The CC Sabathia – Cliff Lee Connection

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In 2011 the Yankees were supposed to have a dual-lefty tandem of CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee heading the rotation. Throughout the winter the Yankees were thought to be the frontrunners for Lee’s services, with Texas looming at all stages. No team topped the Yankees’ final seven-year offer. And yet Lee ended up signing with Philadelphia and leaving the Yankees with some big rotation questions both in 2011 and beyond. Reader Mike I. recently emailed to raise the issue:

Is right for me to assume that the CC contract issue could be completely different if the Yankees had signed Cliff Lee?

It is very right to assume that the Yankees would approach the Sabathia negotiations from a different angle if they already had a lefty ace on staff for the forseeable future. In fact, I’d go so far as to wonder whether the Yankees, at least in part, pursued Lee last winter so that they would have a bit more comfort in the 2011-2012 off-season following Sabathia’s inevitable opt-out. With Lee on staff the Yankees wouldn’t have such a glaring need atop the rotation and could back off if the bidding for Sabathia exceeded a certain level. Without Lee they might not have this luxury.

That’s not to say that the Yankees would have been better off in that situation. There’s a real argument that having Sabathia around, even if he gets a new six- or seven-year deal, is preferable to Lee. Even if we set our arbitrary start point to 2008 — the year that Lee broke out and won the AL Cy Young Award, and the year after Sabathia won the same award — Sabathia and Lee are similar pitchers. Lee has a slight advantage in ERA and a slightly larger one in FIP, while their xFIPs match up closely. Sabathia has thrown more innings, which helps close the gap. But even then we’re ignoring a significant portion of both careers.

Not only has Sabathia been more durable since 2008, but he’s been more durable throughout his career. He hasn’t missed any time, ever, with an arm injury, and hasn’t spent time on the DL since 2004. Sabathia also has a much longer track record of success. He broke into the bigs in 2001 at age 20 and has been at least serviceable in every year of his career. He hasn’t produced an ERA north of 4.12 since 2002, and hasn’t broken the 3.40 barrier since 2005 — that is, in terms of ERA and FIP, 2009 was his worst season in the last six years. This track record seems to make Sabathia a better long-term bet than Lee, even if Lee has caught up to Sabathia in terms of production. Even still, Sabathia is younger than Lee.

Yes, the situation this winter would have looked quite a bit different had the Yankees acquired Lee. At the same time, I’m not sure it’s a better situation. The Yankees had a seven-year offer out to Lee last December. At this point I’d rather have CC for the next seven years than Lee for the next six. So if the Yankees would have been more apt to walk away from Sabathia if they had signed Lee, then I’m of the opinion that missing Lee might be best in the long term.


Joel Sherman raised a similar Sabathia-Lee connection in his blog this morning. This is his second of two points he expects the Sabathia camp to make in negotiations:

The Yankees offered Cliff Lee seven years at $146 million last year after he had turned 32 and done nothing yet for the Yankees. Sabathia again is 31 and has done plenty for the Yankees, and why should he accept an offer that is one penny less than seven years at $146 million?

While the offer to Lee has some significance, it doesn’t really make a difference once Sabathia hits the open market. At that point his contract is not necessarily subject to past offers, but is subject to what the market will bear. Why should he accept an offer that is one penny less than 7/146? Because the market might not produce a contract at that level. This is one reason I think the Yankees land Sabathia at somewhere around the 5/125 contract that Lee got last winter. There just doesn’t seem to be a better offer awaiting him.

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  • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher (formerly Jorge)

    I always enjoy when we bust out the Cliff Lee carcass for a few extra kicks.

  • Tampa Yankee

    This is one reason I think the Yankees land Sabathia at somewhere around the 5/125 contract that Lee got last winter. There just doesn’t seem to be a better offer awaiting him.

    Exactly. I really don’t see Texas going beyond that despite what reports may indicate. They were at $92M this year and have $63 committed next year and that does not include arb raises to Napoli and Cruz plus Hamilton is only under contract for one more year and you figured they’d want to extend him before he hits the open market because if both him and Kemp hi FA after 2012 you know the Yanks will be in on both of them hoping to land one of them. I just don’t see where they’ll get the $ to match 5/125.

  • DERP

    Is it just a coincidence that CC changed his stance about not opting out once the Yankees missed on Lee? I was just thinking that if the Yankees had landed Lee, then Sabathia might not have opted out since he was worried that NYY would just let him walk and he might not be about to exceed the 4/92 left on his contract.

    All this happened before Sabathia had his best season with NY, so he will definitely beat the 4/92 he has left and this is probably just a moot point.

    • Cuso

      What evidence do you have to support he changed his stance?

      The media/reporting/blog narrative may have changed, but CC has always said he wants to remain a Yankee.

      “Wanting” to remain a Yankee and opting out were never mutually exclusive.

  • Gonzo

    I hope this doesn’t get messy.

  • Jose M. Vazquez..

    I was in favor of 5yrs with options for two more yrs but since they offered Lee 7yrs you cannot offer CC less. CC is much better and as you say more durable. Lee has not been that good in the past two postseasons.

    • Tim

      Neither has CC.

  • Soam

    I don’t think Sabathia will have any difficulty whatsoever topping 5 years 125m. Texas and the Yanks were both willing to spend more on Lee, and both those parties will be involved yet again and probably another 2-3 teams that will be in the mix to some extent (Cubs, Red Sox, Nationals come to mind). CC and Lee produce at the same level currently, but CC is younger and with a better track record. I think Sabathia will top his original 7 year 161 deal. I think he ends up back with the Yanks for 7 years 168mil.

  • FachoinaNYY

    I think 6/150 eventually gets it done

  • Jetrer

    6/144 with 7th year team option at 25M with 6M buyout

  • UncleArgyle

    Anything more than 5 years is nuts. Why give Sabathia a contract that pays him like the best pitcher in baseball, when he’s clearly not the best pitcher in baseball?

    • Jetrer


      They need an ace (and a #2 for that matter) and CC is easily the best available pitcher.

      • UncleArgyle

        Desperation is a really bad reason to make long term commitments.

        • FachoinaNYY

          We have used so many other bad reasons in the past… so why not?

        • Jetrer

          This is the Yankees, they can afford it. Most long-term contracts end up as bad deals. But for the Yankees, its either deal with that, or don’t make winning the first priority for the next few years and try to rebuild from within.

      • Mike Axisa

        If there’s one thing we’ve seen over the last few years, it’s that the Yankees don’t get desperate. Desperation is trading Jesus Montero for a quick fix after Cliff Lee goes back to Philadelphia, or giving into the Phillies first demand for Bobby Abreu after Sheffield and Matsui get hurt, or trading the farm for Johan Santana after missing the playoffs.

        • Jetrer

          that’s fair. Desperation was too strong.

          I just meant that they don’t really have a better option

        • Billion$Bullpen

          The CC deal was desperation. The Soriano deal was desperation. Both of those were in the last few years and if you want to take it all the way back to us getting Abreu and Snacks from Philly there are more examples.

          Lets not pretend our team never gets desperate.

    • Joe Pawlikowski

      “Why give Sabathia a contract that pays him like the best pitcher in baseball, when he’s clearly not the best pitcher in baseball?”

      Because the Yankees don’t need to play that game the same way other teams do.

      • UncleArgyle

        To quote Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park “Just because you could, doesn’t mean you should” I like CC Sabathia as a pitcher. I want him on the Yankees. But the idea of paying 25 million a year to a 38 year old lefty who literally might weigh 400lbs at that point doesn’t sound like good business to me. Its this kind of thinking that will have the team paying A Rod 30 million at age 43, when theres a chance the dude literally might not be able to walk at that point.

    • gc

      Do you even follow the Yankees??

    • Johnny O

      He might not be the best in baseball, but he’s the best in free agency this year and next year and possibly the year after.

      If all SP’s in all of basebally hit the FA market this year, then maybe you don’t give him that contract. You’re dealing in abstract whereas Brian Cashman has to deal with what’s available to him over the next few months, with an eye to 2012 and 2013.

      • UncleArgyle

        So by your rational improving the team for 2012 and 2013 is worth hurting the team in 2016,2017,2018? Thats the definition of short sighted.

        • Tim

          Can you definitively say that signing Sabathia now will hurt the team in 2016-2018? I didn’t think so.

        • Jetrer

          alternatives please???
          The Yankees are able to do that because they have the budget to do it. That is their advantage, and they appropriately make use of that advantage. Would it be better to hurt the team for the next few years to possibly (and absolutely no guarantee or this) help the team in 2016-2018?

    • Mike Axisa

      Why give Sabathia a contract that pays him like the best pitcher in baseball, when he’s clearly not the best pitcher in baseball?

      He’s one of the five or ten best pitchers in baseball, and guess what? He’s the one on the free agent market. It’s all about timing.

  • Doc Holliday

    I say don’t give him another cent until he’s earned it. If he goes out and wins us a WS next year then you can talk about a 5-6 year extension. Until then, don’t offer him anything more and if he goes to Texas then we sign CJ and Darvish.

    • Dennis

      CC > CJ and darwish. and cheaper 2.

    • Jetrer

      and how have CJ and Darvish earned that money???? CC helped win one World Series, and has been great overall for all 3 years. CJ and Darvish haven’t done a damn thing for the Yankees, but you would rather pay them, that makes sense. And how do you give him an extension after next year??? He’s a free agent this year.

    • Johnny O

      Seem to be a bunch of weird comments on here today….

      CC is a free agent this year. He won’t have the opportunity to go out and win us another WS before he gets a new contract. So your fanciful contract extension negotation will never happen.

      And you do realize that although SP’s are extremely important that he’s 1 of 25 on the roster and can’t win a WS by himself. Jeff Weaver has a world series ring for god’s sake that doesn’t mean he deserves 5/$125M.

    • Mike Axisa

      What exactly have Wilson and Darvish earned?

    • Dave B

      Man, if I were a troller and didn’t follow the Yankees this season I would think that CC was no better than Kei Igawa from reading these posts. Mike’s right about the timing, but at the end of the day who cares what the Yankees throw at CC to keep him? I’m not worried about “roster flexibility” as they’ll eat contracts and still put a competitive rotation out there. I’d say he’s earned every cent of what they’ve paid him. They arguably wouldn’t have made the playoffs without him in the rotation this year, and with a couple of decent breaks they would still be playing.

      • vin

        Exactly. It’s not Cashman’s job to compile the 25 best and safest contracts. He doesn’t get any credit for being the shrewdest GM. It’s his job to make sure the Yankees are in the playoff hunt every year. That requires taking on risk, and plunging into negotiations with less-than-ideal leverage.

        If they re-sign CC, and nothing else, they’ll be a playoff caliber team next year. Then they can go after another starter next offseason – when the market is improved.

        • KMill

          Nothing “shrewd” about a guy who finds a way to spend 200+ million and still have such glaring weaknesses in a roster that can’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs. If you want “shrewd” look at GM’s for teams like the Rays and the Diamondbacks who both made it just as far as the Yankees on a fraction fo the payroll!!!!

  • Brian S.

    I really hope CC can “settle” with five-one twenty five. If he wants six or seven years I would seriously consider letting him walk and taking the two draft picks.

  • Cuso

    It will get done.

    I believe CC that he wants to stay. It’s pretty telling that he moved his family here. Not many big FAs do that. Not a lot of Yankees even do that. Clemens and Pettitte come to mind.

    He’s going to opt out. He’s going to get paid. And this is the Yankees’ opportunity to renegotiate with no opt-out. His fitness will absolutely be addressed during the negotiating regardless of how many of you say “I don’t care how much he weighs, yada, yada.”

    CC will opt-out and the Yanks FO will use it to their advantage as well.

    6 years extension between $150-160 and it will be front-loaded. Hopefully the last 2 years of the deal will around $22M and $18M respectively.

  • Another Bronx Dynasty

    Cash needs to get creative. I would like to see 4 Yrs $90M with weight clauses & incentives to bring it to $120M. Also an options in yrs 5 & also in yr 6.

  • craig

    As far as Sherman’s point, the situations are not similar because it is not the same point in time. Today, the Yankees have Nova, AJ is one year closer to done with his contract, the 2012 FA class is 1 year closer and the minor league guys are 1 year closer to the big league club.

    This insistence from players, agents and sportswriters that player A deserves $X, just because player B got $X at some point in the past is just a straw-man argument that should be ripped apart every time it is uttered.

    Time changes EVERYTHING when it come to salaries and negotiations.