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.

email

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.

(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

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.