Mailbag: Cliff Lee and 2014

(Mark Hirsch/Getty)

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.

Update: Yankees did not place a claim for Cliff Lee

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.

Monday Trade Deadline Open Thread

(Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

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]

Yankees not pursuing Cliff Lee

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.

Mailbag: CarGo, Defense, Lee, Ichiro

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.

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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.

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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
2008-2010 2.98 19.8% 3.5% 1.7% 6.3 4.9
2011-2012 2.67 25.8% 4.6% 2.2% 5.5 6.4

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.

Once more unto the breach

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 SabathiaIvan NovaPhil 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.

The Anti-Cliff Lee

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.