Archive for Cliff Lee
Only three questions this week, but the answers are kinda long. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything throughout the week.
John asks: With all the talk of the Phillies trading people like Cliff Lee at the deadline, do you think the Yankees would be interested? Right now next year’s rotation is CC Sabathia and every one else is a question mark.
I think that depends entirely on whether the team tries to go through with the plan to get under the $189M luxury tax limit in 2014 in beyond. If they want to give it a shot, forget about Lee. If they scrap the whole plan — as has been rumored already — then yeah, I do think they would be interested. Brian Cashman & Co. seem to be enamored with the lefty, first trying to trade for him then trying to sign him as a free agent.
Lee, 34, is not the same pitcher he was a few years ago, but he’s still outstanding. Easily one of the top 15-20 starters in the game. His strikeout (7.25 K/9 and 20.1 K%) and ground ball (39.3%) rates have both been trending downward since he rejoined the Phillies, though he still doesn’t walk anyone (1.27 BB/9 and 3.5 BB%). Lee will earn $25M this year and in each of the next two years, plus his $27.5M vesting option for 2016 includes a $12.5M (!) buyout. Since we’re roughly one-fifth of the way through this year, that’s approximately $82.5M left on his contract if the option doesn’t vest.
If the Phillies eat say, $20-30M of that $82.5M, I think it would take a three- or four-player package to acquire Lee, and at least two of those players would have to be studs. He may be expensive, but he’s also really good. You won’t get him for free just because. Would Gary Sanchez, Mason Williams, Brett Marshall, and a fourth guy be enough? Maybe. Would I do it? Sure, especially if the Yankees plan on scrapping the 2014 payroll plan. The upgrade from Ivan Nova/David Phelps to Lee is legitimately four or five wins over a full season, and that’s the difference between baseball and golf and October given the rest of the AL East.
Mike asks: What would it take to acquire Nick Hundley? Seems to be Joe Girardi type of catcher, someone who does everything okay but nothing great.
I’m not sure if the Girardi comparison is accurate, but Hundley is a solid all-around catcher. He’s rebounded well this year (109 wRC+) after hitting miserably a year ago (29 wRC+), and he’s been close to a league average hitter overall (95 wRC+) since getting the job full-time in 2009. His defensive reputation is strong and he’s thrown out close to 32% of attempted base-stealers the last three years.
Hundley, 29, is under contract for just $7M between this year and next, which works out pretty well for the Yankees. Yasmani Grandal is the catcher of the future in San Diego, which could land Hundley on the trade block. Interestingly enough, Hundley recently called out Grandal — “You want to talk about a guy who is unproven and had a good couple months on steroids, go ahead,” he said — which is kind of a jerk thing to do. Quality catchers are very hard to find, so two quality (but not elite) prospects seems like a reasonable asking price. Marshall and Ramon Flores for Hundley? I’d think hard about it.
Andrew asks: Can I get a scouting report (and your personal opinion) on Rob Refsnyder? The kid is absolutely mashing, and it’s been long enough this season to call it more than a fluke.
The Yankees gave Refsnyder a little less than $206k as their fifth round pick last summer, and all he’s done this year is mash. I’m talking .391/.490/.523 (~184 wRC+) in 153 plate appearances between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa prior to last night’s game. Here’s a snippet of what Baseball America (subs. req’d) had to say before the draft:
Scouts like his bat and think he could be an average hitter. He’s always hitting — he holds his high school record for the highest career batting average and is a career .341 hitter over his three years with the Wildcats. The problem scouts have is that Refsnyder just doesn’t profile as a corner outfielder in pro ball because he has a flat swing that’s geared more for doubles than home runs. He’s an average runner with an average arm, so scouts who like the bat are interested in getting Refsnyder to move back to second base, a position he played in high school.
After playing the outfield during his pro debut last year, Refsnyder has played second base this year and he’s very much a work in progress at the position. He committed 12 errors in 29 games prior to last night, and although errors are hardly the best way to measure defensive competence, it’s an indication he’s a little rough around the edges. That’s not surprising, he didn’t play the position at all in college. He’ll need some time to adjust.
I see Refsnyder as a (very) rich man’s Mitch Hilligoss. He can hit and he knows what he’s doing at the plate, but he doesn’t offer a ton of power and doesn’t have a set position. Maybe that means he winds up a very good utility man who can play second, third, and both corner outfield spots, who knows. Obviously they should give him to time to work on things at second. Refsnyder is mashing so far, but he also came from a big-time college program and should mash Single-A pitchers. I’ll get more excited about the performance if he maintains it at the Double-A level. His season to date has been very exciting though.
David asks: Would the Yankees have any chance to get under the $189mm “cap” if they had signed Cliff Lee a few years back? I think it would be much tougher which might be good or bad.
The Yankees (and Rangers) tried to sign Cliff Lee as a free agent during the 2010-2011 offseason, a year before the new Collective Bargaining Agreement and luxury tax/revenue sharing rules were put in place. It’s not like everyone knew the new system was coming and the Yankees were willing to blow past it anyway, just to be clear.
Let’s say Lee signed the contract the Yankees offered him, which according to Jerry Crasnick was a six-year deal worth $132M plus a $16M player option for a seventh year. The option doesn’t count for luxury tax purposes since it’s not guaranteed, so Lee’s annual tax hit would have been $22M. Obviously if you add that to their current payroll obligations plus Robinson Cano‘s inevitable extension, the plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014 looks impossible. That’s a very simplistic way of looking at it though.
Had the Yankees signed Lee two winters ago, there’s a chance they would have been willing to let CC Sabathia walk as a free agent once he triggered his opt-out clause last offseason. At the very least they probably would have been a little less desperate to work out a new contract. The new CBA was agreed to (or at least details were released) in late-November — the first report of the team’s 2014 plan broke in early-December — and it’s unlikely Sabathia would have signed before then. He would have been the best starter on the market and the top free agents usually don’t sign until the Winter Meetings or later. The Yankees could have stayed in contact before backing away once the new CBA was announced.
On the other hand, they could have re-signed Sabathia and kept their lefty duo intact for the next few years. They probably would have never signed Hiroki Kuroda in that scenario but I think they still would have made the Jesus Montero-for-Michael Pineda trade. Two $20M+ pitchers means the other three spots would have had to have been filled by dirt cheap arms, and Pineda fit the bill. Maybe they would have kept Montero and targeted a lesser young pitcher instead, who knows. The what-if game has infinite possibilities.
I don’t think that the plan to get under the luxury tax threshold by 2014 would have been scrapped all together had the Yankees signed Lee two offseasons ago. It would be much more difficult to achieve had they re-sign Sabathia last winter, but we have no way of knowing if that would have been the case. Having Lee last year also would have improved the team’s chances of advancing beyond Game Five of the ALDS a great deal, and who knows how that would have impacted their planning.
August 4th: Via Danny Knobler, the Yankees did not put in a claim on Lee. Not all that surprising, but c’mon, a man can dream.
August 3rd: Via Jon Heyman and Jon Morosi, Lee has been claimed off trade waivers by the Dodgers. Because the Yankees are in the AL with the second best record in the league, every team other than the Rangers was ahead of them on the waiver totem pole.
August 2nd: Via Jeff Passan, the Phillies have placed left-hander Cliff Lee on revocable trade waivers. This is completely routine, literally hundreds of players will be placed on trade waivers this month. If a player is claimed, he can only be traded to the team that claims him. If he goes unclaimed, he can be traded anywhere.
As Matt Gelb explains, the Phillies were open to trading Lee prior to the deadline but were unwilling to eat any of the ~$95M left on his contract, and they wanted top prospects in return. The Yankees won’t place a claim because they won’t risk having that financial obligation foisted on them, but us fans can dream of a scenario in which they acquire Lee just by absorbing his contract and not giving up any prospects, high-end or otherwise. It would throw a massive wrench into the 2014 payroll plan, but man … that rotation.
The trade deadline is 4pm ET tomorrow, and the Yankees will definitely be in the market for a fill-in third baseman with Alex Rodriguez on the DL with a broken bone in his hand. Pitching help — both rotation and bullpen — could also be a target, though they figure to be done looking for outfielders following the Ichiro Suzuki pickup. We’re going to keep track of any Yankees-related trade deadline rumors right here throughout the day, so check back often for updates. The latest will be on the bottom. Here are Sunday’s rumors if you missed them…
- Stephen Drew is one potential option as the Yankees look for infield help. Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers worked for the Yankees in 2010 and knows their farm system, which could expedite things. Drew will likely clear waivers in August, so he doesn’t necessarily have to be traded by tomorrow. Joe looked at him in-depth last week. [Joel Sherman]
- “I don’t think they are even in on it,” said someone in the know about the Yankees and Chase Headley. Yesterday we heard that the asking price was a bit too rich. [Sherman]
- Cliff Lee is on the market and the Phillies intend to trade him either before the deadline or in the offseason to clear payroll. They obviously want a monster haul in return, but the Yankees won’t get involved because they don’t want to take on his contract. [Buster Olney & Sherman]
- We heard yesterday that the Yankees had interest in Rafael Betancourt, but they have not contacted the Rockies about the right-handed reliever. [Sherman]
- The Yankees are prioritizing defense in their search for infield help. They have players ahead of Ty Wigginton on their shopping list, unsurprisingly. [Jon Heyman]
- The Yankees are not close to any trade as of this afternoon, but that is always subject to change rather quickly. [Olney]
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but the Yankees are not pursuing Cliff Lee according to Joel Sherman. There’s been some thought that Philadelphia would look to move the veteran left-hander in an effort to save money after signing Cole Hamels long-term. The Yankees are one of nine teams on Lee’s no-trade list, plus Jon Heyman says the Phillies plan to keep him at least through the deadline anyway.
Lee, 33, is having his worst season in five years (3.95 ERA and 3.40 FIP) but is still pretty darn good. He’s been much more homer prone (1.14 HR/9) than at any other point since turning into the Cy Young Award winning version of himself. The Yankees probably don’t have the prospects to land a pitcher of Lee’s caliber anyway, especially if they want the other team to foot some of the bill. Their non-interest in Lee isn’t terribly surprising, but you know, just in case you were wondering.
Got five questions for you this week. Make sure you use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us mailbag questions or anything else at any time.
Biggie asks: Joel Sherman wrote an article about how the Rockies would benefit from trading Carlos Gonzalez, who after this year has five years around $73M left on his deal. I know Sherman was reaching, but what would it take to land the talented CarGon? He would look great in Yankee pinstripes and cost, per year, about the same as Nick Swisher.
Gonzalez is a star of the first order, a career .384 wOBA hitter with base-stealing skills (career 76-for-94, 80.4%) and average defense in the outfield. Yes, he has a massive home/road split — .432/.332 wOBAs — but I don’t believe his true offensive talent is essentially Denard Span or Will Venable outside of Coors Field. Plus if you put him in New York and Yankee Stadium, he’d still have the ballpark going for him. CarGo isn’t quite Carlos Beltran circa 2005, but he’s not all that far off.
Anyway, Gonzalez would be a perfect fit for the Yankees as a young (27 in October), left-handed hitting outfielder that is under contract for the next five seasons at a below market rate ($11.4M average annual value/luxury tax hit). The Yankees targeted Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson for similar reasons in recent years, but CarGo is a better player. The problem is that I don’t think the Yankees have the pieces to get him, unless they’re willing to part with Ivan Nova. The Rockies need pitching in the worst way and I highly doubt David Phelps, Adam Warren, or the injured Manny Banuelos will grab their attention, ditto the Low-A kids who are years away from the bigs. If we knew Michael Pineda was going to be fine going forward, then sure include Nova in a potential package. Obviously we don’t, however.
Chris asks: How have the Yankees defensive metrics been this year? It seems like missing Brett Gardner in left field hasn’t been that big of a deal. Are they average, above or below compared to everyone else and how are they doing compared to last year’s team?
As a team, the Yankees rank 26th in UZR (-14.4) and 20th in DRS (-12), so they’ve been a bad defensive team so far this year. Obviously you have to take defensive stats with a massive grain of salt this year early in the season, so keep that in mind. I think the Yankees get consistently elite defense from only one position on the field and it’s (arguably) the least important: first base. I consider Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, and Alex Rodriguez to be average at their positions, Cano a bit above average at second, and both Raul Ibanez and Derek Jeter well below average at their positions. Ranking in the bottom third of the league defensively certainly passes the sniff test.
The advanced stats were split on New York last year, ranking them top ten in UZR (+23.2) and nearly bottom ten in DRS (-12). Pick your poison here. I think they were probably in the middle, an average defensive club overall with most of that due to Gardner running everything down. For a quick and dirty look at a team’s defensive performance, just use 1-BABIP. The Yankees are at .703, so right now three out of every ten balls put in play off the team’s pitchers are falling in for hits. That’s one of the worst marks in the game (21st). The Yankees had a pretty good defensive club last year and the year before, but I definitely think it’s fair to say they’ve taken a step back this year, with or without Gardner.
Alec asks: Mike, since the day the Yankees missed out on Cliff Lee, what kind of pitcher has he been? Do you think he has been earning him money or is it a blessing in disguise that he wanted to go to Philly?
Oh no, this isn’t a blessing in disguise. Lee has continued to be one of the very best pitchers in baseball since the start of last season, right on par with the guy he was before hitting free agency. You can’t look at his win total (zero!) this year and draw any conclusions from that, Lee’s been absolutely stellar for the Phillies…
|ERA||K%||BB%||HR%||fWAR/200 IP||bWAR/200 IP|
Yeah, he’s been pretty fantastic. We could spend all day playing the What If Game had the Yankees signed Lee — Jesus Montero is never traded, Nova is never given a real chance, etc. — but the only thing know for sure is that the guy was a brilliant pitcher before signing his megacontract and he has continued to be a brilliant pitcher since.
Mike asks: What would you think of the idea of trading for Ichiro or signing him in the offseason? He’s nothing like the Ichiro of old, but could still be a ok half of a platoon split for a stop gap RF next year or feel in while Gardner is out.
Since the start of last season, a span of 1,023 plate appearances, Ichiro is a .269/.303/.347 hitter. That includes a .264/.288/.375 batting line in 302 plate appearances this year. At 38 years old. There should be alarms going off in your head. Hitters that old who see their performance decline that much are most likely done being effective big leaguers. The odds of Ichiro rebounding next year (in any uniform) are tiny, miniscule compared to the odds of him getting worse. I know he’s a brand name and all that, but I can’t see any way a contending team could add Ichiro, play him full-time, and expect to improve their club. This is just … no.
Hanks asks: Here’s a question I’ve had on my mind for a while. We’ve been spoiled by over 15 years of winning teams, and there appears to be no end in sight. Surely “what goes up must come down” and at some point the Yankees will go through a long stretch where they are bottom dwellers. But, I just can’t envision how that would happen – it seems like they are primed to keep on winning indefinitely. Given the current landscape of the league can you describe a scenario that would see the end of this great run?
The easy answer would be to say it’ll happen when all of their older and higher priced players all collapse at the same time, but it’s not that simple. Sure, the Yankees are locked into CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez for all eternity, but they’ll have the opportunity to change their second base, catcher, and two of three outfield situations in the next 18 months. That’s just the offense. Ivan Nova gives the team some long-term youth in the rotation and the one-year deals for Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte give them a lot of flexibility.
For the Yankees to have a true collapse and go into a long stretch of suckiness, a lot of their younger and prime years players are going to have to drastically under-perform while the old guys start playing like real old guys. They have the money to cover up the typical year-to-year injuries and player evaluation mistakes, so it’ll take a whole bunch of them at one time. Maybe I’m just biased, but I think situations like 2008 — missing the postseason for one year before getting right back to contending the next year — is “bottom dwelling” for the Yankees. Given how the team is built right now, it’s really hard to see how they’ll be non-competitive over multiple, consecutive seasons.
In many respects the current Yankee offseason has been remarkably similar to last year’s. While the team hasn’t been spurned by the biggest free agent starter available this time around, for a second straight year they’ve been notably cautious with upgrading the roster (well, with the exception of the ill-advised signings of Pedro Feliciano and Rafael Soriano), as Brian Cashman seems determined not to overpay for anything other than the closest he can get to as sure a thing as there is in baseball.
This approach is fairly sound from a pure baseball operations perspective, although it’s left factions of the fanbase a bit skittish (especially in the aftermath of the John Danks extension), particularly with regards to a perceived lack of interest in the still-available starters on the board despite Cashman’s repeated public declarations of wanting to improve the pitching staff.
In trying to make sense of the Yankee front office’s increasing reluctance to be in on, well just about anyone, I keep coming back to the one event that has ostensibly dictated every move (or non-move) the team has made during the last calendar year, and that’s missing out on Cliff Lee. In hindsight I don’t think the team ever really thought Lee wouldn’t take its offer — especially considering it wound up representing the most years and guaranteed money (seven years, $148 million) — and what we’ve seen since is an organization that’s had to completely revamp its roster planning on the fly.
We saw fliers taken on Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia — neither of whom end up being Yankees if the team signs Lee — but they came exceptionally cheap and with little risk. If they didn’t work out, all the team had to do was eat a minimal amount of cash and dump them. We watched them sit tight at last July’s trade deadline, unwilling to overpay for less-than-sure-thing Ubaldo Jimenez.
This offseason many are now clamoring for the team to try Hiroki Kuroda or Roy Oswalt on one-year deals, and while I won’t go so far as to build a case against either, as either hurler appears to make a a good amount of sense as a one-year stopgap for the Yankees (and for the record, I’m fine with signing either one), the fact that the Yankees haven’t been terribly aggressive on either player should also signal that maybe these right-handers aren’t the no-brainers they would appear to be on paper. There’s a lot to like about Kuroda, but while the difference in environments is often overstated the relative difficulty level between pitching in the NL West and AL East is still very real, and I’d imagine the Yankees’ internal projections see Kuroda as more of a #4 than the #2 type many are hoping he could be. How many teams in 2011 paid their number-four starter the $12 million many presume the 36-year-old Kuroda is seeking?
As for Oswalt, consider this — the Yankees decided to roll the dice on Bartolo Colon last winter despite having not pitched in the Majors in over a year and a set of medicals that would make Ben Sheets envious. While the Colon move worked out far better than the Yankees ever could have expected — and cost nothing — the reticence on Oswalt would seem to indicate that the team doesn’t believe Oswalt’s asking price matches up with his questionable health.
The other side of the Lee coin is that, as a general manager with a fair number of high-profile free agent pitching signings that haven’t worked out — Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, Kei Igawa and A.J. Burnett immediately spring to mind, not to mention two failed Javier Vazquez deals (though both were defensible at the time) — I think Cash is now hellbent on not overpaying another team’s free agent for past production. It’s why he’s stayed away from the Wilsons, Buehrles and even Darvishes of the world this winter, and why he’s (to this point) ignored Edwin Jackson.
Should the market for, say, Oswalt somehow fall below the $5 million threshold, Cash (and every other GM in the game) would undoubtedly be all over it, but until that point I’m not sure I’d expect to see Oswalt in pinstripes. Same goes for Kuroda. When you consider that the Yankees got Colon and Garcia for a combined $2.4 million (pre-incentives) and turned them into 5.8 bWAR, that tells me that the team feels confident enough in its in-house options that it doesn’t feel like it has to make a free agent upgrade, or is only interested in backfilling the back of the rotation with pitchers on the team’s terms.
With no sure thing available for just money since Lee last year, the Yankees have had to forge a very different path for themselves. Many of us spent a lot of time looking at potential low-cost options for the rotation last offseason — I for one wrote up Jeff Francis, Brad Penny and Justin Duchscherer among others last winter — and it appears that’s exactly what the Yankees intend to do once again. I wouldn’t be surprised if they wound up with Rich Harden, who I looked at back in November; or maybe even someone completely off the radar like Joel Pineiro (not saying I endorse this, but maybe he’s worth a shot on a Colon/Garcia-type deal); or the oft-injured Chris Young.
Or maybe Cash stands pat, happy to go into the season with a rotation of CC Sabathia-Ivan Nova-Phil Hughes-A.J. Burnett-Freddy Garcia, with Hector Noesi waiting in the wings. Many are expecting the bottom to fall out on Nova, but I’ve begun to wonder if, in the desire to rein in expectations, we’re actually underrating what Ivan can do. I’m also — perhaps foolishly so — bizarrely optimistic on Hughes and Burnett. If either or both can turn in a season of starting with an ERA under 4.50, the robust Yankee offense will still be in position to win a lot of their starts.
Additionally, for what it’s worth — and depending on your opinion on forecasting systems, it may not be much — as rosters currently stand the Yankees are projected to win the AL East by both CAIRO (with a 94-68 record) and Oliver (92-70). While the usual projection caveats of course apply, and rosters will obviously change prior to opening day, that the Yankees would appear to have a roughly 93-win team on paper even if they don’t add a single piece the rest of the winter should be pretty heartening, all things considered.
While we’ve grown accustomed to splashy acquisitions, Cashman has proven himself fairly adept at dumpster diving in the wake of the Cliff Lee saga, and it seems like Yankee fans may once again have to forgo filet mignon in favor of dog food for a second straight offseason.
Nearly a full twelve months after the Yankees watched Cliff Lee spurn New York and depart from Texas for Broad Street in Philadelphia, they find themselves yet again eyeing a big name free agent starting pitcher. This year’s premium talent is lefty C.J. Wilson, and he’s reportedly seeking six years and $120m, a hefty sum for a pitcher with just two years of experience as a starter in the major leagues. Aside from the fact that he’s a lefty from the Rangers seeking big money, Wilson really is the polar opposite of Lee. In a lot of ways, C.J. Wilson is everything that Cliff Lee was not.
The easiest place to start is their performance. Cliff Lee is a savant when it comes to control, while Wilson is one of the most wild starters in baseball. In the last two years, only three people have walked more batters than C.J. Wilson’s total of 167 (Gio Gonzalez, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Ryan Dempster). Not even A.J. Burnett has walked as many as Wilson over this span. By comparison, in the two years prior to hitting free agency, Lee walked a mere 61 batters, tied for the lowest amongst any pitcher with at least 200 innings pitched. Their career walk rates (Wilson 3.75 BB/9, Lee 2.15, but not higher than 2.00 since 2007) really drive the point home.
Wilson and Lee are also very different in their personalities and home lives. Based on what I could gather from watching the way Lee handled his negotiations and subsequent press conferences, he seems to be a very laid back guy. He’s from Arkansas, not just geographically but also in the sense that it’s his home. It’s where he’s from. Like a smart husband, Lee also placed a very high premium on the wishes of his wife and family when choosing a new team. The positive experience his wife and kids had in Philadelphia went a long way towards convincing him to stay. By comparison, Wilson is a hipster from California, to put it bluntly. He tweets with the best of them, he’s outspoken on political issues, and he’s gregarious. He’s also not married, a factor which he emphasized when talking about his pending free agency. Wilson’s a free bird, limited only by his suitors.
There’s also the interest factor. It’s hard to know how much Lee really likes New York and would have been happy playing here. Personally, I never got the sense that he was dying to spend his off-days in Central Park and go out to dinner in SoHo, but that’s just post hoc explanation. Like a lot of free agents in high demand, Lee made the Yankees, and several other teams, fly down to Arkansas to pitch him on a new deal. By comparison, Wilson seems to want to play in New York, or at least have the Yankees bid up his price. He even had his agent ask the Yankees if C.J. could come to New York and visit the Yankees to discuss a new contract. After the way the Lee negotiations went, it’s almost refreshing.
But here’s the rub, and here’s where their greatest dissimilarity stands out most prominently. As of this morning, the Yankees still hadn’t gotten back to Wilson’s agent to let him know if they want him to come meet with them. Unlike Cliff Lee, over whom the Yankees front office and fan base nearly salivated, no one in New York seems to want C.J., certainly not at any price. No one seems to be clamoring to open the vault in the Bronx for the Texas lefty. Perhaps this and all the other differences between Wilson and Lee will create a commonality between the two after all: hitting free agency only to end up in a new home other than New York.
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.
It all keeps coming back to Cliff Lee. A year ago, the Yankees were on the precipice of acquiring Lee from the Mariners, a feat which would have given them one of the best rotations in baseball. They failed, and a short time later were bounced from the playoffs by a team led by Cliff Lee. Soon after, they saw Cliff Lee spurn the them for the Phillies in free agency. By my count, that’s three separate instances of Cliff Lee-induced pain. When Andy Pettitte retired a few months after Lee went to Philadelphia, Cashman pivoted. In a manner reminiscent of the Red Sox in 2009, the Yankees decided to build the rotation on the cheap, allowing Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Ivan Nova to battle it out for the two remaining rotation slots (the other three being occupied by Sabathia, Burnett and Hughes). Once Hughes went down with an injury, Colon took his spot and performed admirably. Garcia has been fantastic too. Yet all along it’s seemed as if plan for the Yankees’ rotation was to run with these guys until a better option arose on the trade market. Freddy Garcia’s nice and all, but shouldn’t the Yankees go into battle in October with a serious complement to Sabathia? Yet here we stand a mere week or so away from the trade deadline and there seems to be no complement available? Where are the pitchers? Where are the targets? Where are the potential upgrades?
A few big names have arisen, to be sure. Ubaldo Jimenez was the target last week, but it doesn’t seem that Colorado is serious about trading him. Some have suggested that they were simply recognizing that the market was very weak and seeing if some team (like the Yankees) would be willing to panic and overpay for their lanky and affordable ace. In the absence of that a deal seems unlikely. James Shields has also been rumored to be available, but not to the Yankees. If Tampa decides to move the putative ace it won’t likely be an intra-divisional move. Hiroki Kuroda would be a potential option, one for whom I’ve long advocated, but his no-trade clause puts him in the driver’s seat and means that he’ll determine whether he gets traded and to where he gets traded. John Danks would be a nice upgrade, but there’s no indication that the White Sox are looking to move a starter and the teams don’t even match up particularly well for a trade anyway. Who’s left, Jason Marquis?
A year ago the Yankees came close to having a very good rotation and no Jesus Montero when they offered Seattle Montero for Lee. That deal fell through. A few months later, they came close to having a very good rotation and Jesus Montero when they tried to get Cliff Lee for nothing more than money. That deal fell through. The plus side is that the Yankees still have Montero, of course. Whether they really want him is another question. They don’t seem to have any interest in calling him up any time soon, and Cashman has gone out of his way to make it clear that Montero is available in trades. Yet there is no Cliff Lee on the market this year, no pitcher for whom Montero would be a suitable return. Right now the effort to swap Montero for a pitcher looks a day late and a buck short.
There is serious downside risk in relying on the trade market. Sometimes the targets don’t materialize and other times your assets don’t matchup with the best available targets. This shouldn’t be interpreted as a criticism of Cashman. No one that I’m aware of predicted that the Yankees would whiff on Lee twice, lose Pettitte to retirement, and then find themselves unable to upgrade the rotation via the trade market at all. It sounds like a worst-case scenario dreamt up on a Red Sox message board. Yet, as of July 23rd that’s exactly what’s happened. The best pitcher truly on the market seems to be Kuroda, a pitcher with a no-trade clause and a disinclination to leave Los Angeles. It’s not the situation the Yankees hoped to be in at this point.
The old saying is that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. You can always hope that better opportunities arise later, but your risk goes up the further away you are from the acquisition target. This entire market could change very quickly, and that’s what makes the trade deadline so exciting. Yet, as of today it looks like the Yankees are dancing alone. The most realistic option at this point seems very unlikely, but I suppose there’s no harm in continuing to beat the drum once more, until the deadline passes. Help us, Hiroki. You’re our only hope!