Cliff Lee was spectacular last night. As advertised, really. Master of puppets, pulling strings, twisting minds, smashing dreams, the whole thing.
It’s awesome to watch, especially when it happens on a big stage against an excellent Yankee lineup. But it still doesn’t mean the Mets should pursue Lee this offseason.
I’ve long held that signing Lee to a long-term, big-money deal would ultimately do the Mets more harm than good, seeing as he’s a 32-year-old pitcher likely to require a contract that takes him deep into his 30s. In the comments section here recently, though, Metropolyglot made a good point that made me briefly reconsider my position:
Lee is the best free agent pitcher available for quite awhile. Look around the league — teams have made a habit of locking up young elite pitchers (Jimenez, J. Johnson, Lincecum, Hernandez, Price). Furthermore, they’re all more or less signed to team-friendly deals. The only reasonable get is probably Zack Greinke and that’s not until 2013. If you’re serious about contending in 2012, you have to sign Cliff Lee, or prepare to rape the farm system.
But I still say signing Lee — at least to the type of deal he’s expected to get — would amount to a mistake for a team with finite resources. The odds just seem so long that he’ll be worth anything like the type of money he’ll be earning three and four years into the new contract.
That means, like Metropolyglot suggests, that the Mets likely won’t be finding an ace on the open market for a reasonable cost anytime soon. To that I say a couple of things:
First, who knows what happens from here? It’s easy and reasonable to look around the league at all the great pitchers, see that they’re mostly locked up and conclude that the Mets will never have a great pitcher, but things change in weird ways all the time in baseball. Hell, look at Lee’s emergence in the 2008 season. Or, for a perhaps more reasonable, less miraculous-seeming example, look at the way Dan Haren became available at the deadline this year.
Second — and something that comes up here a lot — there’s no hard and fast rule that you need a true, branded ace to contend. Don’t get me wrong: It helps. Having great players is an excellent step toward having a great team. But a strong, deep pitching staff combined with a potent lineup can make a pennant run too. Plus there’s enough regular fluctuation in baseball that if you have a few good, healthy pitchers in your rotation there’s some reasonable chance one can pitch like an ace over the course of 32 games.
And the best way to find an ace is still to develop one. Right now Jenrry Mejia appears to be the Mets’ best shot at one — and that’s at least a couple of years down the road. Plus I suppose there’s some chance Jon Niese goes all Cliff Lee and turns into an ace.
But investing in scouting, overslot draft picks and international free agents would go a long way to assuring that the Mets find a frontline starter eventually, or at least the right pieces to trade for one.