Cliff Lee MLB Trade Rumors: Rating All 30 Teams' Chances To Sign Ace Southpaw

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IOctober 25, 2010

Cliff Lee MLB Trade Rumors: Rating All 30 Teams' Chances To Sign Ace Southpaw

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    Cliff Lee has done alright for himself this season.

    The left-handed ace starter of the Texas Rangers hits free agency this winter, with rumors already swirling that the New York Yankees are preparing a mega-offer for him. He will have the attention, if not the courtship, of virtually every big-league team.

    Lee's 2010 stats look impressive enough entirely out of context: 12-9, 3.18 ERA, 212.1 innings and a staggering 10.28 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Consider, though, that Lee did all this despite missing the first month of the season. In fact, though he finished just 10th in the American League in innings pitched, he was easily first in innings per start.

    Lee's command and aggressiveness make him extraordinarily efficient, and his playoff performances so far (3-0, 24 innings, 34 strikeouts and just one walk through Monday) prove he has the entire package. Any of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball would get much better by signing Lee.

    This is not utopia, though, and many teams simply have no chance. Who's out of the running? Who might sneak in as a dark horse? Could the Yankees really land another top free agent? Read on.

30. Tampa Bay Rays

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    Tampa ace David Price didn't have the sort of playoff starting debut for which he might have hoped, but Price—and a handful of other talented hurlersremains under Rays control in 2011.

    The depth of the Tampa rotation allows them the luxury of ignoring Lee altogether, though the team probably has little choice in that regard. Ownership has announced its intent to slash payroll into the $45-million range. Lee figures to make half that per season on a long-term deal somewhere. but obviously, he is no fit for the Rays.

29. Kansas City Royals

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    The Royals have a top-tier ace in the fold already, and they're even trying to trade him this winter. Rumor has it that the Royals will look to move the escalating salary of 2009 AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, as ownership calls for a payroll reduction.

    Even if the team were to move Greinke and decide to bid aggressively on Lee as his replacement (which seems like taking three rights to go left), it's tough to imagine that they could put together a package of interest to Lee. Monetarily, of course, it would be tough to match the two sides.

    One interesting note, if you are in the business of hoping against hope: Lee is a native of Arkansas, and Kansas City is closer to his home town than all but one other big-league city: St. Louis.

28. Florida Marlins

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    The frugal Fish are already invested heavily in their incumbent ace, Josh Johnson, who had a terrific season. If (and it's a big "if") Florida feels an urge to spend on someone this winter, the more likely option might be free-agent catcher Victor Martinez. The Marlins' backstop spot has been an offensive vacuum since the departure of Ivan Rodriguez.

    Lee would dominate in the heavy air and roomy dimensions of Florida's home park, but the money and Lee's ostensible desire to win make this idea a non-starter.

27. Cleveland Indians

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    Lee, of course, won the 2008 Cy Young award as an Indian before beginning his world tour—he has pitched for three teams in the last 13 months.

    When it comes to free agents, though, the next big name the Indians sign will be the first in the last decade. A Cleveland homecoming seems especially far-fetched because of the well-documented drop-off in revenue for the Indians over the past few years: No team drew fewer fans in 2010.

26. Pittsburgh Pirates

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    The Pirates have little money with which to work, and their long, painful drought with no winning seasons must be a deterrent to a free agent of Lee's stature.

    The only reason the Bucs don't rank last on this list is that the team so desperately needs pitching that they almost have to make their best offer to Lee, even if it falls far short of everyone else's. Their pitching staff is miserable, anchored in 2010 by Ross Ohlendorf and Paul Maholm.

    The team could have one of the NL's best defensive outfields in 2011, with Jose Tabata joining superstar-to-be Andrew McCutchen in the pastures full-time. That would help the fly ball-oriented Lee. Too bad it will never come to fruition.

25. Oakland Athletics

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    No one big reason prevents Oakland from being a Lee contender. Rather, it is so because of the accumulation of smaller reasons.

    1. The team's rotation is already a strong suit, led by Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and (if he ever gets healthy) Brett Anderson.
    2. Gonzalez and Anderson are left-handed, so the A's may be reticent to pursue Lee and make their rotation that is southpaw-heavy.
    3. Lee will cost the big bucks, and Oakland (while it may have the wherewithal to pursue somewhat lesser targets like Adrian Beltre) probably cannot afford him.
    4. Billy Beane rarely makes long-term investments in pitchers, especially elite ones.

24. Washington Nationals

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    The moment Stephen Strasburg went down with an injury that will cost him most of the 2011 season, Washington committed to rebuilding through next year.

    If the team does spend big at all this winter, it will almost surely be to re-sign or replace free agent-to-be Adam Dunn, who cranked 38 home runs in each of his two seasons with the team. Lee is out of the picture because the team has invested itself in a Strasburg-centric pitching staff for years to come.

23. Toronto Blue Jays

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    The Blue Jays probably should at least bid on Lee, given Lee's dominance over their division foes the Rays and Yankees this October. It sure seems unlikely, though, given the team's stable of high-upside arms and the relative financial distress in which the organization finds itself.

    Add to that the fact that Toronto needs to at least try to sign 54-home run man Jose Bautista to a long-term deal, and you get a squad ill-prepared to bid on a guy of Lee's caliber. If he is smart, GM Alex Anthopoulos will try to balance out the team's offense this offseason as well.

22. Cincinnati Reds

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    The Reds probably don't have the money to lure in Lee, but even if they did, there would be more profitable ways for them to spend it.

    Even assuming the team declines their option on either Bronson Arroyo or Aaron Harang (Harang seems the more likely to be shown the door), they will have Homer Bailey, Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Travis Wood in their rotation mix. If, as some have suggested, the team still views left-handed fire-baller Aroldis Chapman as a starter in the long term, Lee is a definite non-option for Cincinnati.

21. Seattle Mariners

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    The Mariners moved to acquire Lee once, but they are clearly not prepared to offer him big bucks to return—no matter how well he and Felix Hernandez got along. Hernandez is as much an ace as Lee, so teams who lack someone like him will outbid Seattle to get an ace of their own.

    Hernandez's own contract begins to get rich this year, as he will get a $3.5-million raise into the eight-figure range, and by 2012 he will be making $18 million a year. That kind of financial outlay makes it difficult to imagine that Seattle can afford someone in Lee's prospective income bracket.

    On top of all that, the historically bad offense needs to be the club's top priority. The Mariners scored 513 runs last season. Over a full campaign, no AL team has scored so few since 1972—the year before the DH went into effect. In 1994, despite the strike that cleaved off the final six weeks of the season, the fewest runs scored by an AL team was 540. In 2010, the Orioles were the second-worst offense on the junior circuit—with 613 runs.

20. San Francisco Giants

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    The Giants are clearly not quite as offensively destitute as Seattle—you cannot win a pennant without a little bit of thump but they do need to add a bat this winter if they hope to return to the Fall Classic in 2011. More importantly, there seems to be little reason for GM Brian Sabean to spend any substantial amount on starting pitching.

    To a core that already boasted baseball's best dynamic duo in Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, the team has added rookie southpaw Madison Bumgarner. With Jonathan Sanchez finally gaining some measure of command over his wicked stuff and Barry Zito rediscovering some measure of his old Oakland magic, this team had a starting rotation for the ages in 2010, and the principals will all return in 2011.

19. St. Louis Cardinals

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    Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said recently that the team would be aggressive this offseason, but he certainly did not mean they would have a legitimate chance with Lee. The club has at least three major priorities above starting pitching on its list:

    1. Albert Pujols, whom you might have heard a bit about, needs a contract extension if the Cards hope to keep him from hitting the free-agent market—and a jackpot of unprecedented proportion—in 2011. That could take a hearty bite out of their budget, and until it is somehow resolved, that potential expenditure will have to inform all of St. Louis's offseason decisions.

    2. The Cards need a leadoff hitter. The apparent disappearance of Brendan Ryan's and Skip Schumaker's modest offensive skills, along with David Fresse's season-ending injury and an ill-advised trade of Ryan Ludwick, left the team with only three viable big-league hitters by the end of last season—however formidable those three may have been, it was not enough.

    Carl Crawford is surely out of their price range, but Mozeliak and his staff could pursue lesser veterans like Orlando Hudson, Johnny Damon or Melky Cabrera. Another route might be to trade disgruntled young center fielder Colby Rasmus, who could fetch a much better player like Rickie Weeks.

    3. The bullpen is a mess. St. Louis relievers finished with good numbers in 2010, but it seemed to be all smoke and mirrors. At least one legitimate armanother possible target if the club trades Rasmus—should be nearer the top of Mozeliak's list of needs than Lee, however close Lee's Arkansas home may be to the "Gateway to the West."

18. Chicago White Sox

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    Chicago has the money to make a reasonably equipped run at the playoff superstar Lee, and a left-handed ace would fit nicely on a team that finds itself battling the lefty-heavy Twins for AL Central supremacy each year.

    Like some other clubs, though, the Sox simply have more urgent needs than another starting hurler. Jake Peavy will return sometime in 2011 to fill out a rotation already sure to include Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Edwin Jackson. If someone goes down or if the organization deems him ready, fire-balling Chris Sale (who came out of the bullpen as a rookie in 2010 just months after being drafted) could make a move into the rotation as well.

    Meanwhile, the Sox could lose starting catcher A.J. Pierzynski (not a problem) and first baseman Paul Konerko (much different story) this winter. Konerko mashed all season long for the Sox, and without him, they would be in dire need of a power hitter somewhere on the diamond.

    Expect to hear Ozzie Guillen's club linked to names like Adam Dunn and Carlos Pena, but it may well be that Konerko and the Sox end up reunited—at $14 million a year. The cost of retaining or replacing their longtime slugger will keep the Sox out of the running for Lee.

17. San Diego Padres

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    If the Padres were not feeling pressured to trade or extend hometown hero Adrian Gonzalez this summer, they surely feel that way now. After missing the playoffs in a season that could have been magical, the team now must face the reality of their small market and a fan base unlikely to buy into a winning team and turn out big attendance figures in 2011.

    The Padres have Mat Latos, Clayton Richard, Wade LeBlanc and Tim Stauffer under team control, and probably will be able to retain Jon Garland despite his mutual option. That group is not so stellar as to deter the team from pursuing a starter, but giving the offense a boost should be a much higher priority. If GM Jed Hoyer does feel the need to improve the rotation, he will likely look at more cost-effective options like Jorge de la Rosa (at the high end) or Rich Harden.

16. Los Angeles Dodgers

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    The Dodgers insist they are ready to spend again after roughly a year and a half of having their hands tied by the messy pending divorce of their owners, Frank and Jamie McCourt. Seemingly, though, they have bigger fish to fry than adding another left-handed starting pitcher.

    That's because, before even allowing him to hit the free-agent marketplace, the Dodgers inked southpaw Ted Lilly to a three-year deal worth $33 million. Lilly came to LA from the Chicago Cubs in July, and figures to be the co-ace of the rotation alongside dominant lefty Clayton Kershaw in 2011.

    Lilly and Lee, incidentally, are eerily similar pitchers. Obviously, Lee is better, mostly because he is considerably more able to keep the ball on the ground and in the park: Over the past three years, Lee has allowed fewer than half as many home runs per nine innings as Lilly. 

    In several other respects, though, the two are virtually the same pitcher. Each relies on stellar command, as they rank first (Lee) and third (Lilly) in strikeout-to-walk ratio among left-handed pitchers since the start of 2008. They are also the two most aggressive pitchers in baseball, regardless of handedness, ranking first (Lee) and second (Lilly) in baseball in percentage of pitches thrown inside the strike zone over the past three seasons.

    Instead of adding a third left-handed ace, then, the Dodgers might try to shore up their meager infield, where they need to upgrade at both second and third base.

15. Philadelphia Phillies

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    The Phillies already owe a staggering $143 million and change to players they have little or no chance of unloading before 2011. They no doubt feel stung by their surprising NLCS loss to San Francisco, and would love to make the kind of splash in free agency that would ensure their spot as NL favorites next season.

    Unless they peel the logos off their jerseys to reveal an "N" overlaid with a "Y", though, they just do not have the money to even consider a big signing this winter. Presumably, they will be active in the trade market, as GM Ruben Amaro has proved himself an eager trading partner time and again since taking over the team.

    If the team is focused on adding to the pitching staff, they should look to do in the bullpen. Brad Lidge is nearing the end of his rope as a viable closer, and Ryan Madson has made very little of his opportunities to become the heir apparent. Free agents with closer experience include Frank Francisco and Octavio Dotel, either of whom might be more in Philadelphia's price range.

14. Colorado Rockies

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    Lee is a much better pitcher than either Mike Hampton or Denny Neagle, but because of Colorado's disastrous signings of those two hurlers in years past, they may be a bit gun shy when it comes to Lee.

    Moreover, Lee actually is a bit vulnerable to regression in a place like Coors Field: He favors fly balls somewhat, and if history is any indication, his command may be difficult to sustain in the thin air of Denver.

    The Rockies will likely work hard to lock up free agent-to-be Jorge de la Rosa, a left-hander in his own right with the rare advantage of being a ground-ball maven from the first-base side of the rubber. He is no Lee—witness his 4.17 walks per nine innings over the past three years. Lee has walked roughly a third as many hitters per nine frames during that stretch. The advantage for de la Rosa, though, is that Colorado can retain him for a about one fifth of the necessary investment in Lee, and could easily expect half the output in return.

    Aside from de la Rosa, Colorado has Ubaldo Jimenez in tow, making the top of their rotation strong enough without Lee.

13. Atlanta Braves

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    Even if Frank Wren pursues a big-name free agent this winter, it will surely be a position player. Chipper Jones and Martin Prado could return at full strength and the team would still have holes to fill at first base and in left field.

    The bullpen will need a minor rebuild, with Billy Wagner and likely Takashi Saito gone. Craig Kimbrel may be the answer at closer, but the set-up corps probably needs a face lift in the first season of the post-Bobby Cox era.

    Most of all, Atlanta will be a non-factor in the Lee sweepstakes because they do not really need him: Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Derek Lowe and Mike Minor provide a deep and talented crew going forward. If and when Kris Medlen returns, the team will have an embarrassment of starting pitching riches.

12. Detroit Tigers

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    Heavily invested in Justin Verlander and sky-high on the young Rick Porcello, the Tigers organization seems more intent upon upgrading at the DH spot than adding to the starting pitching staff.

    Johnny Damon is probably done in Detroit, which give the club a modicum of payroll flexibility. Adrian Beltre seemed a logical (if expensive) candidate to bolster the heart of the Tigers order, but in light of the two-year extension to which the team signed incumbent third baseman Brandon Inge, there remains some chance of a Lee-Tigers pairing.

    As hard as the economic downturn has hit the city, though, it is hard to imagine that owner Mike Ilitch will approve the mega-bucks it would take to secure Lee's services. Adam Dunn whispers have already begun, suggesting Ilitch and his baseball advisers would rather improve the offense at a discounted rate.

11.Boston Red Sox

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    Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka had tough years in 2010, but none are going anywhere this offseason. They simply are not movable, with big contracts and daunting injury histories. Meanwhile, the less expensive, younger part of the rotation—Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz—finally look ready to anchor that unit.

    Theo Epstein clearly intends to look at almost every big-name bat on the market: The Red Sox are reportedly in the market for the services of Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez. It would be a shock, though, if the Red Sox got heavily involved with a high-priced pitcher of any stripe.

10. Baltimore Orioles

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    Here begins the list of more legitimate contenders, having both the wherewithal and the feeling of need to get interested at Lee despite his uncapped earning potential.

    The junior circuit may have no more moribund a franchise than the Orioles—and that is saying something. Still, Baltimore finished strong under Buck Showalter in 2010, and the club often turns up as a dark-horse name in high-profile free-agent bidding wars.

    Kevin Millwood, by far the richest of the 2010 O's, comes off the books this season, and Lee's track record against the Rays and Yankees must add to his tremendous appeal in the Baltimore front office. Championship Leverage Index, a Hardball Times brainchild that quantifies the relative importance of each game a team plays, tells us that divisional matchups are roughly twice as crucial as the average contest. 

    That could add as much as 10 percent to Lee's total value over a full season for a team in the AL East. If Andy MacPahil and company believe Lee really has the Yankees' number, then, they may be more inclined to bid with the big boys.

9. Chicago Cubs

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    The Cubs, like the Red Sox before them, merit mild consideration purely on the basis of their spendy reputation. Realistically, though, Chicago GM Jim Hendry has to remain cognizant that even Lee's prodigious skill set cannot make contenders of the 2011 Cubs.

    Over the next year or two, home-grown talents Brett Jackson, Chris Archer and Trey McNutt should displace similar or inferior players at three percent of the cost. That will give the North Siders more payroll with which to work and could create a window of opportunity to contend for a title in 2012 or 2013.

    This season, though, with $33.5 million already committed to their top two hurlers for 2011 alone, the Cubs are a fringe contender at best for Lee's services.

8. Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Kevin Towers' new club has little in the way of monetary obligation toward 2011, and the old guard traded ace Dan Haren to the Angels this season. Brandon Webb, once a super-stud on Lee's level, may not be back and could have trouble finding any guaranteed big-league money after spending the lion's share of two years on the shelf. 

    That has left a very young group of starting pitchers, led by recent acquisitions Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy. Each is cheap, high-upside and under team control; neither is a top-of-the-rotation guy right now.

    Towers has other tasks at hand, such as addressing the apparently overwhelming affinity Arizona hitters feel for the strikeout. Still, he might throw his hat into the ring on Lee if the opportunity presents itself.

7. Houston Astros

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    A team that draws well only when it wins and that recently traded its longtime ace on its way to a fourth-place finish seems an unlikely landing spot for a high-profile arm like Lee. Houston has the lure of proximity, though, being among the three teams nearest Lee's Arkansas home.

    The franchise has always had its best success by building around pitching, and Lee is sure to be made aware of their healthy track record. In particular, the Astros can sell the special relationship that grew between team owner Drayton McLane and franchise hurlers Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt. Each man became personal friends with McLane, a native Texan who identifies well with southern ballplayers.

6. Minnesota Twins

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    It's a long shot, but with the right series of sacrifices, the Twins could fit lee into their budget for 2011. The organization has long coveted Lee, who fits their pitching philosophy perfectly: He keeps walks to an absolute minimum, and pitches aggressively.

    To make room for Lee, the Twins could need to decline their option on Jason Kubel and replace him—as well as second baseman Orlando Hudsonfrom within. Three members of the bullpen are free agents, and adding Lee could force the team to let at least two (Matt Guerrier being the lone holdover) go.

    With Lee and Francisco Liriano atop the rotation and Justin Morneau returning as Joe Mauer's co-anchor in the batting order, the Twins would be formidable foes to even the Yankees in postseason play. It would require a delicate string of maneuvers, though, and could backfire if Lee elected to sign elsewhere.

5. Milwaukee Brewers

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    With the exception of the three-month CC Sabathia era, Milwaukee has lacked a true ace since Ben Sheets' last great season in 2004. The team's disastrous series of pitching decisions continued this year with the ill-advised additions of Randy Wolf and Doug Davis, neither of whom shored up the hapless rotation.

    If GM Doug Melvin moves Prince Fielder this winter, there could be room for an impact player like Lee. Lee has reason enough to get excited about the potential of signing with Milwaukee:

    1. The fan base proved itself more loyal than most thought this year, continuing to turn out despite a team that fell back into the second tier of the NL Central.

    2. Melvin has already locked up key players Corey Hart, Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo, and there's talk the team will extend Rickie Weeks this year.

    3. If Lee can so mystify the likes of the Yankees and Rays, one can only imagine how he would tear through the ugly stepchildren that populate the NL Central's batting orders.

    Milwaukee may not have the money to get serious in pursuit of Lee, but the pairing is an intriguing one.

4. New York Mets

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    The Queensmen owe princely sums to a quintet of stars for their 2011 services, headlined by $20-million men Johan Santana and Carlos Beltran. David Wright, Jason Bay and Jose Reyes also stand to make eight-figure salaries.

    With the team gearing up to name its next general manager, though, the Wilpons have said they will use the candidates' plans for this winter as the primary criterion for making their decision. That implies that the Mets will be aggressive and try to win right away in 2011.

    Lee would give New York a considerably more durable ace than Santana, whose last two seasons have ended prematurely with shoulder issues. The ballpark is certainly conducive to Lee, and it would offer him a chance to exact revenge on the Phillies for trading himif indeed he feels any resentment over being nudged out in favor of Roy Halladay.

3. Los Angeles Angels

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    It feels like one of those years when the Angels will be linked to any free agent of note. With the Rangers threatening to become the next AL West dynasty, Tony Reagins and Mike Scioscia will have to add someone significant to put their team back in the mix for the 2011 division crown.

    Lee would make less sense for the Angels than some of the batters to whom the team has been linked, led by Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre. Dan Haren and Jered Weaver already make up a strong front of the rotation, but there is certainly room for improvement along that line.

    To the degree that the team can even spend freely, other priorities may push Lee out of the Angels' thoughts. If Los Angeles has designs on regaining their supremacy out west, though, Lee would be a great first step in that direction.

2. Texas Rangers

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    The Rangers have certainly proven to Lee that they can bring him championship rings. If they lose the World Series, in fact, it could actually improve Texas's odds of keeping Lee, who could feel eager to return and finish what he started.

    If they win, though, and even if they don't, the Rangers have a few things to overcome:

    1. They are competing against teams with payrolls, on average, 40 percent higher than their own. The new ownership group has been effusively optimistic about spending more this offseason, but money could become an issue at the levels Lee will command.

    2. Arbitration considerations demand the team's attention. Nelson Cruz, CJ Wilson and Josh Hamilton headline a very important group of players who will get big raises in the arbitration process.

    3. Incumbency does not work in a team's favor in big-league free agency: Roughly 60 percent of top-tier free agents have moved on to other clubs over the past seven years.

    All that said, Lee grew up in Arkansas and probably admired Nolan Ryan a fair bit, and Ryan's team philosophy gives Lee the freedom to complete starts with the regularity Lee covets.

1. New York Yankees

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    For years, GM Brian Cashman and staff have seemed to operate on a slightly modified version of the old expression: "If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em."

    Lee has dominated the Bronx Bombers two postseasons in a row, and the team needs to bolster its starting staff anyway: Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett are past their utility as major contributors to the rotation.

    Obviously, the Yanks always have the cash to woo a guy like Lee, if money is his major criterion. He fits well into Yankee Stadium, the Yankee organization's stoic confidence and the Yankee fan base's demand for the very best. Many teams will make Lee exceptional offers, but the Empire seems intent upon striking back after being bounced by Lee's Rangers in the ALCS.