. Matt Cain threw 21 IP and gave up 0 ER in the 2010 postseason and you don't hear anyone on ESPN waiting in line to kiss his butt.
If we compare Cliff Lee before his CY to the wildly inconsistent Jonathan Sanchez (Lee won his CY at 29 and Sanchez will turn 28 next year), Sanchez actually has a better BAA and ERA (.233 to .268 and 4.26 to 4.63). Also, Sanchez is coming of a career best year in which he lead the league in BAA so there may be an even bigger discrepancy between the two (before age 29) after the 2011 season.
I'm not saying that Cliff Lee sucks, or that he will revert back to old form, but he does not have a long time proven track record, and he'll be 38 when this deal runs out. Pitchers do tend to age a bit better than hitters do, but even so, 38 is old for a MLB player no matter how you look at it. It seems general mangers and the general public are both under the same spell, that Cliff Lee deserves to be paid like an ace.