How far will the Yankees go for Cliff Lee?

We’re still waiting for the Yankees to officially offer Cliff Lee a contract. That might not come for a few weeks now — as Joel Sherman notes in his latest column, the Yankees are privy to the planned bidding war for Lee’s services. This could lead the Yankees to take the opposite approach as they took with CC Sabathia two years ago. Whereas then they made a huge initial offer, here we could see them come in with their monster offer a bit later in the process. How large an offer will they make? Sherman gives us a hint.

Rangers officials, however, have told friends in the industry that they assume the Yankees will go to a place financially — specifically in years offered — that Texas probably cannot follow. The Rangers might be able to afford it, but unlike the uber-rich Yankees, they cannot absorb it on the payroll if Lee’s performance declines steeply because of age and/or injury.

(But…but…the income tax!)

That the Rangers can even afford Lee for one year is a fairly recent development. When they traded for him in July they needed Seattle to kick in $2.5 million of the $4.2 million remaining on Lee’s $9 million contract. The Rangers were working through bankruptcy proceedings at the time, so it was surprising that they were allowed to take on payroll, period. But MLB made an exception. Then, in September, the team signed a new TV deal that would pay out $3 billion over 20 years. That supposedly set up the Rangers to increase payroll and retain the players that helped them capture the AL West crown.

That might not actually be the case. As Jayson Stark notes in his latest Rumblings & Grumblings, the Rangers won’t see the full effects of that TV deal for a few years.

One baseball man with knowledge of the Rangers’ massive new TV deal says people are overestimating the impact that contract will have on their ability to bring back Cliff Lee.

For one thing, the new deal doesn’t kick in until 2015, when Lee would be in the fifth season of his next contract.

For another, Rumblings was told, the new Rangers ownership has already used a large chunk of the upcoming TV money, which it collected up front as a signing bonus, to help finance its purchase of the franchise.

And, finally, the Rangers are about to lose their status as a revenue-sharing taker, which was allowing them to collect $8 million to $15 million a year.

So the bottom line is that this TV deal is not going to be worth an extra $80 million a season, as some people have speculated, and will have only minimal impact initially. Which means the Rangers still have to decide if it’s a sane business decision to outbid the Yankees in years and dollars on a player the Yankees seem determined to sign. We wish them luck on that.

Stark’s and Sherman’s stories seem to jibe. The Rangers will certainly benefit from this new TV deal, but perhaps not to the degree that would allow them to spend $20 to $25 million annually on a pitcher — even if that pitcher is Cliff Lee.

We should still expect the Rangers to bid aggressively on Lee, even if they ultimately won’t go to the Yankees’ lengths. This will certainly have an effect on what the Yankees pay — remember that bidding war that Lee and his agent want to enact. The end result could be a five-year, $125 million contract (with a sixth year option, opines Sherman). That’s a ton of money, especially considering the other high-end contracts on the Yankees’ ledger, but it’s probably the figure necessary to land Lee. That, however, does not make it a good idea.

ESPN New York’s Mark Simon recently looked at the 52 pitchers who have signed a deal of four years or longer since 1991-1992 and found that only four produced an ERA+ of 120 or greater for the length of the contract. That’s a bit misleading, of course. There were some pretty horrible pitchers signed to deals of four years or greater. Cliff Lee is quite a bit better than guys such as Jeff Suppan, Chan Ho Park, and Barry Zito. This is the challenge we face when comparing free agents to their predecessors. How can you accurately forecast the outlook for an outlier?

Cliff Lee is clearly in it for the money, and the Yankees have the most of it. That allows them to be a bit reckless where other teams require restraint. The Rangers might want to keep Lee, but they might not be in the best position to do so. We saw what happened the last time the Rangers went out of their way to overpay a player. After their first ever World Series berth, would they be willing to take that same risk again 10 years later?

What Went Right: CC Sabathia

Every team has an “ace,” at least according to the rudimentary definition of the term. Yeah, someone has to be the best pitcher on the staff and someone has to start on Opening Day, but that doesn’t make that person true aces. A true ace is the guy that can carry his team on his back for stretches of the season. He’s the guy you give the ball to in big games without hesitation. He’s the guy that when you sit down and turn the television on to watch the game, you expect a win. The Yankees have a true ace, and his name is CC Sabathia.

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Sabathia’s first season in New York was a smashing success; a brilliant regular season effort (3.39 FIP in 230 IP) followed by an even brilliant-er postseason capped off with a World Series victory. Building upon that success and being even better in 2010 would be damn near impossible, but CC gave it his best shot anyway.

Typically a slow starter, Sabathia skated through five April starts with a 3.12 ERA, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Rays in his second start of the season. He ran into a rough stretch after throwing eight innings of one run ball against the Orioles in his first May outing, dropping four of five starts thanks to 21 runs allowed in 28.2 IP. It was an uncharacteristic rough patch for CC, who battled fastball command more than anything, but once the calendar flipped to June, CC stood for Cruise Control.

Seven innings and three runs against the Orioles. Then seven innings and two runs against those sameOrioles. Then seven innings and three runs against the Phillies. Then 16 combined innings and one run against the Mets and Dodgers. It goes on like this for quite a while.

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

From May 30th through September 17th, Sabathia made 21 starts and threw no less than seven innings in 17 of them. The other four lasted 6.1, 6.2, 6.0, and 6.1 innings. He posted a 2.53 ERA in 152.2 innings during that stretch, holding opponents to a .273 wOBA. The Yankees won 17 of those 21 games, and most importantly CC was saving the bullpen. The rotation went from rock solid to down right disastrous during that time thanks to Andy Pettitte‘s injury and the general suckiness of Javy Vazquez, A.J. Burnett, and Dustin Moseley. The days that Sabathia pitched were the days everyone was able to rest easy, knowing that the big guy was going to take the ball deep into the game and if nothing else give the Yanks a chance to win. More often than not, they did.

Sabathia was also at his best when the team needed him to be. With a 6-14 record in their previous 20 games, the Yanks were stumbling through the final month of the season and had yet to clinch a playoff spot through 158 games. The natives were getting restless, but CC took the mound in Game 159 in Toronto and carried his team to a guaranteed playoff berth with 8.1 innings of one run ball. The only thing that stood in the way of a complete game win was the greatest reliever of all-time; Sabathia had plenty left in the tank if needed. Three weeks later, when the Yanks had their backs up against the wall in Game Five the ALCS, CC gave them six hard fought innings against the Rangers to extend their season another day.

The end result for Sabathia was a season that pleases both old school fans and saberists alike. He went 21-7 with a 3.18 ERA in 34 starts, numbers that have him squarely in the conversation for the Cy Young Award. CC also posted a 3.54 FIP and 5.1 fWAR, figures that made him one of the eight or ten most valuable pitchers in the league. If you prefer Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, only Felix Hernandez was better. No matter which demographic you below two, old school or nerdy stats, we can all agree that the Yankees were lucky enough to trot out one of the game’s best every five days this season.

The CC Sabathia experience is now two years old for Yankee fans, and it’s near impossible to call his tenure anything but masterful. The Yanks have won 45 of his 68 starts, and on an individual level CC has posted a 3.27 ERA (3.47 FIP) in an unbelievable 467.2 innings. As far as the Yankees are concerned, almost nothing went more right than Sabathia in 2010.

Yanks and Jeter inching closer but still far apart

As the Yankees and Derek Jeter dance around their contract negotiations, a certain sense of urgency is lacking. The breaking news, as it were, concerns the twin facts that the Yanks are prepared to pay Jeter more than his play on the field and advancing age would seemingly be worth were he not Derek Jeter and that the two sides expect to sign a deal at some point this winter. How shocking.

So far, we’ve heard lots of opining about Jeter, and it comes across as noise. His free agency is a storyline this off-season because it’s the first time he’s hit the open market, but while other teams could theoretically be interested in signing Jeter, odds are good he won’t even talk to anyone other than the Yankees this winter. He wants to stay in New York, and New York wants him.

Yet, through the noise comes some key tidbits and ideas that deserve some attention. One interesting item of note that got lost behind the Newsday paywall came to us from Ken Davidoff. He writes:

Jeter’s agent Casey Close met with Cashman, Yankees president Randy Levine and managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner, earlier this week in Tampa. Indications are that the Yankees didn’t extend a formal offer to Jeter, but that the two sides are far apart – and yet they understand that they’ll find common ground, somehow. Neither side has a great alternative.

Most of Davidoff’s work this summer has gone unread because of Newsday’s business decision to hide their content, but his analysis and reporting is often spot-on. We don’t know how far apart the two sides are, but it’s safe to assume that, at this early stage, both the money and the years aren’t lining up. That’s a negotiation though, and both sides will get to the right middle point.

As the Yanks negotiation — and I’d put the deal date some time after Thanksgiving — we have heard over the last few weeks what Jeter’s deal won’t look like. Despite all indications that Jeter wants to step back from the game when his playing career ends, Joel Sherman proposed a massive post-career deal that would bridge any monetary gap. The Yanks would pay Jeter $45 million for three on-field years and include a 25-year, $75-million personal services contract as well. Sherman even found an unnamed AL executive to validate this idea. “It is a no-brainer to me that is how it should be done,” his source said. “You don’t have to give [Jeter] a fortune of money now. Both sides save face. And you keep him for life.”

Buster Olney disagrees with Sherman. He doesn’t think the Yankees are keen on writing Jeter a blank check. In an Insider-only post last week, Olney noted how the organization does not “feel obligated to pay Jeter the way that they paid [Alex] Rodriguez [in 2007]; rather, they are intent on not repeating the mistake of investing huge dollars in an aging player.” Jeter is very popular now, but the franchise and the player will both be able to move on when the time is right.

Jayson Stark further buries Sherman’s idea. He writes, “Early indications are that the Yankees aren’t interested. When Jeter’s deal gets done one of these weeks, says one baseball man who spoke with them, it will be ‘a baseball contract. Period.'”

In terms of Jeter’s post-career relationship with the team, it will be a strong one. While Ken Rosenthal wondered if the Yanks were going to squeeze their captain, Richard Sandomir presents a more nuanced view. In The Times yesterday, Sandomir explores how Jeter’s value is tied into the Yanks and how the club’s image rests, in part, with Jeter. As MLB consultant Vince Gennaro said to Sandomir, “In reality, his value as a brand-builder will grow long after his skills diminish.”

The Yankees and Jeter will close that gap soon, and Jeter will be overpaid. Some will wring their hands; others will cheer that the captain is back and handsomely rewarded. As far as the bottom line goes, both sides will walk away happy.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Open Thread: We have lines

Looks kinda weird, no? I can’t believe they didn’t make that place more football friendly! (/sarcasm)

Anyway, here’s your open thread for the night. The Devils, Islanders, Knicks, and Nets are all in action. Chat about that, or whatever else you want. Have fun.

Photo from the Yankees Twitter feed

2010 Minor League Free Agents

The one and only Matt Eddy of Baseball America compiled this year’s list of six (or more) year minor league free agents, a list that runs 533 players deep. The Yankees lost 20 players, the most notable of whom are Jason Hirsh, Jon Ortiz, Wilkin DeLaRosa, P.J. Pilittere, Marcos Vechionacci, and Justin Christian. Former Yankee farmhands T.J. Beam, Eric Duncan, D’Angelo Jimenez, Mitch Jones, Edwar Ramirez, and some guy named Brian Bruney also hit free agency.

If you’re looking for some sleepers, the one name that stands out is utility guy Drew Sutton (plays all four infield spots plus the outfield corners). He’s got a .381 OBP in more than 1,200 plate appearances at Double- and Triple-A, and he’s recently worked with the guy that turned Ben Zobrist into an All Star. If nothing else, that’s a prime piece to stash in Scranton. I guess LHP Clay Zavada, RHP Jesus Delgado, OF Wladimir Balentien, and RHP Jay Sborz are interesting as well, but none of them are forgotten gems.

If they were free agents today: Lee or Sabathia?

Sometimes the choice is obvious. After the 2008 season the Yankees needed an ace. CC Sabathia had just become a free agent. After 2010 the Yankees have their ace, but certainly need a pitching upgrade. It just so happens that Cliff Lee is a free agent. In both instances the top pitcher was the Yankees top target. It didn’t take all-night strategy sessions to determine their interest. But what if the two had become free agents in the same off-season, and the Yankees had enough payroll for just one? Which one would they sign?

(Duane Burleson/AP)

In terms of current abilities Lee holds the advantage. Over the last three seasons Lee has a better ERA, FIP, and xFIP. He also has walked fewer batters and had allowed fewer home runs. He also has the second highest WAR during that period, 0.6 behind Roy Halladay, despite having pitched 53.1 fewer innings. That isn’t to knock Sabathia’s abilities. He has been phenomenal in his own right during those same three years, producing a 3.07 ERA, 3.27 FIP, and 3.55 xFIP. But in terms of the guy you want starting 30-plus games in 2011, Lee is the superior choice.

When we consider a long-term contract Sabathia gains some ground. He is a full two years younger than Lee, which helps mitigate a multi-year deal. Then there’s the matter of track record. The Indians put Sabathia in their rotation to start the 2001 season, and he’s been a mainstay ever since. Lee, on the other hand, had cups of coffee in 2002 and 2003 before breaking in full-time for 2004. He also wasn’t spectacular in his early years and eventually needed a minor league assignment in 2007 to figure himself out.

(Mark Duncan/AP)

In his career Sabathia has pitched 2127 innings in 10 seasons. In those innings he has produced a 3.57 ERA, 3.58 FIP, and 3.80 xFIP. Those are excellent career numbers, and Sabathia has outperformed them ever since entering his prime (circa the 2006 season). Lee has thrown 1409 innings in nine seasons total, though he has pitched more than 179 innings in just six. Even with his recent dominance his career numbers do not stack up to Sabathia’s: 3.85 ERA, 3.77 FIP, 4.16 xFIP. Over the long haul, Sabathia is clearly the more proven pitcher.

Health also works in Sabathia’s favor. In his 10 seasons he has missed just 110 days total due to injury, and has never spent a day on the 60-day DL. The last time he hit the disabled list was at the start of the 2006 season. Since then he has missed zero days — the only time he showed he was even remotely injured was when he was pulled from a start in Florida last year. That is literally his entire injury history since April 2006. Lee, on the other hand, has missed 141 days in his career, including one 60-day DL stint, though that was all the way back in 2003. Still, the difference is huge. Sabathia’s 110 missed days are spread over 10 years of service. Lee’s 141 days are spread over seven years.

Cliff Lee might be the guy to choose on a one-year deal. In terms of current abilities, it does appear that he’s a better pitcher than CC Sabathia. But when choosing which player more deserves a multi-year deal, the advantage shifts to Sabathia. He’s been at it longer, is younger, and has a cleaner injury history. Lee’s numbers in the past three years might be better, but not to the degree that would make him a better long-term risk. Thankfully, the Yankees don’t have to make this choice. They can have both pitchers in their 2011 rotation. But forced to choose between the two for a free agent contract, give me Sabathia every day.

What Went Wrong: Winn & Kearns

You hit it in the wrong direction, Randy. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Given the general construction of their roster, it’s always difficult for the Yankees to sign quality bench players as free agents in the offseason. No one in their right mind wants to sit for weeks at a time behind a cast of All Stars, especially when their playing time will impact their future earnings. As a result, the Yanks have had to resort to signing cast-offs late in the offseason and/or trading for help at midseason. They did both in 2010, signing a reserve outfielder right before pitchers and catchers reported, then replacing him with a trade deadline pickup. Unfortunately, neither worked.

Randy Winn

The Yankees signed Winn to a relatively cheap contract in February, a one-year pact worth just $1.1M guaranteed, though there was another $900,000 tied up in incentives based on plate appearances against left-handed pitchers only. That told everyone right away that they viewed him as some sort of a platoon bat, not to mention a defensive specialist and occasional pinch runner.

As it turned out, Winn’s tenure in pinstripes lasted less than two months. He was designated for assignment on May 28th, less than 50 games into the season. His time with the Yanks featured just 71 plate appearances (0-for-11 vs. LHP) and a lowly .276 wOBA, though I will say that I thought he had some decent at-bats. He seemed to work the count well and at least make the pitcher work, though the results just weren’t there. Perhaps even more damning is that the supposed defensive specialist cost the team 1.2 runs in 162.2 defensive innings. Mash it all together, and Winn was worth three-tenths of a win below replacement level during his time in New York. Thankfully the Cardinals lessened the blow somewhat by assuming roughly $270,000 of Winn’s contract when they signed him in June.

Austin Kearns

Fans know Kearns' strikeout face well. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

After Winn flunked out of pinstripes and it became painfully obvious that Marcus Thames was a hazard to himself and anyone around him defensively, the Yanks went out and acquired Kearns from the Indians in exchange for a player to be named later (Zach McAllister) at the trade deadline. The former Red had rebuilt his value with the Indians in the first half, wOBA’ing .343 overall and (more importantly to the Yanks) .353 against southpaws.

Kearns instantly improved the team’s bench and overall depth, and his first three weeks in pinstripes were superb: .434 wOBA in 45 plate appearances while filling in at both outfield corners and occasionally pinch-hitting. That was basically all the Yankees would get out of Kearns though, as his production simply cratered after that. His final 74 plate appearances of the season featured just 24 times on base (inflated by four hit by pitches and one reached on an error) and 26 strikeouts, or one every 3.08 times to the plate. Although he made the postseason roster, Kearns didn’t make it into a single game even after Mark Teixeira‘s injury.

Kearns wasn’t a total loss for the Yankees (.310 wOBA) because his defense was rock solid (1.6 runs better than average), coming in at three-tenths of a win better than some replacement level scrub. In his defense, he was battling some sort of hand/wrist injury down the stretch that I’m sure hampered his swing, but still. Kearns was as close to useless as it gets in the last six or so weeks of the season.

* * *

A pair of approximately replacement level fourth (or fifth, depending on your point of view) outfielders didn’t sink the Yankees’ season, though they certainly didn’t help. Thankfully the starting trio of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher were all above average performers this year, ditto Thames in a reserve role, so the lack of a true outfield bat off the bench wasn’t as much of a problem as it could have been.