It has been some time since the New York Yankees weren't involved with an offseason's top free agents. This year—to the chagrin of many baseball fans—is no different. The most prized member of this year's free agent class, lefty Cliff Lee, tops just about every team's free agent priority list. For the Yankees, Lee could quite possibly be the piece that seemed to be missing down the stretch in their 2010 campaign.
However, Lee will not come without opposition. The team that may pose the biggest threat to the Yankees is the Texas Rangers, the team with which Lee finished the 2010 season. After leading the Rangers past the Yankees in the American League Championship Series and into the franchise's first-ever World Series appearance, Lee said that he would love to remain a Ranger.
With that being said, the Rangers do not have near the spending power of the Steinbrenner brothers. Just as in years past, it may come down to teams bidding up the Yankees, just so they will be forced to pay more than they would like. The same occurred two years ago, when the Yankees paid $82.5 million for A.J. Burnett, an injury-prone pitcher known for his inconsistency on the mound. As Burnett's disastrous 2010 season indicated, he was probably not worth nearly that amount. In fact, Burnett may have been the beneficiary of being one of the top pitchers in an otherwise weak 2008 free agent class.
But Cliff Lee is not A.J. Burnett. In fact, over the past three years, Lee has been one of the best and most consistent pitchers in the game. Barring two losses in this year's World Series, Lee has also shown a pedigree for postseason success. This will not go unnoticed in the Bronx, where a player's legacy is built upon his ability, or inability, to lead the Bombers to their next World Series ring (see: Scott Brosius).
When the dust settles, the Yankees' ceiling will probably be much too high for any other team to match. If Lee decides to follow the money, he will be led straight to 161st and River.
So what does that mean for the rest of the Yankees' offseason? Beyond Mariano Rivera, who will more than likely re-sign, and Andy Pettitte, who is considering retirement, there are a few players who should be firmly fixated atop the team's list of priorities.
The most obvious is Derek Jeter. It is nearly inevitable that the Yankees will have to overpay to retain Jeter, at least in terms of last year's statistics and his future statistical projections. However, Jeter's presence looms much larger than his statistics, in many respects. As the Yankees captain, just the 13th in the team's 107-year history, Jeter represents everything that is the Yankees mystique. Jeter will most likely be paid in terms of his past success, both individually and in leading the Yankees to five world championships in his 15 seasons so far. It is fully expected that the Yankees will re-sign Jeter, at a price that may not please the Yankees' front office.
Another big name free agent on the Yankees' radar is Carl Crawford, the 29-year-old left fielder who has played all of his nine seasons in Tampa Bay. Crawford, a career .296 hitter, would bring dynamic speed and another plus bat to an already stacked Yankees lineup. A true leadoff hitter, he would be able to take over the top of the lineup from Jeter, who would fall back into the two-hole where he has spent most of his career. While there is not an imminent need for an outfielder in the Bronx, New York will assuredly make a run for Crawford. It must be said, however, that Crawford, in all likelihood, is only a backup plan for the Yanks, if they are unable to sign Cliff Lee. It would be unlikely for the Yankees to spend top money on two players for yet another offseason (although crazier things have happened).
Perhaps the most understated re-signing for the Yankees this offseason will be that of reliever Kerry Wood. Wood, who came over from the Indians via trade in July, was lights-out for the Yankees in August, September and into the postseason. With all the focus on the possibility of New York signing Lee to bolster a rotation that struggled in 2010, Wood's importance down the stretch has been largely overlooked. His presence in the bullpen, as a bridge to closer Mariano Rivera, filled a large void that had been left by a struggling Joba Chamberlain. The 33-year-old Wood could turn out to be an important piece to the Yankees 2011 puzzle.
Year in and year out, there is one thing for certain: the New York Yankees will be in the middle of the free agency circus. After a season that did not live up to expectations in the Bronx, the Steinbrenners will pull out all the stops to assure that the Yankees sign at least one of this year's top free agent prospects. George would settle for nothing less.