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Playing Devil's Advocate: The Cliff Lee Deal

I’d been sitting on this topic for quite a while, wondering internally since the deal was made if it was a great move made by the Phillies. I’m talking about the Cliff Lee signing, which we all know was a very good, very prudent move by the organization.

We’ve had it scanned into our brains that you can never have enough pitching, and if you look around the league you’ll understand why that is. However, not many teams have high priced pitching like the Phillies do.

When Lee inked his deal to return to Philadelphia, people were beyond excited. I don’t remember even one person questioning the deal at the time. He came back after leaving against his own will, which made it even more impressive, so not much negative light was shed on it.

With his minor (very minor) injury surfacing recently – which was probably nothing more than Lee sleeping wrong on his throwing arm – plus a mammoth contract to boot, Lee will be looked over with a fine toothed comb every time he sneezes too loudly. It’s the way it is. Did this topic seep back into my subconscious after hearing about the small setback? Probably a little, I’ll admit some guilt there.

Looking past the latest bit of injury news, is anyone the least bit worried about a five-year deal to a pitcher?

We’re all well aware that his contract makes him the highest paid pitcher per season in MLB. At 32, Lee’s deal, which has a sixth year option built in, can run until 2016. Undoubtedly, he earned this contract, which some pundits believed was a steal since he left millions on the table from the New York Yankees. At $24 million per season, however, there is cause for concern.

Taking a look at the highest paid pitchers in the game, only a few are still competing at the highest level after signing such a deal.

Former Giant and Dodger Jason Schmidt had the 11th highest annual contract given out to a pitcher, which was signed in 2007 by L.A. following three all-star games in four years with San Francisco. He failed to earn his $15.67 million per year from 07-09, by starting 10 games and winning just three of them. Injuries derailed his career at age 34.

Well-known names like John Lackey, Carlos Zambrano, Barry Zito, Jake Peavy, A.J. Burnett, and Johan Santana all sit in the top 10 average annual salaries given to pitchers all-time.

Lackey makes an average of $16.5 million and will until 2014. He rewarded the Red Sox with a 4.40 ERA and 1.42 WHIP in 2010, the first year of his deal in Boston.

Zambrano has two seasons remaining at $18.3 million in Chicago. Not only has he given the Cubs organization a headache, but he gave them only 20 starts a year ago, although he did show signs of a turnaround late last year after being given time off to cool his temper.

Barry Zito. Enough said.

Jake Peavy has dealt with myriad injuries recently, all while bringing home $17.3 million per year until 2012. He hasn’t pitched a full season since winning the Cy Young in 2007.

A.J. Burnett makes $16.5 million per season. Is there one person on this earth who believes he’s worth anywhere near that?

The final guy on the list, and perhaps the most deserving of such an enormous pact, is Johan Santana. He went to the Mets with a bit of wear and tear, but has still put together three excellent seasons while battling some minor ailments. At the tail end of 2010, Santana suffered a torn labrum, likely keeping him out until midseason. While the $22 million-plus he makes may have been a fine deal at the time, Santana could be on the downswing of his career following such a major injury.

These ugly figures serve only as a reminder that things can go wrong quickly. Cliff Lee is clearly a different pitcher than he was back in 2007 when he was sent packing to the minors. He reinvented himself and became a Cy Young pitcher.

And please, don’t take this as me knocking the contract the Phillies handed Lee. For the shape of the market, it was a fair deal. But, like with all monster contract’s, there will be 100 times the scrutiny.

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