When the Yankees faced Cliff Lee last night, I thought the two things that I always think about when we face him: 1. I hope this is the absolute last time he opposes us and 2. I really hope we sign this guy in the offseason. Lee is poised to become the premier starting pitcher free agent at the end of the the 2010 season and figures to command upwards of $18M per year in a long-term deal. So, what are the most likely destinations for Lee? Four months from free agency, who can be ruled out? Who are the darkhorses? Who are the front-runners? I’ve looked at all thirty clubs and divided them into four groups: The No Camp, The Unlikely Camp, the Question Mark Camp and The Contenders. Let’s get to it.
The No Camp (8)
Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians, Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners, Pittsburgh Pirates, Florida Marlins, Arizona Diamondbacks, Houston Astros. These are self-explanatory.
The Unlikely Camp (14)
Tampa Bay Rays. The club is committed to cutting payroll in 2011 and has an insane amount of starting pitching depth.
Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox have 6 starting pitchers under contract for 2011. They could, in theory, deal someone like Daisuke Matsuzaka and clear payroll space and a roster spot, but there are significant hurdles to them being able to acquire Lee.
Atlanta Braves. The Braves have five starters under contract for 2011 and could probably use a bat more than another pitcher, especially if Chipper Jones retires.
White Sox. The White Sox already have five starters signed in 2011: Peavy, Buehrle, Danks, Floyd and Edwin Jackson. They also will need a new first baseman if Konerko leaves via free agency. Kenny Williams has done crazy stuff in the past, but this doesn’t appear likely.
Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies already have two expensive pitchers in Halladay and Oswalt and have $143M committed to their 2011 payroll, their highest payroll ever.
Milwaukee Brewers. They do need pitching, but it’s doubtful they can afford Lee. I’m sure Attanasio will let everyone know just how unfair this is, but maybe they shouldn’t have shelled out for Corey Hart and Randy Wolf. That’s just me talking.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. They have five pitchers under contract for 2011 and they’re mostly expensive: Kazmir, Piniero, Santana, Haren and Weaver.
St. Louis Cardinals. Pitching isn’t a need for the Cardinals, and they are probably saving all their pennies for some guy named Albert.
Chicago Cubs. The Cubs have a lot of money committed to some very mediocre players for a very long time. They’ll need to address their 1B situation given Lee’s impending free agency, and attempt to get younger and rebuild.
San Francisco Giants. The Giants have Lincecum, Cain, Zito, Sanchez and Bumgarner. They could always deal Sanchez, but this doesn’t appear to be a good fit. Their money would be better spent on offense.
Minnesota Twins. I’m fairly certain the Twins spent all their pocket money on signing Joe Mauer to his lifetime contract, and they have a slew of young players that are only getting more expensive.
Toronto Blue Jays. The Blue Jays have a lot of money coming off the books this offseason but will also begin paying Vernon Wells $26M per year and will have arbitration raises for a lot of their young players. Additionally, Marcum, Cecil, Romero and Morrow form a solid, cheap rotation.
New York Mets. The Mets get virtually no salary relief in 2011 and have at least $120M committed to payroll. As Fonzie Forever notes, $110M of that goes to just seven players. It’s doubtful the Mets will be able to add another $20M per year for a single player. They also have cheap options at the back end of the rotation, and so Lee remains an unlikely target.
San Diego Padres. The Padres are an interesting case. In theory, they only have an astounding $1.1M committed to their 2011 payroll. Of course, that number will raise when guys like Bell, Ludwick, Hairston, Adams, Gwynn and Stauffer go through arbitration or agree to 1 year deals, and it also doesn’t include sub $1M salaries they’ll be paying to youngsters like Latos, Blanks, Venable, Cabrera, Richard and Headley. Most importantly, it doesn’t include the $5.5M club option the Padres will most assuredly exercise on Adrian Gonzalez. Nevertheless, the Padres have significant payroll space headed into the offseason. Of course, the biggest question is whether the Padres will keep Gonzalez. If they traded him, they would have even more payroll flexibility in 2011 and beyond. If they sign him to a long-term deal, it becomes less likely that they could afford Lee. However, it might not be as impossible as you’d think. When the Padres dealt Jake Peavy to the White Sox in August 2009, CEO Jeff Moorad said the following: “I’m ultimately comfortable with a payroll in the $70-80 million [range], but it’s likely that it will take us a couple years to get back to that level.” Still, the Padres are a longshot.
The Question Mark Camp (5)
Detroit Tigers. The Tigers get significant payroll relief this offseason. Around $33M comes off from Damon, Bonderman, Inge, Seay and Gerald Laird. Additionally, Magglio Ordonez will not get enough plate appearances in 2010 to cuase his $15M option to vest, thanks to his ankle injury. In sum, the Tigers will have cash to spend. However, they’ll also have major holes at C, 3B, SS, LF, DH and the backend of the rotation. Given that, and the precarious state of the Detroit economy, committing $18M+ to another starting pitcher may not be their desired course of action.
Washington Nationals. Tim Dierkes recently noted that the Nationals have intriguing upside in their rotation in 2011. Leading the way is Stephen Strasburg, and behind him is Jordan Zimmermann. As Dierkes notes, there are other options for the Nats: Yunesky Maya, Livan Hernandez, Scott Olsen and Chien-Ming Wang. Behind them are youngsters Stammen, Atilano, Martin and Detwiler. So, like the Padres, the biggest question with the Nationals centers around offense, in particular Adam Dunn. Will they sign him to an extension or let him walk? In either case, do they have enough money to make a run at Lee? Ultimately, this is a long shot. But, as Dierkes notes elsewhere, the Nationals will have plenty of money to work with in the offseason, even more if they let Dunn leave. It isn’t entirely inconceivable that they could use that to attempt to acquire Lee. Combining him with Strasburg might be the most formidable 1-2 punch in baseball and they have solid depth behind it. One also has to consider whether a competitive team in the DC market might yield more attendance revenue for the club, enabling a higher payroll going forward.
Cincinnati Reds. My favorite NL team and preseason sleeper also has plenty of coin to spend going into the offseason. They’ll spend $4M to decline the options on Arroyo and Harang, and then will have to factor in arbitration raises for their young core. Regardless, the Reds will have significant payroll flexibility going into 2011 with Volquez, Cueto, Leake, Bailey, Bruce and Votto all signed cheap. They will probably need help on the offensive side and remain a longshot for Lee, but their low 2011 projected payroll and their taste of success in 2010 could compel them to make a bid.
Colorado Rockies. The Rockies may lose Jorge De La Rosa to free agency and retain a $7M option on Jeff Francis. If they jettison both, and slot Chacin into the rotation for 2011, their projected rotation would be Jimenez, Chacin, Hammel and Cook. So, on paper, the Rockies would have a decent rotation with an astonishingly cheap core of Jimenez, Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. They appear to have the payroll and roster space for Lee. Given their low commitments in 2012 and beyond, the Rockies could be a darkhorse contender for Lee.
Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles have a large chunk of money coming off the books in the offseason and could lose their ostensible #1 starter, Kevin Millwood, to free agency. Given the rigors of competition in the AL East, it may not make sense for them to spend boatloads of money on a free agent pitcher, but the Orioles could surprise, especially given their bid for Mark Teixeira. Of course, whether Cliff Lee would want to play for Baltimore is another story. Please no, Cliff.
The Contenders (3)
Los Angeles Dodgers. From a roster perspective, this makes all the sense in the world. The Dodgers are poised to lose their 3 most expensive starters to free agency in Hiroki Kuroda, Vincente Padilla and Ted Lilly. They’ll also rid themselves of Manny Ramirez’s $20M contract. Kershaw remains abundantly cheap, and Billingsley will be slightly more expensive in 2011, as will Loney and Theriot, but the Dodgers figure to shed some $30M off payroll after this season. There is, however, the matter of the McCourt divorce. I don’t begin to understand the ins and outs of this soap opera, but money seems to be an issue for the Dodgers right now. A forced sale of the club might result in greater flexibility in the future, but it would also hamper any attempt to sign Lee this offseason. This one is hard to handicap.
Texas Rangers. Like the Dodgers, who knows what to expect from the Rangers? After going through bankruptcy, they were almost bought by Mark Cuban before being bought by a group led by Chuck Greenberg and Nolan Ryan. Despite a precarious financial situation in the past, Greenberg has made it clear that the Rangers are interested in signing Cliff Lee. The Rangers payroll has been comfortably in the mid-60s for the past several years but will have to exceed that mark if they wish to sign Lee. They have a slew of players eligible for arbitration, like Hamilton, Cruz, McCarthy, Nippert, Murphy, Holland and CJ Wilson. They will probably shed Harden’s contract, and Frank Francisco becomes a free agent, but signing Lee would probably bump them up into the $70M range. Presumably Greenberg and company are comfortable with this.
New York Yankees. The Yankees can’t be more obvious than they’ve been: they want Cliff Lee. They were even willing to part with Jesus Montero to get him for 3 months. There are a lot of moving pieces this offseason for the club. Let’s assume that Jeter is brought back for a worst-case scenario $20M AAV and Rivera returns for $15M AAV. Let’s also assume that Pettitte resigns for something like $12M for one year and that the Yankees decline the options on Kerry Wood, Lance Berkman ($2M buyout), and Nick Johnson ($0.25M buyout). When you factor in the arbitration raises to Hughes, Chamberlain and others, it’s not hard to see the Yankee payroll approaching the mid-190M range before making a run at Lee. Getting Jeter, Rivera or Pettitte at lower prices would certainly help. If not, signing Lee could easily bump the payroll north of $210M. Yet, the Yankees seem motivated to do it. Signing Lee would give them a formidable rotation of Sabathia, Lee, Burnett, Pettitte and Hughes, and would give them a hedge against the risk of CC leaving after the 2011 season. Brian Cashman seems to want him badly, and he usually gets what he wants.
Given that there are 30 clubs, it’s a bit surprising to see how few fits there are for Lee after this season. I’ve listed 22 of 30 teams as No or Unlikely. The fact is that plenty of teams are rebuilding and are in no position to bid on a long-term free agent, and plenty of teams have full rotations. Yet even among the nominal contenders there is uncertainty about the future. Given that, one must wonder if a relative lack of demand might enable the Yankees to acquire Lee without drastically overpaying. That would be nice.