MLB Lifers: Derek Jeter, Jimmy Rollins, Chipper Jones, Jason Varitek

Lifer: a person who has made a lifelong commitment.

Now that Lance Berkman has been traded from the Houston Astros to the New York Yankees, there are only 11 such players in all of Major League Baseball. Only nine teams have one. These players are, without a doubt, a rarity, and will likely become even more so in the future.

What qualifies a player as a lifer? He has to have played for only one team for at least 10 years. Not surprisingly, the players on this list all have a few things in common. For starters, they’re All Stars. This makes sense — why would a team keep a player for that long if he wasn’t any good?

Additionally, the teams that employ these guys have shown loyalty not often seen in professional sports and, to a certain extent, the same can be said about the players, too. The financial market, team performance, injuries, and some luck have also been factors.

To learn more about these lifers, I e-mailed writers — beat writers and bloggers — who cover the teams represented. The following are excerpts from their responses.

Jimmy Rollins, Shortstop, Philadelphia Phillies
Seasons (including this one): 11
Career Numbers (through 8/12/10): .273 BA, 150 HR, 336 SB, 3 All Star games, 3 Gold Gloves, 1 MVP, 1 Silver Slugger, 1 World Series title

“The Phillies were so confident in Rollins that they didn’t draft a shortstop before the fourth round from the time he became a regular in 2001 until 2006 (when they drafted Adrian Cardenas and Jason Donald). Since then, they have also drafted Travis Mattair (converted to third base), and Anthony Hewitt (has not played shortstop in the Minors).

They included Cardenas, Donald, and Jonathan Villar (not drafted but signed out of the Dominican Republic), in deals for Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee, and, most recently, Roy Oswalt. In short, Rollins has been a Phillie all this time due to a lack of competition. None of the aforementioned players ever did anything in the Minor Leagues to put Rollins’ job security in question.

Rollins signed a five-year, $40 million contract extension in June of 2005 that kept him in Philadelphia through 2010. The Phillies also had a club option for 2011 worth $8.5 million which they have exercised. If Rollins didn’t live up to the contract, the Phillies would have traded him, but the combination of Rollins’ below-market contract extension and his elite production both offensively and defensively have made him a mainstay in the City of Brotherly Love.

I don’t think Rollins will leave Philadelphia in the near future. We know he’s coming back in 2011, but I think the Phillies will find a way to sign him to a three- or four-year contract extension. We have learned that the Phillies front office values cost certainty very highly, which is why you saw so many players locked up in the past two off-seasons. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. doesn’t want to think of life without Rollins, as the organization’s top shortstop prospect is Freddy Galvis, who currently sports a .574 OPS in Double-A Reading. I’m not saying Galvis can’t improve but the Phillies are desperately hoping they don’t have to make any Major League-level decisions about Galvis for another two years at the earliest.”

–Bill Baer, Crashburn Alley

Mark Buehrle, Starting Pitcher, Chicago White Sox
Seasons: 11
Numbers: 145 wins, 3.82 ERA, 4 AS, 1 GG, 1 World Series title

Buehrle prepares to retire another batter during his 2009 perfect game. (Credit: RMelon)

“A number of unrelated factors need to converge for a player to remain with one team his entire career — team success at the right time, his contract status, industry economics, etc. Mark certainly does have a unique relationship with the White Sox, with Chicago and with the fans. Our franchise has enjoyed success throughout his career, from his rookie season (2000) to a World Series championship in 2005 to another division title in 2008. We’ve been consistently competitive, and Mark has played an incredibly important role in the organization’s success.

I think an important part in Mark’s relationship with the White Sox stems from the fact that he grew up in the Midwest. Mark is loyal, humble, and comfortable in Chicago and with the White Sox organization, and I think he shares many of the same life values as White Sox fans, Chicagoans and Midwesterners. This is his home, his friends and family are here, and he is comfortable in the Midwest.

Mark’s on-field accomplishments have certainly endeared him to White Sox fans, literally forever: a World Series title, no-hitter and perfect game. That’s a pretty impressive resume. Mark will always hold a special place in the hearts of White Sox fans.

You never say never in baseball, but I certainly have a hard time imagining him in another team’s uniform. None of us know for sure what the future will hold for Mark or the White Sox.”

–Scott Reifert, White Sox Vice President of Communications

Michael Young, Shortstop/Second Baseman/Third Baseman, Texas Rangers
Seasons: 11
Numbers: .301 BA (1 batting title), 154 HR, 80 SB, 6 AS (1 MVP), 1 GG

The Rangers blogosphere isn’t exactly abundant, and I couldn’t get any beat writers to respond to my questions. I can tell you that Michael Young was drafted and signed by Toronto before being traded to Texas in 2000. His contract is large for a middle infielder — he raked in $13 million these past two seasons and will get $16 million the next three. This means he won’t be a free agent until 2014 so it’s likely Young will remain a lifer for at least a few more years.

Vernon Wells, Center Fielder, Toronto Blue Jays
Seasons: 12
Numbers: .280 BA, 214 HR, 89 SB, 3 AS, 3 GG, 1 MVP, 1 SS

“I think Vernon Wells has been a lifer because he basically embodies what the Blue Jays franchise was all about. For approximately nine seasons, Carlos Delgado was the face of this franchise and I think Blue Jays management maybe saw a glimpse of that in Vernon Wells.

Delgado left the organization at the end of 2004 to test the free agent waters. Wells, on the other hand, continued to excel even without the protection in the lineup from Delgado.

Following the 2006 season, the Blue Jays rewarded Vernon with a huge contract worth $126 million over seven years. I think part of why the Blue Jays signed Vernon to such a lucrative deal was because they didn’t want their franchise player to get away (as had happened with Delgado).

It’s interesting because it’s been a very up and down relationship with Vernon Wells since that extension. His past few seasons have been injury-riddled, so expectations have been astronomically high for him to bounce back and put up similar numbers to his pre-contract years.

Vernon doesn’t seem very outspoken; however, I think he’s one of those silent leaders in the clubhouse. It’s funny because although Vernon is a veteran and is in his 12th season with the Blue Jays, I really don’t view him as your prototypical clubhouse leader that all the guys gather around. To me he seems like the type of player that would rather lead by example on the field.

Vernon is signed all the way through to 2014, which means he’ll be a free agent at the age of 36. With the way this team seems to be progressing more and more towards a youth movement, I can’t really see him fitting in with the plan of the Blue Jays after that. Maybe if he signs a 2-3 year extension and he takes a huge hometown discount, then he might stick around.”

–Ian Hunter, The Blue Jay Hunter

Eric Chavez, Third Baseman, Oakland Athletics
Seasons: 13
Numbers: .267 BA, 230 HR, 6 GG, 1 SS

“The A’s have been known for letting several of their “marquee” players get away via free agency after they’ve developed into superstars with Oakland. In March 2004, the A’s bucked the trend and signed Chavez to a six-year, $66 million contract extension. Shortly after that, injuries began derailing Chavez’s career, so much so that he hasn’t played more than 90 games in a season since 2006.

Those injuries certainly are a huge reason Chavez has been with the A’s his whole career. No team would be willing to trade for a player with such an expensive contract who simply hasn’t been on the field very much. Each of the past three seasons, the A’s have crossed their fingers entering the season that they might get a healthy year from him. What choice have they had? They’re paying him a huge salary whether he plays or not, so they’ve been hopeful about getting some sort of return on their investment. It just hasn’t worked out to this point.

This is the final year of his contract, and it’s very likely that the A’s and Chavez part ways. The question is whether Eric tries to continue his career with another team. The A’s loved his defense at third base and his consistent power production early in his career, that’s why they chose him as the player they made a long-term commitment in. It just hasn’t gone as planned, for either the team or Chavez.”

–Joe Stiglich, Bay Area News Group

Note: Earlier this week, Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Chavez wrote an e-mail saying, “I’ve pondered retirement. I’d lie if I said I didn’t. The truth of the matter is that I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Chavez has two bulging disks in his neck which have limited him to 33 games this year.

Jason Varitek, Catcher, Boston Red Sox
Seasons: 14
Numbers: .259 BA, 182 HR, 3 AS, 1 GG, 1 SS, 2 WS

Even during a Spring Training game, Varitek thinks about how to help his pitching staff. (Credit: Kelly O’Connor/sittingstill.net)

“Jason Varitek built a career in Boston because he has been a very good catcher both defensively and offensively when there were few others available on the market. His staying in Boston for the majority of his career is not solely based on his commitment to the team — he was willing to move elsewhere if the money was right.

Varitek has Scott Boras as an agent and could have chased the money in 2004 if owner John Henry did not agree to a big money deal. When his contract expired at the end of last season he again tested the market but after a poor year at the plate his options outside of Boston were limited.

Tek wanted to be sure his family stayed in one place. He demanded and received a no-trade clause as part of the 2004 deal which is why he was never a trade chip in any of GM Theo Epstein’s big trades.

The Red Sox also have been a big part of keeping Varitek happy. They named him captain in 2004 and also added a second year player option on his latest contract.

Varitek’s familiarity with the pitching staff has made him very valuable to the team even when he is not playing. He has helped players like Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester develop into front-of-the-rotation pitchers. These skills have made him more valuable to Boston than he might be to a new team with a different rotation.

This season Varitek filled in very well as a backup catcher before he was hurt, and regained the fan support he was starting to lose in the previous two seasons. He is a rare “lifer” in the post-free agency years but strangely enough, he has been on the team for less time than Tim Wakefield, who played with the Pirates for two years before coming to Boston in 1995. Tek will finish his playing career in Boston after next season and will likely become a minor league manager in the franchise.”

–Matt O’Donnell, Fenway West

Todd Helton, First Baseman, Colorado Rockies
Seasons: 14
Numbers: .325 BA (1 batting title), 328 HR, 5 AS, 3 GG, 4 SS

“Helton is part of this exclusive club because, for starters, he’s a great player. Only Hall of Fame calibers have the opportunity to stay with with one team.

He is from the Cal Ripken mold. He leads by example — not just on the field, but off it. He works hard, treats teammates with respect, and consistently sets a good example of how to deal with success and failure.

My hunch is that Helton would retire before he leaves Colorado. But that’s only an educated guess. It all depends on his back injury.”

–Troy E. Renck, The Denver Post 

Mariano Rivera, Relief Pitcher, New York Yankees
Seasons: 16
Numbers: 550 saves, 2.21 ERA, 11 AS, 5 WS (1 WS MVP)

Jorge Posada, Catcher
Seasons: 16
Numbers: .276 BA, 255 HR, 5 AS, 5 SS, 5 WS

Derek Jeter, Shortstop
Seasons: 16
Numbers: .315 BA, 233 HR, 317 SB, 11 AS (1 MVP), 1 ROY, 4 GG, 4 SS, 5 WS

Two of the three current Yankee lifers: Posada, left, and Rivera. (Credit: Keith Allison)

“I’ve been a fan of the Yanks since the day I was born; it came with the territory, so to speak, as my parents are both die-hard Yankee fans. I started writing about the team on a daily basis in mid-2004. So I’ve seen my fair share of Yankees come and go over the years, and yet, since I was 12 in 1995, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera have been constants.

I think what kept them around was a combination of good luck and money. All three were either draft picks or international free agent signings, and although the Yankees knew these kids had promise when they signed them all nearly 20 years ago, the club didn’t know just how good they would be.

Through the years, the Yanks nearly traded Posada and/or Rivera on more than one occasion. In fact, the two were almost packaged together for David Wells prior to the 1996 season. But by the time the three were approaching free agency, the Yanks knew they had a trio of special players and used their dollars to keep them around. It’s pretty much a matter of their being on the right team at the right time and winning the whole time.

Now, they’re getting older, but I can’t see them anywhere else. Posada may retire when his deal is up after 2011, and Rivera and Jeter are sure to stick around in the Bronx after this year. After all, the Yankees have already said they’ll take care of their lifers. You’ll never see them in another uniform.”

–Ben Kabak, River Avenue Blues

Chipper Jones, Third Basemen/Left Fielder, Atlanta Braves
Seasons: 17
Numbers: .306 BA (1 batting title), 436 HR, 6 AS, 1 MVP, 2 SS, 1 WS

“Chipper has been able to stay a Brave for so long due to a number of converging factors. Number one, he’s a very good player, but the team has also been very good for most of his MLB career, which means it makes more sense to pony up the cash to keep him around.

The Braves have always liked having Chipper around, but the only reason he’s stayed this long is because he also wanted to. He loves the city and the organization. He’s from the South and grew up watching the Braves. Everything aligned perfectly for him to stay in Atlanta for his entire career.

It takes a unique and special set of circumstances for something like this to happen, and Braves fans are very fortunate that they happened surrounding Chipper.”

–Peter Hjort, Capitol Avenue Club

Note: There was speculation that this season might be Jones’ last. When he suffered a season-ending ACL tear on Tuesday, it intensified those rumors. However, Jones has said he plans to report to Spring Training next year with the hopes of playing at least one more season for Atlanta.

Well, there you have it — only 11 players; ever fewer teams. Back in early June, well before Berkman was traded, I e-mailed Brian McTaggart, the Houston Astros beat writer for MLB.com. Here is what he had to say: “Berkman could be a free agent after this year if the Astros don’t pick up his option, and he would be willing to go elsewhere, but only to a team in contention. Berkman is a native Texan who is proud to be so. He would love to finish his career here and that is his preference, but if he could go somewhere at the end and win then he would be open to that to.”

Berkman’s willingness to leave Houston shows that some players still value winning, though not necessarily above money, location, etc. This list of players — and the overwhelming majority of players who don’t stick with one team — show that lifers are many things, but perhaps above all else, they’re lucky.

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Isiah Thomas to Return to New York Knicks?

The NBA offseason has been highlighted by really stupid decisions: Chris Paul considering LeBron’s marketing team, the Hawks making Joe Johnson the highest-paid free agent of the year, and of course, The Decision.

But when it comes to unwise basketball decisions, how could the New York Knicks not be involved? To get into the act, the Knicks are trying to re-hire Isiah Thomas.

Yes, the Knicks’ former president and coach, the man responsible for crippling the organization for years, is in line for a consulting job with the team.

Let’s start with what should be obvious: This would be a min-boggling hire. Unless he finds a time machine and puts on a jersey, Thomas should not be allowed anywhere near a basketball program. The Indiana Pacers can attest to this. The CBA can attest to this. Florida International will soon be able to attest to this. And surely, no doubt about it, (how is this not painfully apparent?!) the New York Knicks can attest to this.

Or not. Knicks owner James Dolan must have a very short memory. That or his inner voice is awfully similar to Chris Paul’s. You know, the one that said, “Hey, I liked the way LeBron handled this whole free agency thing. I should hire his marketing people.”

The Knicks’ personnel decisions are not my concern though. What’s most troubling to me is that the NCAA and NBA would allow this. There are reports that David Stern and the league are reviewing the legality of having a college coach take a job with an NBA team. They should rule against it, though I can see why they wouldn’t be overly concerned with it.

You don’t want this man working for your basketball team in any capacity. (Credit: Keith Allison)

It’s the NCAA that should certainly be stepping in here, yet they’ve remained silent on the issue. How can they allow a college coach to advise an NBA team? How was there not a rule already in place to prevent this?

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was wrong about expansion, but he’s on the mark regarding Isiah. “It seems like a conflict,” he told the media yesterday. “You’re coaching kids and recommending them to pro guys. Well, if a pro guy comes in and asks about a kid and you’re a consultant to a different team, you wouldn’t be able to do that. You wouldn’t be able to help that kid.” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski spoke out against it as well.

The NCAA can’t afford to allow this to happen. With big-time college athletics already having so many problems, the organization’s best bet is probably to rip up the rule book and start fresh. For now though, the course of action should be to ban Thomas, or anyone else in his position, from taking a job with an NBA team.

Two things are clear: The Knicks shouldn’t consider hiring Thomas, and such a move should not be allowed. The former is another poor decision by a misguided franchise. The latter has consequences for all of basketball.

Update, 8/12/10: Thomas has withdrawn his name from consideration for the Knicks consultant’s job. “After speaking with Commissioner [David] Stern and Knicks executives, it has become apparent that my new agreement violates certain NBA bylaws,” Thomas said in a statement. Thumbs up for the NBA; thumbs down for the NCAA.

Mike Pelfrey: New York Mets Pitcher Looking to Regain Form

I really want Mike Pelfrey to do well. My will for him to succeed is greater than it is for any other Met. I realize Jose Reyes is probably more important to the team winning games, and in the end, that’s all I really care about. But I’ve been following Big Pelf’s career in a unique way, and take a special pride in watching him pitch well.

I was at Shea Stadium on July 8, 2006 when the 22-year-old Pelfrey made his major league debut in the second game of a doubleheader against the Florida Marlins. He was the No. 9 overall draft pick the year before, so Mets fans knew his name and were expecting big things.

Pelfrey’s first inning wasn’t exactly awe-inspiring. The first hitter he faced singled and stole second; Pelf hit a batter. But he also retired two of the best hitters in baseball — striking out Hanley Ramirez and getting Miguel Cabrera to ground into a double play to end the inning.

By the time Pelfrey stepped back on the mound, the Mets were up 5-0 thanks to a grand slam by Jose Valentin (who would nearly hit another the next inning, settling for a three-run triple). Pelf would finish his day after going five innings and allowing three runs (two earned) on five hits. He walked four and struck out three, to go along with his hit batter and wild pitch.

Pelfrey got the win thanks to 17 runs of support (16 while Pelf was pitching), and the Mets beat the Marlins — or should I say the Jets beat the Dolphins? — 17-3. (Interesting note: Pelf has not beaten the Fish since; 1-6 in 11 starts with a 5.79 ERA.)

I remember expecting more strikeouts (perhaps a sign of things to come) and that he couldn’t throw his curveball for a strike, but you can’t be too critical of a player’s debut.

Pelfrey made three more starts for New York that season, but the 2006 Mets were not a team fit for a developing rookie — they had a division to win and an epic League Championship Series to play.

Pelf started the 2007 season with the big league club, but would be demoted and recalled twice during the year. He started 15 games that season, and I was at Shea for three of his outings, including his first appearance in relief. I remember going to a game on a Friday night against the Brewers with my friend John, then deciding to stay at my brother’s place in the city and go to the game the following afternoon. All of us were mad because Pelfrey was scheduled to pitch that day, so we likely wouldn’t see a second straight win (sure enough, the Mets lost 12-3). In fact, the Mets were 0-3 in the Pelfrey games I saw that year. He finished the season 3-8 with a 5.57 ERA.

A young Pelf, back in the days when he wore a mouth piece
and chewed on it incessantly while on the mound. (Credit:
Wknight94)

The 2008 season was a different story and fans started to see why Pelf was such a high draft choice. He won 13 games and sported a 3.72 ERA. My attitude about showing up at Shea for his starts changed dramatically.

I saw him pitch four times in ’08 and while the Mets only won two of those games, Pelf had some memorable performances. In May, he took a no-hitter into the seventh against Washington but lost the game 1-0. He threw seven shutout innings against the Giants in July. And in August, I was in the stands for Pelfrey’s first complete game, a three-hitter against the Braves.

The following year I was at the first game in Citi Field, when Pelf’s third pitch to leadoff batter Jody Gerut cleared the wall in right field. Perhaps it was another sign of things to come, as 2009 was supposed to be Pelfrey’s breakout year. Instead, he regressed, posting a sub-.500 record and a 5.03 ERA.

I was at Pelf’s fine performance against the Yankees at Citi in May, as well as his blow-up against the Reds earlier this month. All in all I’ve seen Pelf pitch in person 14 times (13 starts). I’m nearly certain I haven’t seen any other starting pitcher more than that. But as I’ve noted, it’s not just quantity, it’s importance. I’ve witnessed some of Pelfrey’s historic starts. If you asked Pelfrey right now which big league starts he remembers most, I’d guess the debut, Citi Field opener (even if he doesn’t want to remember that one), and his first complete game would be right up there.

He’s a home-grown product, a much-hyped first-round pick with loads of potential. After starting this year 10-2 and looking like an All-Star Game snub, Pelfrey is winless in his last five starts. His ERA has ballooned from 2.71 to an even four. The sponsor of Pelfrey’s Baseball Reference page chose to write, “Is 2010 the year that Mike Pelfrey realizes his potential?” Many thought the answer would be yes, but this latest string of poor outings is leaving plenty of doubts.

When he makes his start tonight against the Arizona Diamondbacks, I won’t be in attendance, but like many Mets fans I will be watching. I’ll just feel like I have a little more stake in his performance.

2010 MLB Predictions: Midseason Review

Back in March, I made my 2010 MLB season predictions. You didn’t think I was just going to forget about that, did you? As you’ll soon find out, I’m not here to brag; just hold myself accountable. With the All Star break upon us, it’s a good time to revisit my picks.

American League
The Yankees have the best record in baseball and sit atop the East, with Tampa Bay and Boston right behind. Toronto is playing .500 ball, which is slightly better than what I imaged. Baltimore, on the other hand, has the worst record in baseball. I expected the Orioles to improve but they are a whopping 27 games out of first.

So far, I was right about the tight race at the top of the Central. I am a little nervous, however, since my World Series champions, the Minnesota Twins, enter the break in third place, 3.5 games out.

I said Texas was a year away from seriously contending, but it looks like I was wrong. The Rangers lead the West with 50 wins and just added Cliff Lee from Seattle. Speaking of the Mariners: uh, yeah, about that. I thought the combo of Lee and Felix Hernandez at the top of the rotation would be enough for a playoff berth. And it may well have been, if Seattle had any offense at all (the Mariners have scored the fewest runs in the AL).

National League
I hate to say it, but I still think Philadelphia can win the East. The Phils are in third but only 4.5 games back. I’m not ready to give this division to the Braves. The team I know best, the Mets, is in second, which is where I picked them.

I liked the Reds before the season started and I wish I had had the guts to put them in second. They enter the break in first, a game ahead of the Cardinals. I still think the Cards will win the Central, as their pitching is a lot better than Cincinnati’s. The gap between second and third is bigger in this division than in any other, with the Brewers 7.5 games behind St. Louis.

Much like in the AL, I didn’t exactly nail my Wild Card pick in this league either. The top four teams in the West are separated by only four games, but my WC pick, the Diamondbacks, are 34-55 and 17.5 games back. In my defense, I thought Brandon Webb would be back a lot sooner. If you had told me Webb wouldn’t pitch until August at the earliest and Aaron Heilman would be the team’s closer by June, I just may have picked this team to finish last.

As is usually the case with preseason picks, midseason is too early to judge them. Only one of my division champ selections is currently in first (Yankees) but none are more than 4.5 games back. I’ll revisit my picks again in November after the Twins have just won the World Series in their new outdoor stadium. In Minnesota. In November.

Basketball at the Park

Ten middle school kids go to the park after school to play basketball. Like any group of children, some are better than others. Lucas and Devin are two of the best players in the neighborhood. Charlie is a notch below those two, but still a starter on the school team. The other seven kids vary in ability but none are standouts.

They shoot around for 10 or 15 minutes, chatting about TV shows, girls, and video games, before Lucas finally says, “Let’s start. I’ll make teams: Me, Devin, Charlie, Marcus, and Patrick.” Marcus and Patrick look at each other and smile. The five who were not called look at each other also, equally surprised but far less excited.

“Sounds good to me,” Devin says. “Me too,” adds Charlie.

Lucas says “ball in” and the game begins. His team dominates, as expected, but they don’t make new teams for the next game, or the one after that. Some other local kids show up and challenge the winners. On this beautiful spring afternoon, they play for hours.

Over the course of the day, the Lucas-Devin-Charlie trio wins more than it loses, but does lose a few. After the losses, the feelings are obvious: Lucas and his teammates are in shock, while the opposing players slap hands in celebration, discussing in detail specific plays that led to the victory.

After the wins though, the reactions are far less telling. The losing team certainly wishes it had won, but there’s no bickering among the teammates. But how does Lucas’s squad feel? It’s impossible for an outsider to know. You’d have to ask them.

LeBron James Free Agent Announcement

The face. The game. The seven-year NBA career. These things sometimes make you forget that LeBron James is only 25 years old.

And while some of his antics this past year would be considered immature even for a 25-year-old, it’s probably not fair to hold James to the same standard as your average 20-something. When you’re one of the best at what you do there is going to be extra scrutiny and a large number of people who don’t like you. And come Thursday night, the fans of all but one NBA team will have another reason to dislike James, all claiming they were spurned by “The King.”

Thursday is when James will announce which team he’ll be signing with, doing so during a one-hour television special that he is calling “The Decision.” While my eyes are rolling, everyone else’s will be watching ESPN tomorrow night. All eyes on LeBron — just how he wants it.

Some have suggested that James’s free agency circus stems from his decision to skip college and go directly to the NBA. He missed out on the recruiting process then, so he’s making up for it now. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he lined up the hats of the six teams courting him, much like many high school athletes now do when announcing their college choice.

Of course, for the high schoolers, the ordeal ends when they choose a school. We can only hope that James’s “look at me” behavior will end after he announces his decision. And, given his age, it’s reasonable to expect that he will mature in the next few years. (Let’s ignore the fact that Alex Rodriguez will be 35 in a couple of weeks.)

After all, it’s not entirely James’ fault. He sneezes, and every major sports news website has a new headline. Sometimes I wonder whether the interest warrants all the coverage, or if the market is so saturated that people have no choice but to become interested. Regardless, James lives in a world with a 24/7 news cycle where nothing goes unreported.

But he loves it. He craves the attention and tomorrow’s TV event is further proof. Can we all contemplate how absurd this is? I feel like this is a joke that’s coming true: Hey, LeBron should turn his announcement into an hour-long television special! It’s laughable, and only confirms the thoughts of those who feel James’ ego is out of control.

At least the advertising money from the program is going to charity. I’ll consider that James’s first step towards adulthood.

Should the New York Mets Trade for Cliff Lee?

I’ve always liked playing the role of manager more than the role of general manager, and this week has been no different. I’d much prefer to be in Jerry Manuel’s cleats than Omar Minaya’s shoes. The reason? Cliff Lee.

Lee is Seattle’s ace, a pitcher who won the Cy Young for Cleveland in 2008, got traded to the Phillies in July of last year and led them to the World Series, and was traded again this past offseason after Philadelphia acquired Roy Halladay. He is a free agent after this season.

I am having a difficult time deciding whether or not I want the Mets to trade for Lee, though. Here’s why:

They’re only prospects…
Reports are saying that a package of minor leaguers will likely be enough to get Lee. If that’s the case, then the Mets could significantly upgrade their team without giving up anyone whose absence will hurt the team in 2010.

And they may never help the team, as prospects often don’t pan out. If you have the opportunity to trade players who might amount to something for a player who’s already a star, you do it, right?

…but they are prospects.
To recognize the value of holding onto prospects, the Mets can look at their very own infield. Ike Davis (23 years old) and Ruben Tejada (20) made their major league debuts this season and have been instrumental in the team’s success, while Jose Reyes and David Wright (both 27) are also home-grown. That’s without even mentioning starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey.

Youngsters such as Jenrry Mejia, Wilmer Flores, and Josh Thole could be the next wave of players to come up through the minor leagues and excel with the Mets. It would be a shame to see promising young players traded, especially since watching home-grown players perform well is more satisfying (at least to me) than signing a free agent star.

Lee is very, very good…
After starting the season on the disabled list, Lee is 7-3 with a 2.45 ERA for a last-place Seattle team. In his 12 starts, he has the same number of walks as complete games (five). Five walks is a good outing for Oliver Perez.

Mets fans who want Lee think he can do the same thing for New York that he did for Philadelphia last season. The Mets are right in the thick of the race, but there are still questions about the rotation: Is Hisanori Takahashi better suited for the bullpen? Can R.A. Dickey maintain his impressive start? My gut tells me “yes” and “probably not,” so adding a quality starter, especially one as awesome as Lee, would be a great thing for the Mets.

…but nothing is guaranteed.
Contrary to what some fans seem to believe, adding Lee doesn’t automatically earn the Mets World Series rings. Putting Lee at the top of the rotation with Pelfrey and Johan Santana looks great on paper, but dealing away top prospects to get him puts even more pressure on the team.

What are the expectations for a Mets team that includes Lee? A playoff berth? A World Series appearance? A championship? If the Mets mortgage some of their future to acquire Lee and fail to meet these expectations, the season will be a big disappointment.

He may not be worth a rental…
World Series titles don’t grow on trees (at least not for this New York team), so say the Mets trade for Lee and win it all, but he walks after the season — would it be worth it? Probably, but that is of course the best case scenario. A more likely result is that the Mets don’t win it all, in which case they would have dealt prospects for nothing.

…but he’s probably not worth re-signing either.
Lee will turn 32 at the end of August. He’s clearly in his prime right now, as he’s been dominating batters since the 2008 season. But unless Lee is unlike all the other star pitchers who have hit the free agent market over the last 10 years, he is going to want a very large, multi-year contract.

He may be worth the money for the first couple of years of that deal, but by the end of that fourth year, when he’s 36, it’s unlikely Lee will be performing at the level of his salary. No, it’s not my money, but no team has an unlimited budget, so cash tied up with an underperforming is money that could have been used to get someone else.

This is why I’m glad I’m not Minaya. It’s unclear what the right decision is, and even after he makes up his mind, it may take a few years before we learn whether it was the smart move.

Do you think the Mets should trade for Cliff Lee? What are your feelings about dealing prospects in general? Let me know in the comments section or via e-mail at andrew@thesportsjournalists.com.

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