Why the Yankees Should Tell Upcoming Free Agent Cliff Lee “Fuhgeddaboutit”
Rumors are starting already the Yankees signing soon to be free agent Cliff Lee to a lucrative, long-term contract is nothing more than a formality.
But do they really NEED him?
Cliff Lee’s a good pitcher, no question. His acquisition last July by Philadelphia from Cleveland helped solidify a shaky starting staff and helped lead Philly to the World Series. After acquiring Lee yesterday, the Texas Rangers are hoping for the same result.
Lee’s rumored to be looking for a contract that will put him in the same $20 million annually his buddy CC Sabathia is currently pulling down, but is he really worth it?
Cliff Lee will turn 32 years of age before the 2010 regular season ends. Cliff Lee has played for four different franchises within the past twelve months. Cliff Lee, despite his recent successes, has had two top ten Cy Young finishes and his upcoming All-Star appearance will be just the second of his career.
Over the course of his nine and a half year career, Lee has won 98 games, with almost half (40) coming over two seasons. There are seven active starting pitchers who are younger than Lee and who have won more career games than Lee, including soon to be free agent Josh Beckett. Lee’s career ERA of 3.84 ranks 18th among active pitchers, which trails behind the likes of Ben Sheets and the much-maligned Barry Zito.
While their surprising performance this season made dealing Lee before the end of the season a virtual no-brainer, the likelihood of Seattle attempting to sign Lee long-term was remote, at best.
That’s because they just signed their own homegrown ace, Felix Hernandez, to a five year, $78 million dollar contract, the tenth most lucrative ever given a starting pitcher and which will keep “King Felix” in a Mariner’s uniform through the 2014 season. The contract will pay Hernandez an average of $19.5 million annually over the final three years, an amount Lee will most certainly look to surpass and the Mariners, not willing to pay someone more than “their guy”, won’t touch.
Everyone knows the Yankees have the money, their $213 million dollar 2010 payroll is proof enough. They could easily throw a five year, $100 million dollar at Lee and not even blink.
They better not.
If the 2011 season started tomorrow, and if the Yankees began the season with just the players they have under contract, their opening day payroll would be $118 million dollars, an amount that would rank them seventh overall in 2010. Assuming everyone under contract hits their bonuses and incentives, that figure jumps to $144 million. A big drop, obviously, from $213, but still alot of cabbage.
Three of the contracts that will expire after the 2010 season belong to homegrown Yankee legends Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. Even the part-time residents of Roswell, New Mexico know the Yanks will re-sign them for 2011, save the anticipated retirement of Pettitte. Between the three of them, they cashed $48 million worth of payroll checks in 2010.
Let’s say they all re-sign at 20% less than they made this season, that will put the 2011 payroll at about $183 million. The Yanks are not likely to re-sign Javier Vazquez, so his $11 million comes off the total, leaving $173 million in committed salary.
The Yanks have four players eligible for salary arbitration heading to next year. The good news is at least two of them, and possibly three, don’t figure much in the teams’ plans for 2011, the bad news is they are all pitchers. That’s bad news because the talent pool of pitchers in the farm system isn’t Olympic sized, it’s kiddie sized. Most of, if not all of, the projectable talent is at Double A and below and have little expected major league impact before 2013, if that.
Relievers Boone Logan and Sergio Mitre make a combined seven million dollars this year and it’s an almost certainty neither will be offered arbitration. Another pitcher on the list is Joba Chamberlain. As a first year eligible player, the Yankees can renew his $487K contract, and after his performance over the past year and a half would be unlikely to pay him much more than that.
And while the status of the fourth pitcher is the same as Joba’s, the circumstances are drastically different than they were even a month or so ago.
That player is Phil Hughes.
Not surprisingly, to me anyway, Hughes has blossomed into an All-Star caliber pitcher in the five hole and the Yankees could attempt to sign him away from his 2014 free agent year with a long term, below market value deal similar to what the Tampa Bay Rays did last season with Evan Longoria.
The Yanks also have a handful of players with expiring contracts who are not arbitration eligible and while the majority will either re-sign for ML minimum or shown the door, two so far have played prominent roles for the Yanks this year; catcher Francisco Cervelli and outfielder Brett Gardner. Making less than $900,000 combined, neither have any negotiating rights but have also contributed more than expected.
Back to Lee.
Much has been said of late that his friendships with current Yankees CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett will play a role in Lee’s decision.
Money is guaranteed, winning Championships is not. Lee is human and will do what’s right for his bank account. If the Yankees offer him $20 million and and the Marlins $22, then it’s “Hello, South Beach.”
Will Cliff Lee accept being the number two or three guy in New York? He’s already said, and proven, he wasn’t willing to fill that role in Seattle, although that decision was more mutual than Lee would want us to believe.
Would Lee committ long-term to New York, knowing his buddy Sabathia can opt out of his contract following the 2011 season? If they really wanted to play together, wouldn’t it make sense for Lee to sign with the Dodgers or Angels and have Sabathia follow HIM?
Even if the Yankees don’t re-sign Pettitte and Vazquez, Hughes has proven capable of moving up to the three spot in the rotation, leaving only the need to fill two interchangeable roles at the backend.
Former NL Cy Young winner Brandon Webb is coming off shoulder surgery and might be worth a spring training invite on a non-guaranteed contract. The names of Jake Westbrook, Jorge de la Rosa, Kevin Millwood are among the free agent pitchers who could fill roles at the bottom of a rotation. Even if the Yanks wanted to pick up a bigger name, the likes of Josh Beckett and Tim Hudson are available.
What say the Yanks decide to swing a deal for an affordable guy still under contract? The Diamondbacks would love to dump the remaining $25 million left on Dan Haren’s contract, ($38 million counting his 2013 club option).
The Yankees have a number of cheaper, and arguably better, options than Cliff Lee heading into 2011.
They certainly may want him.
They certainly don’t need him.