Cliff Lee picked the Phillies. He surprised the Yankees, the Rangers and everyone in the media who called the sweepstakes a "two-team race."* This is a setback for the Yankees' chances of short-term success, but how harmful is the lefty's decision to take (slightly) less money to return to Philadelphia? What can the Yankees do now?
*-The media say Lee duped everyone, but that smells like an attempt to deflect the attention away from the collective whiff the media had on this signing. Lee was deceptive, but the job of the press is to ferret that out. Lee's decision is the latest in a long line of hot-stove moves that snuck up on everyone. Each offseason, reporters repeat every rumor they hear with reckless abandon, but they still get bamboozled.
This hurts now, but in three years, the Yankees may not be that upset. Lee is an outstanding pitcher (last three seasons: 667 1/3 innings pitched, 2.98 ERA, 536 strikeouts, 95 walks), but he is entering his age-32 season. No pitcher is a sure thing. Johan Santana, who missed the end of last season and will likely miss the start of 2011, is about to go three straight seasons without reaching 200 innings, and he had a longer track record of success than Lee did. Lee will likely be good next year and the year after that, but is it better than even money that Lee is worth his contract after that?
Of course, the Yankees have more money than they know what to do with and will be able to afford to pay $20 million or more to a pitcher who is merely above average. But with Alex Rodriguez owed close to $200 million and Derek Jeter set to earn roughly twice what he is worth, the Yankees may find themselves happy they didn't pay a heavy premium for two or three years of dominance.
Lee's decision is not made any worse by Carl Crawford's decision to sign with Boston. Crawford's $142 million deal with the Red Sox hurts the Yankees because he makes the Red Sox better, but it doesn't hurt the Yankees by leaving them without a "fallback plan." Why is missing out on Crawford so terrible? Had the Yankees signed him, they likely would have traded Brett Gardner and had an outfield of Crawford, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher. That outfield is better than one with Gardner, Granderson and Swisher, but the gap certainly isn't worth the $19.5 million difference between Crawford's and Gardner's salaries. The Yankees' outfield (strength) and their rotation (relative weakness) have little to do with each other. If the goal was to dish out a huge contract, then yes, Crawford was a backup plan. If the goal was to use their money to address needs, then Crawford was not.
Where do the Yankees go from here? Right now, the Yankees' rotation is CC Sabathia (fine), A.J. Burnett (Uhh ...), Phil Hughes (probably fine), Ivan Nova (unproven at best) and Sergio Mitre (To quote Eugenio Velez: "Increíble!") That will probably not get it done in the American League East. Assuming
loads and loads of money Yankees general manager Brian Cashman can persuade Andy Pettitte to return for one more year - and that Pettitte is a reasonable facsimile of his former self - the Yankees will have a competent rotation. If he doesn't come back, the Yankees should worry. Cashman, king of stealth trades, knows how to make deals. He hasn't done so well on pitchers recently (see Javier Vazquez), but the Yankees have the chips and the money to land a quality starting pitcher.
The Yankees could also try a reclamation project. Brandon Webb doesn't seem to interest them too much. They've signed Mark Prior, but he will likely work in relief. What about Chris Young and Justin Duchsherer? Brad Penny, who couldn't get anyone out in 2009 while with Boston but handled his demotion to the National League with aplomb, is also a possibility. Jarrod Washburn, Jeremy Bonderman, the list goes on.
Zack Greinke, Kansas City's 2009 Cy Young Award winner, has been mentioned. The New York media have already brought up Greinke's history of anxiety disorder and speculated on how that will affect the righty should he come to the Great Pressure Cooker that is New York's sports scene. The Yankees will consider Greinke's mental health, but count Bronx Cheer among those confident a Major League pitcher can handle 20 people around a locker asking about his fastball location and pitch selection.
The Yankees have had a quiet offseason, and the team may have slipped behind Boston in the AL East. The Rays, despite losing Crawford and Carlos Pena will be a good team again in 2011. The Yankees and Red Sox have traded positions of strength since the middle of the last decade. The Yankees had the edge from 2005-06 and 2009-10. In between, the Red Sox won the 2007 World Series and helped keep the Yankees out of the playoffs in 2008. Missing out on Lee means the Yankees may have to take a backseat this season and possibly next, but they will still be an elite and dangerous team -- and one that hasn't hamstrung its future.