(Not to ignore Clayton Kershaw‘s outing last night, of course, but WordPress was down at the time, so I couldn’t put anything up. He’s, uh, good at baseball. Remember when I said last month you absolutely have to get him signed long-term this offseason? That goes double now.)
I’m kidding, of course, because it’s not that cut-and-dry. Lilly’s going to turn 35 in January, and he’s finishing up a 4/$40m contract bestowed upon him by the Cubs before 2007. His Dodger career got off to an astounding but clearly unsustainable start – four ER in 28 innings over his first four starts. There was absolutely no way he was going to keep that up, as I noted at the time, and he didn’t. He’s got a 6.91 ERA over his last five starts, allowing eight homers, though the number is a bit inflated by two outright disasters.
If Lilly’s not as good as he was when he arrived in Los Angeles, nor is he as bad as he’s looked lately. Looking back at his career, he’s had one surprisingly terrible season (2005, 5.32 FIP), one surprisingly good season (2009, 3.65 FIP), and an entire decade worth of seasons between 4.15 and 4.75, with his career average FIP sitting at (surprise) 4.45. That’s a bit better than league-average, and combined with his durability (other than that 2005, at least 177 IP every year since 2002), handedness (lefty), improved control (2009 and 10 are his two top BB/9 years) and association with veteran-y terms like “he just knows how to play the game the right way”, there’s real value to a player like that.
But there’s also warning signs. Lilly’s fastball, never all that noteworthy in the first place, has declined in each of the last five seasons, down over 3 MPH from 2006. He’s allowing more flyballs than he’s ever had before (hence the homers), and his K/9 has decreased for the second year in a row. The lessened velocity may not be as important for a so-called “crafty lefty” as it might be for someone who lives and dies on heat, but it’s not a good trend.
As Jon Weisman noted at Dodger Thoughts, the history of giving long-term deals to older players (he mentions Randy Wolf, Derek Lowe, and Casey Blake, though you could of course go on for hours), especially pitchers, rarely ends well. It’s not hard to think that Lilly’s going to fall squarely into that same camp.
Now, I do think Lilly can be an effective pitcher in 2011. I’m less sure about 2012, and all bets are off about 2013, when he’ll be 37 years old. And that’s why you offer him arbitration – because I’m okay if he accepts it, and I doubt he will.
Let’s take the latter point first. You don’t think he can get three years on the open market? Just look at the list of free agent pitchers this winter. Sure, Cliff Lee is the jewel, but after him… Carl Pavano? Bronson Arroyo? Javier Vazquez? Jeremy Bonderman? It’s not pretty out there, and you could argue that Lilly is the best lefty option besides Lee, and the 3rd or 4th best overall. He held up his end of his deal with the Cubs pretty well, and while he won’t get $40m again, there’s definitely a three-year deal out there for him if he wants it. At 35, this is almost certainly his last chance to sign a multi-year deal, plus he’s seen firsthand how unlikely it looks that the Dodgers are World Series contenders next year. Yes, he’d be passing up a larger payday in 2011, but the lure of a long-term deal and a chance to win might be too much to pass up.
Besides, if he doesn’t accept, that’s two draft picks for a system which badly needs them (Lilly currently profiles as a Type A free agent). Even if he does accept, it’s not the end of the world. It’s not like the Dodgers don’t desperately need a starter (if not two or three), right? Yes, the arbitration cost of $13m or so is more than you really want to pay for that role, but A) you’re going to have to pay for pitching one way or another and B) with his leverage diminished by the Type A tag, they’d probably come to terms on a more reasonable two-year deal anyway.
If Lilly’s coming back to the Dodgers, I want it be on a one-year deal, two at the most. Offering arbitration is the only way to make that happen, and it carries with it the benefit of draft picks should he decline. Your other choice is to not offer, and then either see him leave for nothing, or even worse, be the team that foolishly gives him a three- or four-year deal. It’s risky, but…
Verdict: Offer him arbitration.
Totally unrelated, but deep within this story from the OC Register is the news that prospect Jerry Sands, who destroyed the minor leagues with a .960 OPS this year, is going to get some time at 3B in the Arizona Fall League. Sands is a 1B/OF, but it’s no secret that the Dodgers are totally barren of 3B prospects right now. I have no idea whether he can do it, but his bat is probably only a year away; it’s certainly an interesting thought.