“The team needs to aim younger than Cliff Lee. They need a guy in the Hughes/Cano/Gardner age group, not someone in advanced age. Or they need to sign someone to a shorter, cheaper contract. Who is that guy? I’m not too sure. He may not exist. But he should be in his mid to late 20s, or be a very short term commitment. Zach Greinke comes to mind. There are also internal solutions in the minor leagues, which I will be talking a lot about this winter.”Cliff Lee will turn 32 years old next season. He’ll probably dictate a contract in the vicinity of $20M / 5-6 years. Now, TYU is an excellent Yankees resource, but in this particular case, I couldn’t further disagree with the assessment.
Here are my five arguments for why signing Cliff Lee is an unconditional must:
1) In 2010, Lee’s 7.0 fWAR lead the Majors. In 2009, his fWAR (6.6) was good for sixth-best overall. In 2008, his 7.2 fWAR earned him the fourth-best mark. Do you see where I’m going with this? He’s a seriously good pitcher. We’re not talking about a 41-year-old Randy Johnson donning pinstripes well past his prime. Lee has several peak years left in the tank. Even if he is given a six-year deal, conservatively speaking chances are at least four will be quality given his age and precedent he's set. Players of his caliber are not often available. This is a risk worth taking especially since the Yankees do not have elite pitchers in their farm system. They have some good young arms but none that are guaranteed. I'm not certain they have pitching prospects that even project to Phil Hughes’ level, and it's unclear if Hughes will even reach the level of prototypical ace many of us have envisioned for him for years.
2) The Yankees need an insurance plan. CC Sabathia has repeatedly claimed that he doesn’t plan to opt out of his deal. There is always a chance that he changes his mind, especially if he continues to have the same degree of success he has had in his first two seasons. A.J. Burnett may improve on his miserable 2010 season stats. However, he’ll probably never provide the consistent quality that the Yankees initially hoped for (such as his mystical free-agent-to-be 2008 campaign). There’s also a good chance he won’t age quite so gracefully. Andy Pettitte will also call it a day sooner than later. That leaves Phil Hughes as the only definitive piece of the future rotation puzzle. Adding Cliff Lee enables the team to win now, and in the future.
3) Those mid-to-late twentysomething pitchers -- i.e. the Felixes, Greinkes and Johnsons of the world -- will most likely never be accessible. If the Royals elect to trade Zack Grienke, he’s going to require a massive return. The cost of “young” is essentially the farm system, which for the Yankees immediately starts with Jesus Montero.
Teams have changed their organizational philosophies. Take for instance, Josh Johnson. The Marlins recently reinvested in their star pitcher for several more years. Guys like Tim Lincecum or Felix Hernandez are also not realistic possibilities, as their teams have too much at stake to let them slide away, and by the time they hit free agency, they’ll end up being around 30-32 years of age. Not that you wouldn't take a Lincecum or Hernandez at the age, but you're not gonna get those prime late-20s years.
4) It would seem that the most likely destination for Cliff Lee (if not the Yankees) is back with the Rangers. However, other teams will absolutely enter the discussion, putting even more pressure on the Yankees who have to deal with an increasingly competitive AL East. The Jays have proven themselves a more than formidable opponent. The Orioles appear to be rejuvenated by Buck Showalter’s presence (not to mention their own fair share of talented prospects). The Rays have a ton of young talent coming up through the ranks. And of course, the dreaded Red Sox are a perennial threat.
The Yankees need wins wherever they can find them, and Lee represents the single best way for the Yankees to keep up with the growing army of pitching talent in the American League East.
5) Buy into the playoff hype. Lee obviously didn’t have his best stuff in Game One of the World Series, but every pitcher that has ever played this game has had their share of bad days. The Yankees enjoyed a fluke in 2009 in the sense that the scheduling happened to work out favorably for them. The odds of successfully completing a playoff run with a three-man rotation are pretty slim. However, having two ace pitchers in a rotation is a nice way to counterbalance that, and adding Lee gives the Yankees as good a chance as any to make a deep postseason run.
There’s no doubt that age will continue to be a recurring theme in New York. That’s what happens with so many high-profile players signing mega-deals. However, when it comes to elite pitchers (especially ones with several prime years left), the prudent decision has to be to invest.