The two biggest free agents this off-season are Cliff Lee of the Texas Rangers and Carl Crawford of the Tampa Bay Rays. One is a left-handed pitcher with a solid track record and a nearly flawless postseason record. The other has quietly put up some of baseball’s best offensive numbers of the last several years, while playing gold glove-defence in left field.
Let’s ignore team needs for a moment and look at Crawford and Lee head-to-head. Which one is the better free agent for the money?
Let’s break it down…
TALENT — Last year, Crawford had career-highs of .307 AVG and 19 home runs. He also added 47 steals and his first Gold Glove. According to Fangraphs, Crawford was worth 6.9 Wins to the Rays. Lee went 12-9, and his 2.58 FIP suggests he was even better than his 3.18 ERA. Like Crawford, Lee was worth about 7 Wins last year (7.1) and has averaged 7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) the last three seasons. Crawford has averaged only averaged 5 WAR the last three years…ADVANTAGE: LEE
AGE — It is expected that Crawford, who will be 29 in 2011, will see his wheels start to slow soon, especially after nine seasons playing on the turf at Tropicana Field. But despite the light wear-and-tear, he has stayed healthy, having played at least 140 games in seven of the last eight seasons. Lee also has a history of staying healthy, having made at least 28 starts in six of the last seven seasons. However, Lee will be 32 next season, and any long-term deal given to a pitcher in his 30s has some risk involved. Looking to the future, Baseball Prospectus projects Crawford over the next four seasons as a 4-Win player each year before starting to tail off. On the other hand, Lee will only be worth about 3 Wins each season…ADVANTAGE: CRAWFORD
POSITION — Winning is about three things: pitching, pitching and pitching. And nothing in baseball is more valuable than a solid top-of-the-rotation left-handed starting pitcher. Crawford has the speed and glove to be a centre fielder, but he has steadfastly refused to move from left field. And defensively, only two positions have less value than left field (1B, DH)…ADVANTAGE: LEE
THE MARKET — If a team needs a top-flight corner outfielder, they have a couple of choices. In addition to Crawford, there is also the Phillies’ Jayson Werth, who is a little more consistent than Crawford, offers more power, but is also a couple of years older. But if a team needs a pitching Ace, Lee is the only option. Supply and Demand alone could drive Lee’s price skyward…ADVANTAGE: CRAWFORD
PRICE TAG — As long as the Yankees are in on the bidding, Lee will probably command a six-year deal, in the vicinity of $150 million ($26M per season). Crawford can probably be had for something closer to $15 million per season, but may demand a seven-year deal ($105M total)…ADVANTAGE: CRAWFORD
SUMMARY — If a team signs Lee and he leads them to the World Series in the next year or two and wins 4-5 playoff games en route to a championship, then he will be worth every penny. But Crawford is a talent that doesn’t come along very often. He can solidify a team’s defence and lineup. And in this post-steroid era, speed guys with good baseball skills may be more valuable than power hitters…CRAWFORD IS THE BETTER VALUE
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