Here's a fun guessing game: only two starting pitchers on this year's free agent market have four (or more) All-Star appearances on their résumé. Can you name them? Hint: one of them just signed with the Boston Red Sox for $217 million over seven years.
The other will come at a significant discount, but maybe not as cheap as you might expect. Cliff Lee, a 37-year-old lefthander with an extensive track record, is looking to pitch again after missing the entire 2015 season due to a flexor tendon injury in his pitching elbow. CBS Sports' Jon Heyman reports that Lee has drawn interest from 15 teams so far this offseason.
Flip a coin. Depending on how it lands, the Detroit Tigers might be interested. And interested they should be, as Lee provides a tantalizing amount of upside for someone his age. He last saw action with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2014, and posted a 3.65 ERA and 2.98 FIP in 81 1/3 innings. In 2013, he threw 222 2/3 innings with a 2.87 ERA and league-leading 6.97 strikeout-to-walk ratio. If the stuff is still there, Lee could be a bargain in 2016.
Who is he?
Originally drafted by the Montreal Expos in 2000, Lee was part of the franchise-altering deal that also gutted Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore from the Expos' once-legendary farm system. Sent to the Cleveland Indians, Lee struggled to adjust at first. He posted a 4.88 ERA in his first three seasons before finishing fourth in the AL Cy Young voting in 2005. After two more rough seasons, Lee finally broke through, winning 22 games with a 2.54 ERA and 2.83 FIP en route to the 2008 Cy Young.
Lee would be shuttled from team to team over the next two years as clubs tried to maximize his value prior to free agency. He pitched for the Indians, Phillies, Seattle Mariners, and Texas Rangers in 2009 and 2010, continuing to put up stellar numbers along the way. After signing with the Phillies in 2011, Lee has posted a 2.89 ERA and 2.86 FIP in 747 2/3 innings. His run of consecutive 200-inning seasons came to an end in 2014, when the flexor tendon in his left elbow started to betray him.
Why should we care?
If Cliff Lee can return to being Cliff Lee, any sort of one-year deal is going to be a massive bargain for the team that signs him. Lee has impeccable command, with a career 5.2 percent walk rate. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is a gaudy 6.10 since 2008, and he was even striking out close to a batter per inning during his last few seasons with the Phillies. Even Steamer is optimistic about Lee's abilities, projecting a 3.62 ERA and 4.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2016. Odds are Mike Pelfrey won't come close to those numbers.
Why should we stay away?
Getting the old Cliff Lee sounds fun, but then you remember that we're talking about a 37-year-old with elbow problems who has made three starts since May 2014. As good as Lee once was, expecting him to return to that level is a major gamble. There's no guarantee he will stay healthy either, as he declined to have surgery on his balky elbow. The Tigers have already been through this rodeo with Joe Nathan, and we all know how that experiment ended.
With so many teams interested, it's hard to see Lee signing a "flyer" type deal. The Los Angeles Dodgers spent $10 million on Brett Anderson last season, while the Tigers have already guaranteed $8 million per year to Pelfrey. The days of a $1-2 million deal for a pitcher coming off an injury are over, and Lee is a fair bet to crack eight figures with his next contract. The Tigers already have five established starters -- one coming off an injury-riddled season of his own -- and a fair amount of depth in their system. Adding to the bullpen seems like a wiser use of resources.
Will he end up in Detroit?
As fun as it would be to add peak-Cliff Lee to this rotation, this probably will not happen. The Tigers have not been afraid to walk away from the negotiating table so far this offseason, refusing to up their offers to Joakim Soria and others. Lee is little more than a lottery ticket, and an expensive one at that.