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.