Aug 122010

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.

16 Responses to “The Cliff Lee Market”

  1. I’m stunned with the potential SD contention for Lee. I had no idea Moorad’s ownership group had designs of taking the Padres into Twins mid-major territory.

    In the NL West, in that park, Lee could win 20 games more than once. Retain A Gonz. Add Lee. Pads would be set up to compete with the Rox for a while.

    Informative post.  (Quote)

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    Stephen R. Reply:

    It’s hard to know if Moorad was just paying lip-service to the idea of a 70M+ payroll to appease fans (after dealing Peavy, mind you) or if he’s actually serious about it, but the Padres had a $73M payroll as recently as 2008. Going forward, their situation is pretty incredible. You can see all their commitments here:

    I doubt they would want to commit $40M of a $75M payroll to two players, but I do think that there an interesting team to watch in the coming years, especially if they’re well-managed. Also, despite the fact that the Boston media acts as if Adrian Gonzalez was created to be traded to Boston this offseason, I don’t think the Padres need to at all. They may want to cash him in for more chips, but from a payroll perspective signing him to a long-term deal seems eminently feasible.  (Quote)

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  2. Great write-up Steve — I think a lot of us had assumed the Yankees would have no competition for Lee’s services, but now that the Rangers’ ownership situation has resolved I’m not so sure. There’ll be a lot of pressure on the new ownership to retain one of the top pitchers in baseball, especially if he can help bring Texas its first postseason series victory.

    That being said, given how badly the Yanks clearly want Lee I have to imagine Cash will throw as much money at Lee as it takes to secure him in pinstripes. The lefthanded Lee with Yankee Stadium as his home ballpark? I’m already giddy just thinking about it.  (Quote)

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  3. Great write up; my one question: How quickly can a forced sale of the Dodgers go through?
    Assuming Lee wants to get paid by Christmas, the McCourts have 4 months to put the team up, have people put in bids, have MLB approve it, make it official, then start bidding on Lee. Can the process move that fast?  (Quote)

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    Reggie C. Reply:

    I think the Dodgers ownership situation wont be so settled, and that team should really look to add a bat that’s not Mannywood. However, in the post 2011 season should CC opt out then the Dodgers will be players.  (Quote)

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    Stephen R. Reply:

    I’d agree with what Reggie says. I think it’s too close to the offseason for a forced sale to be done and settled by the time December rolls around. If they were to have a new owner with money to burn and the desire to make a big splash by mid-2011, though, then I wouldn’t be surprised to see them throw cash at CC (assuming he opts out and wants to leave, no sure thing).  (Quote)

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    Stephen R. Reply:

    Also, I asked Craig Calcaterra what he thought about the timetable of a sale, forced or otherwise. Here was his response:

    FWIW, I think the team staying in McCourt’s hands, either with Frank or still split down the middle, means they’re far less likely to get Lee. McCourt has been downplaying the idea of spending big in recent weeks. If they’re sold, who knows.  (Quote)

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  4. Great analysis.
    I would keep an eye on the Angels, too. I can see them dumping Kazmir and making a stealth play for Lee. They have money and their owner wants to get back to winning the division.  (Quote)

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  5. I dont get why so many people think CC is going to opt-out of his contract? He is getting the most money to play in the best place to win and potentially play with his best friend in Lee. If he wants some more years on his contract then he should wait and then see if he can somehow get a 2 or 3 year extension from the Yanks.  (Quote)

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  6. Does the Yankee payroll calculation include the end of Vazquez’s deal? Certainly they will not bring him back if they go after Lee, and likely won’t even if they don’t get Lee.

    Lee might also spell the end of Pettitte’s days in pinstripes. With CC. Lee, Hughes, and Burnett, it isn’t a stretch to see the Yankees choosing a younger, cheaper option for the back fo the rotation.  (Quote)

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    Basil Reply:

    While that is certainly a possibility, the Yankees will also have a lot of years tied up in their rotation (assuming CC doesn’t opt out, that’s 4 guys signed to long term years), and Pettitte offers a rock-solid, short term deal that, barring injury, is still capable of performing at a high level and provides a certain veteran presence to a club that’s working on getting younger. Basically, if Pettitte decides he can still play, there will be a place for him with this Yankees club in 2011.  (Quote)

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    Scout Reply:

    I’m not so sure, though the Yankees would certainly prefer that Pettitte retire rather than force them to cut the chord. With Sabathia, Lee, and Burnett, the staff will have a lot of “veteran presence,” as you put it. At a certain point, that becomes overkill. And you don’t get younger (or cheaper) bringing back lefties in their late 30s. Note, too, that any young starter would be on a short-term deal.  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

    Stephen R. Reply:

    My calculations above do NOT include Vazquez. Vazquez is a free agent after this year. He’d either come back after accepting arbitration (assuming the Yankees offer, not likely) and receive 12M+ or hit the open market.  (Quote)

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  7. I’m not so sure, though the Yankees would certainly prefer that Pettitte retire rather than force them to cut the chord.With Sabathia, Lee, and Burnett, the staff will have a lot of “veteran presence,” as you put it.At a certain point, that becomes overkill.And you don’t get younger (or cheaper) bringing back lefties in their late 30s.Note, too, that any young starter would be on a short-term deal.  

    Yeah… AJ Burnett is a model of veteran poise and know-how.

    If Andy Pettite wants to return, there’s absolutely no way the Yankees don’t bring him back. Not only because he’s an iconic Yankee, but seriously, how many high-end pitchers are willing to work on one-year deals perpetually?

    Cliff Lee isn’t the slam-dunk signing he’s made out to be, since he probably wants a deal in the neighborhood of CC’s. Do you really want the Yankees investing big money in another pitcher playing out his contract in his mid-30s? Lee hasn’t exactly been the picture of health, either.  (Quote)

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  8. PETTITTE, Mariano and Posada are almost done.Yankees will sign Lee even if it means suffering with a high payroll for one more season.Why would Yankees give Jeter 20 million when he’s worth 13-15 mil tops on the open market and he wants to remain a Yankee also.  (Quote)

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