Cliff Lee: Where Do the Yankees Go With the Ace in Philly?

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Cliff Lee: Where Do the Yankees Go With the Ace in Philly?
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

In a stunning turn of events Monday night, 2008 Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee agreed to return to the Philadelphia Phillies, turning down higher offers from the two teams long believed to be the only contenders in the Lee sweepstakes.

As fans in Philadelphia drool over a rotation led by possibly the two best pitchers in all of baseball, fans in both Texas and New York are left wondering where they go now.

For the Yankees, this is nothing short of a disaster. Lee came within hours of pinstripes several months ago before David Adams injured ankle caused the Mariners to back out of a potential deal and landed Lee in Texas.

Lee led Texas past the Yankees and into the World Series; as he hit the open market, nearly everyone in baseball believed he would sign with New York.

The Yankees could enter 2011 with a rotation of CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, AJ Burnett, Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre, far from championship quality. But with upwards of 20 million dollars over the next six or seven years not commuted to Cliff Lee, the question remains: Where do the Yankees go from here? How can they compete with the newly improved Boston Red Sox and the Phillies in the national league?

It’s worth noting that this Yankees team, almost entirely as is right now, won 95 games last year. A similar team won the more than 100 games and a World Series in 2009, led by CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and a shaky back of the rotation.

The Yankees have a true ace in Sabathia, an emerging front line starter in Hughes, and a massive question mark, albeit a very talented one, in AJ Burnett.

The Yankees first priority at the moment is likely to re-sign Andy Pettitte. Should they bring back Pettitte, they’ll have retained just about every piece from the playoff 2010 team.

While Andy is currently leaning towards retirement according to several sources, Cashman will likely go hard after Pettitte in the coming months. A rotation of Sabathia, Pettitte, Hughes, Burnett and Nova, while far from ideal, wouldn’t look too shabby.

In any other offseason, simply retaining a 95 win team would be viewed as a success, especially with players such as Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte hitting free agency.

But the Red Sox improved their team greatly by landing Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, and the Phillies now look like the class of the national league with a rotation of Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Oswalt.

Expectations were set very high for the Yankees heading into the winter meetings, with some sources even reporting the team would land both Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford. It didn’t work out that way.

If the Yankees want to improve their rotation, there are a few options still out there on the free agent market.

Brandon Webb is the kind of player who could really help the Yankees. While health is a major concern—he’s thrown just four innings in the big leagues over the past two years—he finished first, second and second in national league Cy Young voting in his last three healthy seasons.

He could be had relatively cheap, and if he was even a shadow of his former self the Yankees could have a solid No. 2 starter to pair with CC Sabathia. If he truly returned to dominance, which isn’t impossible given his age, the Yankees would have the two aces they covet to go with a solid back of the rotation.

The Yankees aren’t really seen as players for Webb at the moment. A name they have been more connected to is Zack Greinke.

While some are understandably skeptical about how Greinke would play in New York, the guy is 27-years-old and clearly one of the five or 10 best pitchers in baseball. He was the best pitcher in the league in 2009, and while his ERA spiked last year, his underlying numbers indicate he was still one of the 10 or 15 best pitchers in the league.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, Dayton Moore doesn’t seem to like what the Yankees have to offer and Greinke would cost a lot. He’s a possibility, but a long shot at this point.

Beyond Greinke, there isn’t really another ace on the trading block. Josh Johnson, Francisco Liriano and Felix Hernandez aren’t going anywhere; Chris Carpenter might be a fit, but if the Cardinals sense they wont be able to re-sign Albert Pujols this coming winter, they’re much more likely to go all out in 2011.

Carpenter is also rather old himself and health is still somewhat of a concern. If the Yankees can’t land a No. 1 starter, they’ll probably look to acquire a No. 2 starter they can pair with Sabathia, someone who won't make headlines like Lee but who will help to solidify their rotation.

For this role, I think Wandy Rodriguez might be a good fit. He’s always been a bit under the radar, but the Astros are in full out rebuilding mode right now and Wandy is on the wrong side of 30. He’s not a flashy name and he’s not a No. 1 starter, but he’s a safer bet at the No. 2 spot than Hughes, Pettitte or Burnett, and he’s probably a more realistic option than Greinke or Carpenter.

Another name to consider: Chad Billingsley. The Yankees have been attached to Billinsgley rumors for a few years now, thought nothing has ever come of them.

Billingsley is still young and very talented and he’s also a good No. 2 starter, a guy who could really help to solidify New York’s rotation and wouldn’t cost too much. Given the Dodgers ownership situation and the rate at which the NL West has improved over the past year, they might be willing to move Billingsley for younger players, and the Yankees, with their depth of catching and pitching prospects, would be a natural fit.

At the end of the day, I expect the Yankees will be OK. They won 95 games last year and rotation of CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Andy Pettitte was good enough to win the World Series in 2009.

I expect Pettitte will be back next year and that Cashman will make a move to bring in one more starting pitcher.

Will the Yankees put together a super-rotation and take back the headlines from Boston? No.

But come April, they’ll still be one of the most talented teams in baseball and come October, they’ll still be right in the thick of things.

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