Yankees Lose Out On Cliff Lee Deal: Blessing In Disguise For The Bronx Bombers?

Scott GyurinaCorrespondent IDecember 14, 2010

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 28:  Cliff Lee #34 of the Philadelphia Phillies throws a pitch against the New York Yankees in Game One of the 2009 MLB World Series at Yankee Stadium on October 28, 2009 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

In the middle of the night, while many East Coast baseball fans were sleeping, possibly dreaming of the glorious news that the Yankees had finalized a deal to bring Cliff Lee to the Bronx, the unthinkable occurred: somehow, the Yankees didn't get their man.

With the shocking revelation that the Philadelphia Phillies had undercut both the Yankees and the Texas Rangers in a surprise move to bring Lee back to the City of Brotherly Love, many Yankee fans are cursing Lee, Brian Cashman, Ruben Amaro Jr., and anyone else who can be blamed for this calamity.

Surely, someone must be to blame. This was preordained, written in the stars; Lee was already almost a Yankee once. He was trying to decide where to live in New York before being suddenly traded to the Rangers in July.

With his former Cleveland rotation mate, CC Sabathia, already in the Bronx fold, Lee surely would follow the money trail and join up with his old buddy to lead the Yankees to multiple World Series titles over the next seven years.

Wait....what? Are you kidding?

Philadelphia, the team that traded Lee away so that they could obtain Roy Halladay, signed Cliff Lee to a reported five year, $100 million deal? He left $50 million on the negotiating table?

Does that even possibly make sense? What about the hastily added seventh year? That was supposed to seal the deal after Boston created significant waves by signing Carl Crawford and trading for Adrian Gonzalez.

The assumption floating around baseball for the last two years was that Lee was determined to cash in during his only free-agent extravaganza of his Major League career. Philly unloaded him because he would be nearly impossible to re-sign. Seattle gave up after only a few months. The Rangers enjoyed their time with him greatly, but seemed almost resigned to the fact that the Lee would be tempted by more years and more dollars to join the pinstriped party in the Bronx.

Suddenly, Philadelphia boasts a rotation that is terrifying in the short-term. With Lee joining Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, the Phillies suddenly have a potentially dominant foursome leading their starting staff. The window of opportunity may be small, since Lee will be 33 during the 2011 season, and both Halladay and Oswalt will turn 34 during the year, but the Phillies will take their chances for now.

The Yankees, having missed out on their most coveted free-agent target, as well as Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, suddenly seem vulnerable.

Cliff Lee was the plan. Brian Cashman spoke of not being desperate, and of course the Yankees won 95 games last year and were only two wins from a World Series appearance. However, that was accomplished with a frayed and battered rotation, one that could have greatly benefited from the presence of Cliff Lee.

Cashman has spoken of Plan B's and C's, i.e. contingency plans, in case the unthinkable occurred, and someone outbid the Yankees for the player that they most desired. As outlandish as that seems, the Yankees must at least consider the possibility.

Well, hopefully they did, because that unthinkable scenario is now staring them directly in the face.

Boston has been strengthened significantly through their dealings at the winter meetings. Not wanting to admit it, the Yankees needed to land Lee to counter the dramatic moves of Theo and Co. A general uneasiness has crept up around New York in the wake of Boston's maneuvering. Bringing Cliff Lee on board could surely help ease the tension.

But what now? Rumors have circulated around highly capable hurlers like Kansas City's Zack Greinke and Tampa's Matt Garza. Greinke, a year removed from an AL Cy Young Award, is incredibly gifted, but a previous anxiety disorder would seem to make him a long-shot to succeed in the Bronx. 

Garza, also very talented, happens to have a combustible personality of a different sort, and the likelihood of the Rays trading him within the division seems low. Carlos Zambrano? A headcase, though talented, could prove to be a disaster.

Is it possible that the Yankees may be forced to retool from within? Does Joba Chamberlain get one more opportunity to prove that he can start games for the Yankees? Ivan Nova impressed in short stints with the team last year, so could he be given a legitimate shot?

As crazy as it may sound right now, it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise that the Yankees were unable to lure Cliff Lee to the Bronx.

Sure, he likely would have been fantastic for the Yankees, for at least a few seasons. Over the last three seasons, he is among the very best hurlers in the game. His dramatic post-season performances have helped carve him a place in baseball history usually reserved for more illustrious names like Koufax and Gibson.

There is no doubting Cliff Lee's ability or his recent track record.

However, has he done enough to feel comfortable committing a minimum of $20 million a year to him...for seven years?

Yes, he has been great. Yes, he has turned in splendid performances against the Yankees for various teams over the last few years. He would have undoubtedly strengthened the New York rotation considerably for the next few years.

But, seven years?

That's where the Yankees may have just been saved from themselves. In what could be seen as a knee-jerk reaction to Boston's marquee acquisitions, the Yankees were willing to move beyond their stated threshold of a six year offer to Lee. Almost immediately following the announcement of the Crawford deal, the Yankees let it be known that they were willing to go to a seventh year in order to entice the left-handed Lee to Yankee Stadium.

At that point, many around the league viewed Lee's eventual unveiling as the newest Yankee as a foregone conclusion. Not many franchises possess the financial wherewithal to hand out bloated, overly long contracts like the Yankees can. The willingness to go the seventh year seemingly propelled the Bombers into the driver's seat in the race to land Cliff Lee's signature.

But something was amiss. The weekend passed, and there was no news from the Lee camp. Surely, the seven year offer was enough. Barring another surprise raid by the Nationals, the likelihood of another team outbidding the Yankees in this case seemed absurd. There wasn't someone else willing to challenge the financial recklessness of the Yankees in the free agent market, was there?

Well, apparently that wouldn't even be necessary. Despite reports of a seven year offer hovering in the $150 million range, Lee spurned the Yankees for a chance to return to Philadelphia, instead signing his name to a five year deal worth a guaranteed $120 million dollars. Additionally, the deal contains incentive clauses for a sixth year option.

Cliff Lee bucked conventional thought on the matter, shocking those who presumed he would simply agree to the richest deal. He may have left money on the table, but he went where he was comfortable, and who can argue with that?

As far as the Yankees are concerned, there is certainly an aura of failure surrounding the franchise right now, after watching their arch-nemesis in Boston make two stunning player acquisitions and failing to land their own premier off-season target. Of course, those who live to hate the Yankees will have a field day, reveling in the perceived failure of the "Evil Empire."

While it may be terribly disappointing when viewed in the context of the short-term, the Yankees very well may have gotten lucky to lose out in the Lee sweepstakes.

In the limited history of pitchers who have signed contracts of seven years or more, such a bold move has rarely paid the expected dividends. Throughout the history of the game, such a long-term commitment to a hurler has only occurred seven times, with only Wayne Garland, Mike Torrez, Dave Stieb, Kevin Brown, Mike Hampton, Barry Zito and CC Sabathia inking deals of at least seven years. Aside from Sabathia's thus far productive tenure with the Yankees, not a single other deal of that magnitude can be considered a success. Of course, we still have several years to gauge the overall value of the Zito and Sabathia deals, but prior to those the signing team has never completed one of these deals without significant regret.

Though Cliff Lee has been a stellar pitcher from 2008-2010, one has to remember that he will turn 32 during this upcoming season. By the time a potential 7 year deal would have concluded, he would have surpassed his 38th birthday.

Regardless of his current status as one of the game's  greatest pitchers, one has to reasonably ask how many of those years would Cliff Lee be good enough to warrant in excess of $20 million per season?

Surely, it could be three years, possibly four, but beyond that, the future gets hazy.

If Lee had signed on with the Yankees, not only would they be tied to another mid-thirties pitcher making huge  money, but they remain committed to A.J. Burnett for another three years and around $50 million, CC for another five years, A-Rod through 2017 at almost $30 million per year, and Teixeira for another six years and $135 million.

Just a rough estimate tells you that if Lee were included, the Yankees would have approximately $116 million per season tied up in just six players for at least the next three years. Does that sound like a desirable position for a club to place itself in? That amount of money doesn't even include the Jeter deal, Pettitte, Mo or Robinson Cano.

While many assume the Yankees have free reign to spend as much as they are willing, even they would have to balk at having that much money committed to only a handful of players. They have to have noticed that the "buy every top free agent possible" strategy has only yielded one championship in a decade. It has to be painfully obvious that a smaller market team just won the World Series with a rotation full of homegrown talent. That same team had their own massive free agent blunder sitting idly while the exciting young arms pitched their way to baseball's promised land.

Of course, being the Yankees, they will probably now author a blockbuster trade to combat the improvements of their rivals, picking up yet another high-priced star to add to their already bloated salary ledger and continue the prevailing trend of the decade.

The Yankees may feel stunned, the mood lingering around New York may be that of a city spurned, disappointment following what many felt was a closed case.

This time though, while it may be difficult in the short term, the Yankees may have just been saved from themselves.


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