What Went Wrong: The Cliff Lee Non-TradeBy
They couldn’t have known it would happen at the time, but they had to know it was a possibility. When the Yankees found out that Seattle would send Cliff Lee to Texas rather than New York, the thought of facing Lee in the playoffs had to cross their minds. By that point, though, it was too late. The process was already far enough along that we could have called it a done deal. Cliff Lee was heading to Arlington, while Seattle would receive a package featuring 2008 first rounder Justin Smoak. The Yanks had lost out.
That day represented perhaps the most exciting and disappointing one of the regular season. When I went to bed on July 8 the only thought of Lee was that the Yankees were to face him the next evening. When I woke up on the 9th I realized that he wouldn’t. It sounded pretty certain that the Yankees and Mariners would finalize a swap sometime during the day. Jesus Montero, David Adams, and Zach McAllister would go to the Mariners, and the Yankees would add a second lefty ace to the staff. World Series, here we come.
A few hours later we would learn that the trade fell apart. The Mariners didn’t like the medicals on David Adams. At the time it sounded like an excuse to bring other teams into the bidding, but as we found out later Adams did have significant ankle issues. The Mariners, so the story goes, asked the Yankees to add Ivan Nova or Eduardo Nunez. The Yankees declined. The Yankees suggested Adam Warren. The Mariners weren’t interested — though perhaps by that time their disinterest was due to Texas’ new offer, which included Smoak. Not long after we heard that the deal with the Yankees fell apart, we heard that Cliff Lee would be Arlington-bound.
The reaction to this non-trade has two strong sides. One lamented the missed opportunity, because of its implications for the 2010 team. The other celebrated it, because it meant holding onto the team’s prospect while retaining the ability to sign Lee during the off-season. Mike will cover the latter point shortly. This will focus only on the lamentation.
At the time
At the time of the non-deal, the Yankees had five starting pitchers. CC Sabathia had been his regular self for most of the season and Andy Pettitte was keeping runs off the board, but beyond them there were a number of questions. Javy Vazquez had recovered from a poor start, though he still seemed to be the odd man out. A.J. Burnett had just come off what was probably the worst month of his career, but the Yanks couldn’t move him. Phil Hughes had struggled, but to move him would be to further stunt his development. They wanted him to get a full year in the rotation. Something would have to change, but for Cliff Lee that’s not much of an issue. You move mountains to make room for Cliff Lee.
We knew then what Lee would bring to the Yankees. He would turn the starting staff into the best in the AL, perhaps the best in the majors. It already ranked among the top, but there were still weaknesses, described above. If Javy broke down again, if Burnett didn’t fully recover, if Hughes ran into problems as he entered uncharted territory — all of these what-ifs had to weigh on the front office’s mind. Acquiring Lee would render these questions less meaningful. The Yanks would then have six starters, so if something went wrong they would have a fill-in ready to go.
The Yankees also had to know how acquiring Lee would make it easier to re-sign him during the off-season. This isn’t scientific fact, of course, but rather an intuitive connection. If the Yankees traded for Lee and then won a World Series with him, how could he then turn down the sack of money the Yankees would hand him? If he went elsewhere and won a World Series there, well, maybe he’d be more inclined to take a bit less to stay in place where he has experienced the ultimate success. The Yankees’ willingness to pay twice for a player in this instance suggests that they thought along these lines.
The at-the-time case seems easy enough. Adding Cliff Lee would have greatly increased the Yankees chances of winning the World Series. They would have received a proven veteran in exchange for a player whose career is nothing but potential right now. Little did we know at the time that the hindsight argument would be even stronger.
The Yankees lost the ALCS because they couldn’t hit a lick, but the pitching staff didn’t help matters. CC Sabathia got knocked around in Game 1, and Phil Hughes got hit harder in Game 2. A.J. Burnett has a solid Game 4 until the Molina homer, and then Hughes was again shaky in Game 6. Imagine the staff had they added Lee.
Sabathia still would have gone Game 1, and perhaps it would have unfolded similarly. Lee taking Hughes’s place would have been an enormous upgrade. That would have pushed Hughes to Game 4, at which time the Yankees might have been in a better position. That’s not only because Lee likely would have been more effective in Game 2, but because the Yankees might not have lost Game 3, because Lee wouldn’t have been pitching for the Rangers.
That brings up another hindsight point. The Rangers wouldn’t have been nearly as strong a playoff team without Lee. They almost certainly would have made the playoffs without him — at the time they acquired him they were already running away with the division. But once they got to the playoffs they wouldn’t have been as well prepared.
In fact, I’d bet that had the Yankees acquired Lee, they would have won the AL East. That would have set them up against a Lee-less Texas in the first round; that would have been something of a mismatch. Sabathia-Lee-Pettitte, and then Hughes if necessary. They would have faced Wilson-Lewis-Hunter, though missing out on Lee might have motivated Texas to work out something for Roy Oswalt. That would have been a bit difficult, though, given Texas’s financial situation at the time. Getting approval for $3 million or whatever they ended up paying Lee is one thing; getting permission for the $10+ million they’d have to pay Oswalt over the next two years is quite another.
The benefits, as you can see, would have cascaded. The Yankees would not only strengthen their own team with Lee, but would have left competitors scrambling for another solution. That would have left the Yankees in the best possible position.
In terms of how it would have helped the 2010 team, missing out on Lee is one thing that went terribly wrong. They would have been sacrificing a potential piece of their future, but they would have added a Top 3 pitcher for 2010, and then given themselves a better chance to re-sign him during the off-season. After missing out, the Yankees just have to hope they can convince Lee to come to New York in the same manner they convinced CC Sabathia.