As usually seems to be the case whenever the hot topic of discussion is a player seeking approximately $25 million per season over an extended number of years, the Alex Rodriguez contract is being invoked as evidence of the dangers of assuming such enormous payroll obligations if you're not a top-spending team, with ESPN.com's Buster Olney being the latest to join in the media fracas: "If the Rangers intend to include Lee in a payroll of $80 million to $100 million in the years ahead, then no, it makes no sense whatsoever. It's A-Rod all over again: Tom Hicks gave Rodriguez $252 million and within three years he figured out the situation was completely unworkable, because one player, as good as he was, tied up too much money."
The implication here is that this marriage couldn't possibly work if Texas maintained even a mid-range payroll ($90-110 million) over the next 3-4 seasons, which is exactly the sort of absolute statement that tends to miss the point in the realm of baseball analysis. It can work, but there's also a decent chance that it won't work without the right pieces surrounding Lee signed at the right amounts. Holding up the oft-criticized A-Rod deal as justification for steering clear of Lee isn't the correct way to go about things, but there are a few insights to be gleaned from that signing (and its unfortunate ending).
One of the things you'll hear from time to time is a solitary, plaintive wail about how A-Rod didn't help put the Rangers over the top, or -- taken a step further down the road of irrationality -- didn't help them win. Sometimes, the origin is Tom Hicks, but let the record show that A-Rod, as a nine-win-per-season player from 2001-03, banked a market-level salary commensurate with his performance at a time when the average price of one win above replacement acquired in the free market was still around $2.7 million. At that time, a team, given an infinite supply of free agents available at market-level prices, could have built a 90-91 win team with only $110-115 million. In 2010, it would require something more along the lines of $180-190 million. As I've written before, it was the inefficient spending (e.g. blowing big money on little value) and terrible pitching and discombobulated organizational plan that marred the A-Rod era, rather than A-Rod himself.
Like with the A-Rod signing, the hope with a Cliff Lee signing is that he can generate value commensurate with his salary and at least stand tall as a market-level signing (as A-Rod was), but the challenge now is the diminished number of dollars available to add the necessary number of wins to reach the playoffs. A major league team needs about 42 wins above replacement per season to fight into the 90-91 win range and have a good shot at reaching the playoffs; during the A-Rod era, and given those $100-105 million payrolls, the Rangers needed to spend about $2.4 million for each additional win to build such a team (against the going market rate of $2.7 million, or thereabouts). In 2010, assuming an identical $105 million payroll (which is a fairly aggressive projection), the Rangers need to spend something closer to $2.2 million for each additional win, whereas the going market rate is more like $4.5 million.
Put another way, this scenario would have the Rangers with the same amount of payroll space after signing Lee as they had after signing A-Rod ($80 million), but, at the same time, in need of a greater number of total wins above replacement, in a market where that $80 million buys quite a bit less value in the open market than it did 8-9 years prior. The Rangers would need to be able to create more total value with far less money -- and therein lies the danger, and the arguments that Texas will have a much smaller margin for error with a $24-25 million commitment towards Lee.
All of which serves to highlight the importance of cost-controlled talent, and particularly the pre-arbitration talent that's still banking league-minimum salaries -- only the very highest-spending teams could contend for the post-season without some sub-$1 million salaries sprinkled around the roster. It also highlights the obvious fact that the Rangers would be in substantial trouble if Lee underperformed and/or succumbed to injury, or if they overpaid for poor value-generating mediocrity (spending a grand total of $13.5 million for 0.6 wins above replacement from Frank Catalanotto stands out in this regard) ... and the thing about it is that even subsequent market-level signings push Texas further away from the $2.2 million per win target number, should they land Lee.
Trying to use the A-Rod contract as a basis for shooting down the notion of Texas being able to support Lee's contract is, of course, lazy, and downright misleading at worst -- but then again, trying to paint the A-Rod signing as a mistake in and of itself fits those same conditions. The Rangers can pull this off, but just understand that this isn't analogous to the A-Rod situation, and that without a substantial payroll bounce far beyond $100 million, this at least has the potential to be the financial quagmire for Texas that the A-Rod situation -- despite the media's and ex-ownership's perception -- never really was.