To date, the second highest traffic day* in RAB history is the day of the Cliff Lee non-trade back in 2010. I remember being off that day, sleeping in an extra hour, and waking up to the news that the Yankees were on the verge of acquiring Lee. Then throughout the day there were constant updates until, finally, no the Yankees were not getting Lee. The Mariners reportedly reneged on an agreement with New York and sent him to the Rangers.
Losing out on Lee as a free agent during the 2010-11 offseason was the first time a generation of Yankees fans experienced the team losing out on a big free agent they so obviously wanted. Like many of you, I was too young to remember the Yankees being spurned by both Greg Maddux and Barry Bonds in the same offseason 25 years ago. (Imagine how that would have gone over nowadays.) Everyone wanted Lee that offseason and the Phillies got him. It was a shock to the system.
Yesterday afternoon, the Phillies announced Lee, now 36, will again attempt to rehab the elbow injury that has been hampering him since last May. “Cliff has now attempted to twice rehabilitate this injury without having surgery. While surgery has now been recommended, it would effectively put an end to his 2015 season as the rehabilitation from the surgery would run through the end of the season. As a result, the Phillies and Cliff have mutually decided to try once again to rehabilitate the injury non-operatively, with the hope that Cliff might be able to return to pitch during the 2015 season,” said the team’s statement.
Lee has spoken to the media in Spring Training and said surgery would potentially end his career, which is why he is trying to avoid it. That makes sense. The Phillies owe him $25M this season, and since he won’t meet the innings pitched requirement to vest his option for next year, the team will pay him a $12.5M buyout after the season. Philadelphia is potentially going to pay Lee $37.5M in 2015 to throw zero pitches. Add in last season, and the Phillies could end up paying him $62.5M to make 13 starts from 2013-14. Ouch.
Needless to say, that’s a contract situation no teams wants a part of right now. The Yankees dodged a bullet by not signing Lee back during the 2010-11 offseason. They have enough bad contracts as it is. Then again, it’s not that simple. The end of Lee’s contract is really ugly, but having him at the front end could have made all the difference in the world. Remember, the Yankees were legitimate contenders from 2010-12, averaging 96 wins per season and going to the ALCS twice, and Lee was a top four pitcher in the world those years.
I find myself thinking about the non-trade in 2010 the most. The Yankees lost to Lee and the Rangers in the ALCS that year, so had the trade gone through, New York would have had Lee on their side instead of facing him. And considering what Lee did against the Rays in the ALDS, Texas probably doesn’t even make the ALCS without him that year. The trade would have changed everything — not automatically for the better, of course, but it’s really hard for me to see a scenario in which the 2010 Yankees are worse off by acquiring Lee.
In sort of the perfect world scenario, the Yankees trade for Lee in 2010, he falls in love with New York and re-signs after the season, allowing the team to trot him and CC Sabathia out to the mound in 2011-12, when both were in the prime of their careers. Or, on the other hand, maybe re-signing Lee means the Yankees don’t give Sabathia an extension when he threatens to opt-out of his contract after 2011. Either way, the Yankees would have had Lee and Sabathia in 2011, the same year they were forced to start Freddy Garcia and A.J. Burnett in the ALDS against the Tigers.
Of course, trading for Lee means Jesus Montero is not around to go to Seattle for Michael Pineda during the 2011-12 offseason, and that would sort of suck because Big Mike is awesome. At least he is right now. The fact of the matter is Pineda has made 13 starts in three years for the Yankees due to injury. Lee made more starts for the Rangers in 2010 than Pineda has made for the Yankees overall. The Pineda trade has indisputably not worked out as hoped to his point. Based on what we know right now, having totally awesome Cliff Lee with those teams from 2010-12 is much more preferable to having Pineda on whatever the 2015-17 Yankees look like. Those 2010-12 teams were World Series threats. Like, for real.
The Yankees passed on guys like Max Scherzer and Jon Lester this offseason because they’re sick of getting burned by long-term six and seven-year contracts, and I am totally on board with that. Lee falls into the same category — another long-term deal that would have burned the team in the long run. (The Yankees reportedly offered Lee six years, remember. He took five from the Phillies.) The circumstances are very different though. The Yankees were a legitimate contender when Lee was available and he’s a piece who could have put them over the top early on in his contract. Scherzer or Lester this winter would have been an attempt to prop up an otherwise mediocre roster.
There’s a time to go for it and a time to scale back, and right now the Yankees are in a place where scaling back and regrouping make sense. A few years ago, that was the not the case. They were in position to win because their top players — Sabathia, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, Mariano Rivera, etc. — were all still very productive, and taking on another big contract like Lee would have made them even better because man, he was a difference-maker. He wouldn’t have guaranteed another World Championship, but he sure would have helped. So yeah, the Yankees dodged a bullet because they don’t have Lee’s contract on the books right now. They also would have been much better off with him from 2010-12.
* The busiest day in RAB history? December 6th, 2013. That day the Yankees re-signed Hiroki Kuroda, lost both Cano and Granderson to free agency, and signed Carlos Beltran. It’ll be hard to top a day with that much major news.