Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 16, 2010

Cliff Lee Saved The Yankees From Themselves

Very late Monday night left-hander Cliff Lee proved that the Yankees do not always get their man. The most sought after pitcher of this year’s free agent class spurned both New York and the Texas Rangers in choosing to return to the Philadelphia Phillies, for whom he pitched in the second half of the 2009 season. In doing so Lee walked away from almost $30 million. That’s the difference in guaranteed money between the contract that he’s agreed to with the Phillies and the Yankees’ final seven-year offer. In the process, he made Philadelphia the winter favorite to win the 2011 World Series.

The Phillies now boast a fearsome rotation of Cy Young Award winner Lee, two-time Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, long-time Houston Astros ace Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels, who was the Phillies top pitcher when they won the World Series in 2008. Any rotation that has Hamels as its number four is obviously stacked.

But before everyone decides to forego actually playing the games of the 2011 post-season, it would be worthwhile remembering that most observers rated the Phillies as favorites to win this year’s Series when post-season play began in early October. That Phillies squad had the rotation just described but for Lee. And it had Jason Werth, since departed for the Nationals, playing right field. Of course, that Phillies team didn’t win the World Series. In no small part that was because they didn’t play in the World Series, having been beaten by the Giants in the NLCS.

Lee on the other hand did pitch in this year’s Series, for the Rangers. Indeed, it was the goal of finally making it to the World Series that led Texas to send a boatload of prospects to Seattle in July in exchange for Lee. Without question he helped them get there, but against the Giants he posted a record of 0-2, with a bloated ERA of 6.94.

All of which is just a way of saying that while the Phillies’ midnight coup has all the appearances of a great move for their immediate future, over the course of the longest season in sport and through three rounds of post-season play, nothing is automatic and no result is guaranteed.

Lee’s decision is obviously a short-term blow to both New York and Texas. But for the Yankees in particular, while their failure to sign Lee has made winning a 28th championship in 2011 more difficult; it may have actually improved their odds of winning that one and a 29th or even a 30th sooner rather than later.

The problem with being the team with the deepest pockets is that sometimes the Yankees appear to have more money than brains. Certainly that was the case in 2007. After Alex Rodriguez opted out of the remaining years of his contract Hank Steinbrenner at first said “good riddance” to A-Rod. But within days Steinbrenner was busily bidding against no one other than himself, eventually signing A-Rod to a gargantuan ten year deal that will have him cashing checks for more than $27 million a year until he is 42. It was an absurdly excessive contract by any standard, made all the more so by the fact that there was never any indication that any other teams were bidding.

Since then the bombastic Hank has moved into the background, replaced by his younger brother Hal as the Steinbrenner with day-to-day authority over the Yankees. Hal is considerably quieter and calmer than Hank, and perhaps was putting his MBA degree to work when he brought a new word into the Yankees lexicon, “budget.” To be sure, every year it is a budget that 29 other teams would die for, but general manager Brian Cashman has made it clear the last couple of years that the resources he’s been given are not unlimited.

This makes the Yankees offer to Cliff Lee so hard to understand; not just for its value but also for its term. New York offered a pitcher who will turn 33 in the middle of next season nearly $150 million over a term of seven years. Long term contracts for pitchers of any age are something that sensible general managers shy away from. There is no more fragile position on the diamond. A single bad motion, just one excessive stress on a highly-prized arm, can end a season; or in the worst case, a career. Even without something as drastic as a bad injury, the likelihood of a hurler continuing to perform at an elite level year after year is not great. That becomes all the more true as pitchers move into what amounts to the sport’s old age.

The Yankees certainly know this. They are midway through a five year commitment to A. J. Burnett. After one good season and one disastrous one, New York’s brass has to be wondering just what they’re going to get for the remaining $50 million they owe Burnett over the next three years.

If their current experience with Burnett isn’t a sufficiently cautionary tale, the Yankees could easily recall the right-hander who Burnett replaced. New York signed Carl Pavano to a 4-year, $40 million deal prior to the 2005 season. He wound up spending more time on the DL than on the mound while wearing pinstripes. In the end the Yankees paid nearly $4.5 million for each of Pavano’s nine wins over the life of the contract.

But despite that knowledge, the Yankees first offered Lee six years; and when that offer wasn’t accepted they almost immediately bumped the guarantee to seven. The Rangers, who badly wanted to resign Lee, offered six years and what they described as a menu of options around the details of the contract. What they refused to offer was that guaranteed seventh year. In the aftermath of his decision, the Rangers’ GM acknowledged that Lee’s agent had told them that if they would make that commitment the pitcher would be throwing home games in Arlington next season.

It had to have taken an enormous amount of will for the Rangers to turn down that request. Congratulations to them for doing so. The Yankees lacked similar self-restraint. In the end they were saved by Lee’s desire to go to a smaller market where he had felt at home in 2009, and to pitch in the National League where he will face a fellow hurler each time through a lineup rather than a DH.

So in the near term the Phillies look to be dominant. Whether they will still be happy with their decision three, four or five years from now remains to be seen. Meanwhile in the AL the Red Sox have beefed up their offense with the additions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. All of which seems to leave the Yankees on the outside looking in. For the moment, anyway. Because having been saved from themselves in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, they still have the biggest bank account around. Between now and Opening Day, and probably again when next summer’s trade deadline approaches, they will no doubt find a way to put it to work. Hopefully they will do so in a smarter fashion than in the deal they almost made with Cliff Lee.

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