The Cutoff Man: Yanks seek out a Cliff bar

I’d like to think that this headline’s pun is one of the more original ones out there regarding free agent pitcher Cliff Lee. Or at least more original than the corny “Cliffhanger.”

Lee, the centerpiece in a trade deadline deal for the second July in a row before helping the Rangers to the World Series this year, can start buying new Rolls Royces by the dozen as he headlines this offseason’s free agent class. Lee is not only the best pitcher available on the 2010–2011 market, but he is a guy who has done one very important thing: He has dominated the Yankees on many occasions. That pretty much sealed his fate on getting quite the handsome paycheck for the foreseeable — and even the unforeseeable — future.

It’s not that Lee is guaranteed to sign with the Yankees. That the Yankees have entered the Lee sweepstakes — and they certainly have, with GM Brian Cashman already having flown down to see Lee at his Arkansas home — means that the bidding for his services will start high and end higher. The Yankees have the obvious advantage here in that they can essentially offer Lee anything he asks and more without truly compromising their ability to sign or trade for other lineup studs; any other team entering the Cliff contest will at some point have to consider the impact of Lee’s salary on its financial flexibility for the many years on his eventual contract. The Yankees also have the ability to offer Lee a chance to pitch alongside former Indians teammate C.C. Sabathia, who had also previously dominated the Yankees in the playoffs before they blew other suitors out of the water by offering Sabathia a seven-year, $161 million contract in the ’08 offseason. To further illustrate my previous point, though, the Yankees also added two other huge contracts to their payroll that offseason, signing pitcher A.J. Burnett to a five-year, $82 million contract and first baseman Mark Teixeira to an eight-year, $180 million contract. Not that their payroll wasn’t already huge to begin with — the previous offseason, they’d inked third baseman Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $275 million contract extension.

The Yankees may end up not having much competition for Lee’s services to begin with. Most baseball analysts have predicted that the Rangers will be the only team competing with the Bronx Buyers to land Lee. The Rangers, Lee’s current team, would be wise to lock up Lee for many years as a pillar to build their young rotation on; at 32 years of age, Lee still has enough good years ahead of him, barring injuries, to ensure a high reward for at least the next five years. The problem, though, is that any deal beyond five years for a pitcher is unwise and unnecessary, as most pitchers tend to fall victim to shoulder ailments and even shoulder surgeries at some point in their career, especially by their late 30s. The Rangers may be hesitant to sign Lee to an absurdly long-term deal for that very reason; however, they may be forced to, as the Yankees have proven that short-term success is the only thing they care about, and money and years are just formalities in the process of signing a big-ticket guy like Lee, regardless of the potential long-term consequences.

That said, as problematic as it may prove in the future, the Rangers would be unwise not to go all out for Lee. As it stands, they have plenty of young talent that will not enter the free agent class for a few more years. Lee would provide enough short-term reward that it would be a historically good move to keep him on the staff, and it would be good for baseball if a team not owned by the Steinbrenners signed the biggest free agent on the market. While baseball fans worldwide may ponder the possible success of a rotation that includes Lee, Sabathia, and Phil Hughes, the offseason would be boring and frustrating if the Yanks walked away again with the kind of purchase that the 29 other Major League franchises would deem irresponsible.
That said, I expect to cringe when I see Lee in a pinstriped uniform come spring training. Happy offseason!