Setting the record straight

One of the more exciting aspects to the offseason has been the emergence of Manny Banuelos as one of the game’s premier pitching prospects. Last week he debuted nationally, giving everyone but fans in the tri-state area the opportunity to get a good look at him. Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein put together a significant writeup of Banuelos. Ultimately he concluded that Banuelos’ stuff was MLB-ready, but that Banuelos wasn’t ready from an innings and durability standpoint to handle the major leagues. He then concluded his article with a rather odd dig at the approach of Brian Cashman and the Yankees’ front office to the offseason:

In the end, the question of Banuelos’ readiness is less about the prospect and more about the failures of the Yankees to shore up their rotation in the offseason by putting all their eggs in the baskets of Cliff Lee and the anticipated return of Andy Pettitte. “If A.J. Burnett is their number five starter, everyone is happy in Yankees land,” said the National League executive. “If they signed Lee; if Pettitte came back, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Just because the Yankees [screwed] up this off-season doesn’t mean they should sacrifice this kid in the process.”

This is a criticism of Cashman has been bandied about frequently since Pettitte retired. Yet the question remains: what exactly would these critics have liked Cashman to do differently? Did the Yankees really screw up this off-season? It’s true that there were plenty of pitchers available in the free agent and trade markets this winter. So did Cashman err by not landing them? Let’s review, keeping in mind that Lee signed with the Phillies on December 15, 2010.

Ted Lilly: A perpetually underrated fly-ball lefty, Lilly signed a big extension with the Dodgers on 10/16/10. The Yankees never had a chance.

Hiroki Kuroda: Another personal favorite, Kuroda never actually hit the free agent market either. He resigned with the Dodgers on 11/15/10 during the Dodgers’ exclusive negotiating window prior to free agency. When he signed, he said he didn’t need to listen to any other offers once the Dodgers told him they wanted him back.

Jorge De La Rosa: Signed with the Rockies for 2 years and $21.5M with a player option for $11M on 12/3/10. His strikeout rates have always been intriguing, but one could justifiably be concerned about how his career 4.5 BB/9 would play in the AL East. Like Lilly and Kuroda, De La Rosa signed before Lee chose the Phillies.

Shaun Marcum: The Blue Jays traded Marcum to the Brewers on 12/5/10 in exchange for infielder Brett Lawrie. Marcum is currently shut down with shoulder tightness and has never thrown more than 159 innings in a single year.

Aaron Harang: Coming off several poor years, Harang signed a low-money contract with the Padres on 12/6/10.

These are the pitchers whom the Yankees missed out on by waiting on Cliff Lee. Of these, only Marcum could have possibly been a decent upgrade for the Yankee rotation (since Lilly and Kuroda never actually hit the free agent market). However, there are justifiable concerns about his injury history and durability, not to mention the fact that it hardly made sense for Cashman to acquire a starter by trade while he was waiting on Lee and Pettitte to decide.

After Lee signed with Philadelphia, spurning New York for a younger team (ahem),  there were really only two pitchers Cashman could have acquired: Zack Greinke and Carl Pavano. Cashman pursued Pavano, going as far as to make him a significant offer for one year. Pavano rejected it. As for Greinke, Cashman met with him and even listened to Greinke make an appeal for Cashman to acquire him, but he ultimately decided against it. Of all the options, is really the only decision with which one could quarrel. Yet this is why you pay your GM the big bucks. He’s responsible for weighing the performance risk of the potential target (which he judged to be high) against the cost of acquiring the target (which we know to be high).

Ultimately it made sense for Cashman to wait on Lee and  Pettitte despite the risk that neither of them would be donning the Yankee pinstripes this season. He really had no other choice to go all-in on these two pitchers. Was he supposed to fill his starting pitcher slot with the Kevin Correias and Jorge De La Rosas of the league while Lee and Pettitte were still out there? What happens if Lee and Pettitte both want to join the club? The risk of wasting a roster slot with a subpar pitcher was not worth forgoing the potential payoff of a rotation of Sabathia, Lee, Hughes, Pettitte and Burnett.

The alleged “screw-up” of the Yankee front office this season is more a function of things out of Cashman’s control: the timing of the trades, the timing of Lee and Pettitte’s decisions, and the relatively bare starting pitching market. One is certainly entitled to second-guess the front office, but aside from disagreeing with Cashman on whether Greinke would be a good fit in New York the criticism seems unfounded. As unenthusiastic as fans are about the prospect of Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia in the Yankees rotation to start the year, there wasn’t a whole lot Cashman could do otherwise to prevent it. Sometimes things just don’t go your way.

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Rationalizing a tough decision

The Yankees and Cliff Lee just can’t seem to avoid each other. The 32-year-old lefty nearly found himself in pinstripes on July 9, 2010 before the Seattle Mariners backed out of a deal with the Yanks. Brian Cashman then pushed hard to land Lee during the winter, but as we know, his offer fell short not because of money but because Lee simply wanted to go to Philadelphia. It sent shockwaves through baseball and had a deep impact on the Yanks’ winter.

Since that fateful day when the Phillies emerged as the mystery team intent on locking up a starter they wanted but didn’t need for a lot of dollars, both Cliff Lee and his wife have tried to rationalize the decision. Perhaps they truly wanted to be in Philadelphia because Cliff enjoyed his time there and his wife liked the city. Perhaps they are trying to justify leaving dollars, even a few, on the table. Whatever the case may be, their public statements have ranged from strange to flat-out mind-bogglingly wrong.

In Wednesday’s podcast, Joe and Mike went to town on Lee after his latest statements. They weren’t alone. So too did Brian Cashman, and it helps to put these latest words about the Yankees — in Lee’s mind, an old time — in context.

Since arriving in the City of Brotherly Love, Lee has done his part to mention the edge Philadelphia has over New York City at nearly every turn. In December, Lee’s wife Kristen seemed to take some responsibility for the designer. She was upset at Yankee fans’ behavior during the ALCS (as though Philly fans are the model of polite) and also said she appreciated the city’s amenities. “We liked the easy travel on a train for our kids to other cities and the good cultural experience for them here,” she said. “It was fun to live in a city and have a whole different lifestyle than in Arkansas.”

Of course, New Yorkers took this personally. If the Lees truly wanted a “whole different lifestyle” than in Arkansas, they needed to look no further than New York City. We have more trains and more “cultural experiences” than Philadelphia. If anything, it was a rationalization. Fine.

But Cliff wouldn’t let it lie. While speaking with a Philadelphia radio station last week, he again brought up the Yankees and placed them third behind the Phillies and Rangers in the off-season sweepstakes. Why? Because as he put it, “some of the Yankeee guys are getting older.” Of course, everyone is always getting older.

Lee continued in this strange vein: “Texas probably finished second to be honest with you. Just as far as the quality of the team and the chance to win a World Series ring, I think they’re a better team. That’s just my opinion. The Yankees can do anything at any moment to improve and they’re not afraid to go do things. That was part of the decision-making process, too, but I felt like with what the Red Sox had done and it seems like some of the Yankee guys are getting older, but I liked the Rangers.”

Brian Cashman responded vehemently. “Clearly I’ve made an effort to make the team younger,” he said to The Post. He added, “Some of our core guys that we have relied on have gotten up there, but we have a group of young players that we’re excited about. All we care about is being called champions. You can say anything else you want about us. When you call us old, that’s fine.”

As many others pointed out on Wednesday, Lee is simply wrong. The Yankees, on average, are a year younger than the Phillies, and whereas the Yanks have an aging left side of the infield, Placido Polanco is three months younger than A-Rod. Meanwhile, Jimmy Rollins might be younger than Derek Jeter but doesn’t play like it, and Chase Utley’s knee appears to be on the verge of giving out on him. The age difference is an illusion brought on by the Core Four media narrative, and nothing more.

Ultimately, Lee’s words don’t matter that much. He didn’t want to come to New York, and he didn’t come to New York. He also gave up job security and dollars to go to Philadelphia. If he has to talk his way out of it at our expense, so be it. When the dust settles, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see the Yanks with as many if not more World Series rings than the Phillies over the course of Lee’s contract. As with any baseball dispute, this one will be resolved on the field.

Late-night reading: Levine messes with Texas

If you’re done arguing about the relative merits of Freddy Garcia on a minor league deal and guaranteed money for Justin Duchscherer, take a read through this gem from Jon Heyman. Shortly after Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg took credit for keeping Cliff Lee away from the Yanks, New York’s own club president Randy Levine fired back. “Chuck’s delusional. He’s been in the game for a few minutes and yet he thinks he knows what everyone’s thinking,” Levine said. “I think he should let Cliff Lee speak for himself. He could really impress us when he keeps the Rangers off of welfare and keeps them from receiving revenue sharing the next three years.”

As Heyman notes, Levine is picking up on the fact that the Rangers, playing in the large Dallas/Fort Worth market, collected revenue sharing checks in each of the past three years. While I know some sports talk radio voices have been critical of Levine for engaging with Greenberg, I love these ownership spats. Levine is sticking up for his club and showing that the Yankee brass still isn’t thrilled with Greenberg’s attempts to cast the Yanks as his spunky club’s villain. Let Levine and Greenberg battle it out off the field. On the field, I think the Rangers needed Cliff Lee even more than the Yanks did, and they were left empty-handed on the mound this winter.

A brief Cliff Lee post mortem post mortem

For the Yankees, Cliff Lee will forever be the one that got away. Whether that’s a blessing or curse depends upon how Jesus Montero develops and whether or not Lee ages gracefully. Right now, his loss stings, and Texas Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg has decided to rub salt in our wounds. The Rangers’ owner believes that his persistency kept Lee from the Yankees and gave the Phillies the time they needed to put together an offer.

While speaking at a Rangers’ Fan Fest this week, Greenberg expounded on his theory. “We had three different meetings with Cliff and his wife and his agent in Little Rock,” Greenberg said to his fans. “Even though Philadelphia was probably not in, they were always in the back of our mind. I think if we wouldn’t have gone to Arkansas that last time, I think he was going to sign with the Yankees. We pried the door open a little bit to give ourselves another opportunity. And ultimately the Phillies were able to take advantage of that opportunity that we created.” I would be pretty angry at this news if I weren’t so apathetic in the first place.

Thoughts on the Cliff Lee non-signing

See you in October, Cliff. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

When the news of Cliff Lee agreeing to a contract with the Phillies broke late last night, I was preoccupied by trying to get the site back online after yet another issue with our host. I was frustrated all night and didn’t know if it was because of the technical issues, Lee, or both. After a night of sleep, it’s easy to say it was both. But I digress.

There’s a lot running through my head right now about what losing out on Lee means for the Yankees going forward, so I’m just going to bullet point it because that seems easiest…

  • It’s obvious that the Yankees have long coveted Lee, even before the non-trade in July. They made him an extremely competitive offer to join a perennial contender, and Lee simply said no. There’s nothing more Brian Cashman and the rest of the front office could have done, he just said no. There’s no one to blame.
  • Part of me thinks that if the trade had gone through in July and Lee spent the second half of 2010 in New York that the odds of him signing long-term with the Yankees would have gone up astronomically, but we just don’t know if that’s true. He could have left for the Phillies anyway, in which case the Yanks would be out Jesus Montero (but potentially up on World Championship).
  • I said it yesterday and I believe it even more today: the Yankees absolutely can not run out and make a knee-jerk reaction trade for a pitcher just because they lost out on Lee. That’s only going to make matters worse. Prices are through the roof at the moment.
  • Please, let’s just give up on Joba Chamberlain the starter already. Yes, this is a perfect opportunity for them to move him back into the rotation, but they’ve been very clear about their intentions to keep him in the bullpen. It’s extremely likely that they just don’t think he can hold up under the starter’s workload.
  • Let’s cut the “we’re DOOMED!” crap. The roster as it is is probably a 90 win team, more if Pettitte returns. We all know that the team they have right now is not the team they’ll go into the 2011 postseason with. Just get in, anything can happen in a short series.
  • Joe will have more on the payroll a little later today, but the Yankees have something like $25-30MM burning a hole in their pocket right now, and that’s going to be spent somewhere. About half will go to Pettitte if he returns, and some of the remainder will probably go to Russell Martin and soon. I bet he’s signed within 48 hours, but then again I was optimistic about signing Lee at this time yesterday.
  • How about all that garbage about how Texas had an advantage because of their proximity to Lee’s home in Arkansas and the lack of income tax? The Rangers reportedly made the best (largest) offer, and he still said no. As usual, the impact of that stuff was over-reported and over-stated.
  • On the bright side, the Yankees will in all likelihood keep their first round pick (none of the four remaining Type-A’s fit), which means two top 50 picks and three top 80 picks in a stacked draft class. Silver lining.

So that’s it, there’s nothing you or I or the Yankees can do now. Lee is headed to Philadelphia, and the Yanks have to move on with their offseason. We should start to hear some rumors about potential pick-ups very soon, which should make for some good copy.

December bombshell: Lee signs with the Phillies

Right mound. Wrong team. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

After days of hand-wringing by fans of the Yankees and the Rangers, the Cliff Lee saga came to a stunning conclusion when the Philadelphia Phillies landed their once and future lefthander. According to reports, Lee will sign a five-year deal worth approximately $120 million guaranteed with a vesting option for a sixth year. The Yankees, for the first time since Greg Maddux signed with the Braves nearly 20 years ago, are left empty-handed as the Number One item on their Hot Stove wishlist slipped away to a mystery team.

For the Yankees, this shocking turn of events caps off a week and a half of rumors galore. The baseball world had held its breath over the weekend as Lee debated whether or not to take an offer to remain in Texas or join the Yanks. Still, rumblings of a mystery team would not die, and according to numerous reports, the Phillies leaped into the fray this weekend when Lee made it be known that he was itching to return to Philadelphia.

After all of the hours of silence and the countless cries of “what does it mean,” the Yankees are once again left Lee-less. Perhaps they dodged a bullet when the Mariners backed out of a trade that would have sent Jesus Montero to Seattle in exchange for Lee. Perhaps the Yanks would have gotten just four months of Lee and six years of pining for Montero. We’ll never know, and we’ll leave that hand-writing to the Rangers who got their first World Series appearance but gave up Justin Smoak in the process. They’re arguably worse off than the Yankees today.

For the Bombers, the only question that remains — and I say only heavily — is about the future. What comes next? Were the season to start tomorrow — and it does not — the rotation would feature CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett, Sergio Mitre and Ivan Nova (if the club, as rumor has it, is intent on keeping Joba in the pen). Come Opening Day, that won’t be the rotation. The Yanks will court Andy Pettitte and hope that he has enough faith in his aging body to take the ball for another year.

But beyond Pettitte, what’s out there in the great unknown of the trade market? We saw the Blue Jays surrender Shawn Marcum for Brett Lawrie. So we know that trades can be made and pitchers acquired. We hear that the White Sox will shop Mark Buehrle, that the Cardinals may make some arms available, that Zack Greinke, despite the Yanks’ concerns about his mental make-up, can be had. We think the Marlins might part with Ricky Nolasco, and we don’t know about countless other pitchers. We know injuries guys like Brandon Webb remain available. We know that the Yanks have money and prospects. They can make a deal.

So we’ll lick our wounds and perhaps rock ourselves to sleep tonight. The Yanks and their millions rarely lose out. They offered Lee $148 million — six years at $22 million with a seventh year player option for $16 million — and club officials now believe Lee never wanted to come to New York. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. What happens next will be a test of GM Brian Cashman, and the 95-win Yanks who missed the World Series by two wins this year will be just fine by the time pitchers and catchers report. Lee will always be the one who got away.

Phillies making late push for Lee

As the mystery over the mystery team involved in the mysterious Cliff Lee sweepstakes boiled all day, we heard low-level rumors that the Phillies might be involved in the negotiations. This evening, Ken Rosenthal’s sources confirm that the Phillies are indeed involved in the bidding for Lee. Rosenthal’s source did say it would take “nothing short of a miracle” for the team to fit Lee into their budget, but the club is “not out” of it yet.

It’s tough to say what’s going on here. The Phillies could be showing legitimate interest as they have contracts coming off the books, but the club isn’t going to match the seven years the Yankees have reportedly put on the table. This might be a move by Lee’s agent Darek Braunecker to push up the Yanks’ offer by $5-$10 million or it could be the Phillies’ salivating over a rotation of Halladay-Lee-Hamels-Oswalt in 2011. Either way, it appears as though this saga will last at least another night.

Update (9:26 p.m.): Jerry Crasnick has more on the Phillies, who, he says, jumped into the hunt “with fervor” after the Winter Meetings. The ESPN scribe’s sources say that Lee is close to a decision. It will all be over soon.

Update (9:51 p.m.): The YES Network’s own Jack Curry has jumped into the fray. He tweets that “there is a belief” that Lee will wind up with the Phillies. But here’s the rub: Lee will have to accept far fewer dollars and perhaps a shorter contract to sign with the Phillies. It’s all happening now.