Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke: Surprises That Should Not Have Been Very Surprising

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Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke: Surprises That Should Not Have Been Very Surprising
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Cliff Lee defied all expectations to go to the team he was so sorry to leave in the first place.

I could have sworn everyone was expecting Cliff Lee to go to the team that offered him the most money.  He was supposed to become the second highest-paid Yankee and the third most-overpaid Yankee.

Zack Greinke was supposed to be the consolation prize for the team that lost out on Cliff Lee. He was supposed to mesh well and find comfort with the young base in Texas.

The Yankees and Rangers were not longshots to meet again in October 2011.

But the road to October just got a bit rocky for these two teams.

The Yankees well-documented pitching flaws are legit and barring a resurgence of A.J. Burnett, they might find themselves competing with Tampa (and Oakland, and Texas, and Minnesota, and Chicago and maybe the Angels) for the wild card. Their problem could compound if CC Sabathia goes back on his word that he won’t exercise his opt-out clause next year.

The strongest teams have potent dual aces. No one gets by with an ace, a number three and Sergio Mitre.

The Rangers, meanwhile, are also without the ace that carried them to the playoffs. Their corps of number two starters—or worse—will not carry them far. CJ Wilson overachieved. Tommy Hunter is overrated. Scott Feldman’s career year is in the rear-view mirror. 

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Zack Grienke rebounded from a bout of anxiety to become of the better pitchers in the game. His new team is known for its relaxed demeanor and welcoming environment.

And the losses in Texas and New York have turned into gains in Boston, Oakland, L.A., and Tampa.

Boston’s list of 2010 offseason victories could fill a small newspaper. Brian Cashman’s hair will grow a little thinner and Nolan Ryan’s face will have new wrinkles come June, when the next major bidding war centers around Carlos Zambrano or Matt Garza.

Talented pitchers, yes, but not Lee or Greinke.

How did we so misunderstand Cliff Lee? He had nice things to say about the Yankees when he became a Ranger. Quotes popped up alluding to his desire for the most riches spread over the most years. One quote said that if one team offered him one dollar more than his next-highest offer, he would join them.

But he settled for $40,000,000 less and potentially one year less to become a Philly again.

And why shouldn’t he?

After all, comfort is key to performing on the field and having fun while doing so. The Phillies already had a near-brilliant rotation. He could join Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. That sounds a little better than Sabathia, Burnett, Hughes. And a little better than Lewis, Wilson, Hunter.

Actually, it sounds a lot better than both alternatives put together.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
CC Sabathia desperately needs a reliable starter to join him in the Yankees' rotation.

It seems as though everyone was expecting Cliff Lee to go to the team that offered him the most money and the most years. Did anyone doubt that would be the Yankees? Yet, Cliff Lee was sorely misunderstood and, in hindsight, maybe we should have seen something like this coming.

It took him a long time to make a decision.

There were some signals that he might not fit in with the Yankees. Rowdy fans spat on his wife during the playoffs. He responded sarcastically (and winningly) to Michael Kay calling it “childish” that Cliff Lee doesn’t change caps when the one he’s using begins to show wear.

The Yankee brass can be an uptight bunch and that could be offputting to a new player, especially one as laid back as Lee.

And at the end of the day, the childish ones were the Yankees. My beloved Yankees who, for far too long, have wielded a well-stacked wallet, sometimes devoid of common sense. This has been a team that chases the elite free agents and pays them handsomely, well after they are done being elite players. They too often fail to develop homegrown talent, chasing immediate glory time and time again.

This time they lost. Twice.

One lesson to take from this is that some people are underwhelmed with the luster of pinstripes. That is a lesson we all should have learned long ago, but Cliff Lee serves as a reminder.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Further proof that pitching wins championships.

Zack Greinke should serve as a reminder that some people may be overwhelmed by the stripes. The Yankees pulled the plug on negotiations with the Royals for fear that Greinke might not be able to handle the spotlight.

Maybe they were right. He did miss a year due to extreme anxiety.

But let’s not jump to the conclusion that the Yankees are doomed.

Their lineup can still mash with the best of them. It is a lineup without holes, an offensive force whose greatest need is someone to back up the regulars—a need that will easily be filled. They have one of the top pitchers in the game already. They have one of the best relief pitchers ever.

They will win 90 games this year and still might call it a failure.

Anyway, Cliff Lee is human and can be beaten. Zack Greinke was a mere mortal in 2010. In three years Cliff Lee will be a very rich Andy Pettitte-type pitcher. No one cowers at the thought of facing Pettitte, as good a pitcher as he still is.

Over the next couple of years, however, the Phillies and Brewers have signed up for meaningful games in September.

The Phillies should bulldoze their way over their division rivals. They are still stronger than the Braves, barring mammoth seasons by Uggla and Heyward, and head and shoulders above the other three teams.

The Brewers should be able to hang with the Reds, but might not be able to catch St. Louis. What we do know is that they will make a run at the NL Central title and that means more work for the Cardinals. More work for the Reds. It means the Cubs and Astros are even further away.

And it means a very lucky Zack Greinke will get to face Pittsburgh two or three times.

Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke did not simply realign the NL Central race and make the Phillies the team to beat in the NL.

It represented a shift away from the allure of the almighty dollar and the proven winners. The best pitcher available chose old friends, good times, and the best rotation in baseball over an overstuffed Yankee contract. Another elite pitcher wound up in a destination no one expected and now probably feels stupid because it’s nearly a perfect fit for him.

Funny how things worked out.

I know I'm going to think twice before I convince myself where the next big free agent is going to wind up.

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