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Oct 272010

Cliff Lee is a really good pitcher. He’s become a modern-day Curt Schilling: dominating the playoffs unimaginably well. He is healthy. He has no makeup issues to worry about. But we still shouldn’t sign him.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Cliff Lee is going to make bank this off season. He is going to command somewhere around 20 million dollars for 5-6 years, possibly more. If I’m wrong about that, and Lee signs a Halladay-like short term deal, my argument in this post doesn’t really apply.

Cliff Lee is going to turn 32 years old next season. At some point, old players start to decline. It tends to start around 34-35, and descend rather steeply after that. The Yankees were lucky when Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte were productive into their mid and late 30s. They were the exception to the rule. We can count on our players beginning to decline around that age.

One player declining is not a big deal. The Yankees can afford it. The problem is that the Yankees’ “New Core”© are almost all right around the same age. Mark Teixeira will be 31 next year. Nick Swisher will be 30. Curtis Granderson will be 30. Alex Rodriguez will be 35. C.C. Sabathia will be 30. They are all right around the same age as Cliff Lee. Our younger core includes Brett Gardner, Phil Hughes, and Robinson Cano. Besides those guys, all of the players that we will be counting on for production (assuming guys like Granderson and Swisher stick around) will start to decline somewhere around 2014-2015.

The Yankees can afford to have a lot of high-priced players on the team. What they can’t afford is to have their high-priced players sitting on the bench. The Yankees will be writing in Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia, etc in to the lineup every as regulars until their contracts expire. If they play poorly or below expectations, then the Yankees have to make up that production elsewhere. This is why the team should spread their risk out among a diverse set of ages. At any given time, they shouldn’t let the majority of their lineup (or, more accurately, the majority of their payroll) decline all at the same time.

That’s part of the bargain you make for a free agent, right? You pay for a few late years of a guy’s prime, and then keep paying him through his decline years. I’m aware of that, and fine with it. But timing is what its all about.

Getting locked into an aging and declining team is how the New York Yankees become the New York Knicks.  We all saw the 2005-2008 Yankees start to get locked into this problem. Luckily, the aging Yankee veterans defied the odds and were productive far in to their 30s. The Yankees can’t count on that happening again. They’ll be stuck with a mediocre team until the contracts clear out. The team needs those expensive contracts to clear out one at a time instead of all at once. Cliff Lee’s contract puts him right there with Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia.

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.

I’m going to be a fan of the New York Yankees in the second half of this decade. I want the team to be in it for a shot at the World Series every year. Panicking following “only” getting to Game 6 of the ALCS and feeling like they have to sign the biggest guy out there is a quick way to ruin things. It reeks of the mid-2000s short-term philosophy of the team. Cliff Lee is a great pitcher, but he’s not the right pitcher for us.

50 Responses to “Against a Cliff Lee Signing”

  1. While I agree that there are concerns in signing Cliff Lee, it would perhaps do well to remember that aging for pitchers is different than position players.

    Sure, at some point Lee will decline, but I’d argue that age is less of a concern with him than a position player.  (Quote)

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  2. I appreciate the perspective; indeed, it seems most Yankee fans expect them to sign and pay big money for Lee. It’s a good thing to try to see the other side of the argument. But there just aren’t too many great options out there other than Lee. Trading for Greinke would seem to be one, but it might take a Montero + major league player + killer B prospect package to do that, which might actually hurt the Yankees’ youth down the road more than signing Lee. Other than Montero, the Yanks don’t seem to have very many prospects on the cusp of breaking the major league squad, but in 2014-15 (the years you’re worried about – and I would expect decline to start even before then) they may very well have a number of guys ready to contribute meaningfully.

    The Yankees are in a pretty tough spot with their starting pitching right now, especially if Pettitte retires. Maybe there’s a decent alternative to signing Lee, but I’m not sure the long-term benefits of avoiding another long contract would be that great.  (Quote)

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    EJ Fagan Reply:

    I really think that standing pat has to be considered an option. If Pettitte retires, we’re obviously in a worse position, but the I don’t see why the rest of the situation is all that dire. The Yankees can go into 2011 with CC-Pettitte-Hughes-Burnett-X and still probably expect to win 95+ games again. Maybe more, since our offense is a solid bet to be better next year.  (Quote)

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    Tabata Daycare Reply:

    why is the yanks offense a solid bet to be better next year? Cano/Gardner has a career years and the catcher, 3b,ss should be playing in the old timers game. The only good hitter in the minors currently can’t play the field.  (Quote)

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    matcohen Reply:

    See below – A-Rod, Tex, Granderson had below career average BABIP years. It should balance out. And I disagree on Gardner. He is a high BABIP guy because of his speed. 340 is not a crazy number for a guy that fast.  (Quote)

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    Oz Reply:

    I agree about Granderson but who knows what you’re going to get w/ A-rod or Tex.
    A-rod is 35, PED free and has had 3 straight seasons of declining offensive production. I tend to use stats to confirm what I see with my eyes and I see his bat getting slower. I would think his BABIP is awful because he is hitting more fly balls than ever before (.88 G/F) and there not leaving the park. In two years we’ll be lucky if he’s a great doubles hitter and too slow to score from 2nd on a base hit.
    Tex can turn it around. He just worries me because his terrible mechanics make him susceptible to prolonged offensive slumps. I have nightmares that one season he just won’t snap out of it.
    As for Gardner, my only thought is it would be nice if he didn’t have to risk his life diving into first just to get on. Doesn’t seem like a sustainable, long-term approach for a guy who needs to be 100% explosive to add any value.  (Quote)

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    T.O. Chris Reply:

    100% explosive? Like Pedroia?

    What’s with the PED fre arod comment? The guy has been under a testing program since being with the Yankees and while he is getting old I find it hard to believe he is going to go from 3 straight under 150 AB, 30 HR, 100 RBI seasons to a less than good doubles hitter.

    You act like he stopped taking steroids last year or something if anything the thing that shlowed Alex the most was his hip injury and I believe he injured himself in the early part of the year and didn’t heal fully until his trip to the DL and right before it.  (Quote)

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    Tabata Daycare Reply:

    He is going to need PEDs to offset his Bo Jackson hip and his age.
    I wasn’t implying he stopped taking them last year. Because all we know for sure is he hasn’t been caught using them since he played for Texas. We don’t know when he started, stopped, or exactly what he used. Even he claims not to know what he used.  (Quote)

  3. Cliff Lee is already 32, born August 1978. At 33 next season, he is too old to sign to a 5+ year contract. Go young!  (Quote)

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    MJ Recanati Reply:

    Lee’s birthday is 8/30/78. He’ll be 32 for the great majority of the 2011 season so let’s not go nuts here. Mike Mussina turned 32 the day after he signed with the Yankees in 2000 so we’re talking about a difference of 13 weeks between the two pitchers.  (Quote)

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    Ron Reply:

    Still, we do not need another player that is approaching their declining years. I would do a two to three year deal in a heartbeat and would consider four, but five or more is just too much.  (Quote)

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    T.O. Chris Reply:

    Let’s not forget that Cliff hasn’t been an ace for 20 years here he hasn’t really been throwing big major league innings for more than 3 years so he should theoretically have a longer prime than a pitcher that started his greatness run at a younger age.  (Quote)

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  4. “Panicking following “only” getting to Game 6 of the ALCS and feeling like they have to sign the biggest guy out there is a quick way to ruin things. It reeks of the mid-2000s short-term philosophy of the team. Cliff Lee is a great pitcher, but he’s not the right pitcher for us.”
    ———-
    I actually completely disagree with this statement and with the post on the whole. I don’t see the Yankees signing Lee as a panic move or as an overreaction to losing in the ALCS. I see it as: (1) an extension of the Yankees previous attempts to acquire Lee and (2) a move not so dissimilar to when the team signed Mike Mussina after the 2000 season. Mussina was the best free agent pitcher available that off-season, was the same age as Lee and had a history of durability and good health.

    I hardly see how Lee “isn’t the pitcher for us”. If we assume that Lee is a safe bet for at least the first three years of a five year deal then we’re talking about 2014 as the first year of risk for the team. According to Cot’s, the Yankees are currently committed to pay three players $73.4M (not including the various arb-eligible guys that may or may not be on the team at that point).

    I don’t see Lee’s contract as burdensome to the overall financial health or competitiveness of the 2014 Yankees. One can assume that the remaining 21 roster spots (after CC, A-Rod, Tex and Lee) will be a mix of high-priced players and younger, “value” guys.  (Quote)

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    Moshe Mandel Reply:

    I agree with all of this. Additionally, considering that most teams are locking up young studs, eventually you are going to need to resort to FA to bolster this staff. I think Lee is a particularly good fit,making him the best FA target I see on the horizon for the forseeable future.  (Quote)

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    MJ Recanati Reply:

    considering that most teams are locking up young studs, eventually you are going to need to resort to FA to bolster this staff.

    A very good and underrated point. The winter of 2009/2010 with several young arms getting signed up probably made Cashman’s decision here.  (Quote)

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    Stephen R. Reply:

    Yep, perfectly said.  (Quote)

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    EJ Fagan Reply:

    I think we lucked out quite a bit with Mike Mussina. He took us lumps, but overall the contract was very much worth it. I guess I have a couple of responses:

    1. Mike Mussina’s contract might be the best long-term free agent pitcher’s contract of all time. Its probably the exception to the rule.

    2. While Cliff Lee has been fantastic for 3 years, Mussina had a much longer record of excellence.

    3. Mussina’s skills dramatically, terribly declined during his contract. He only worked out because Mussina adjusted like few pitchers ever had. Most pitchers won’t adjust so well. This sort of proves my point: even though Moose was effective, there was no doubt that he declined over the course of the contract quite a bit.

    4. The Yankees during most of Mussina’s years suffered the exact problem that I’m detailing: too many players on the tail end of their careers. They didn’t get back into strong World Series retention until after the 2005-2008 group was reinvigorated with younger talent.  (Quote)

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    Ron Reply:

    I agree, Mussina was a fluke and did not cost what Lee will. Also, the Yanks did not have the Rodriquez, Texeira, Jeter, Sabbathia and Burnett contracts on the books at the time!  (Quote)

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    MJ Recanati Reply:

    Jeter is a free agent presently and, at the time of the Mussina contract, they had Bernie Williams and would soon add Giambi, Jeter, etc.  (Quote)

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    Ron Reply:

    Jeter may be the least “free” free agent in history since there is no doubt that he will sign an above market contract for too many declining years. Also, look at how rapidly Bernie and Giambi declined, with Giambi’s contract being one of the worst ever. Why repeat these mistakes?  (Quote)

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    matcohen Reply:

    You need to project out the Yankee payroll a few years with raises for the younger guys. There is not a lot of room if you want to stay around $200 million.  (Quote)

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  5. http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=104&position=P

    Check out what happened to Maddux after 35. Still good, but not great.  (Quote)

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    MJ Recanati Reply:

    Considering Lee doesn’t turn 33 until 8/30/11 (and thus won’t turn 35 until 8/30/13), a five year deal represents minimal risk if we’re using Maddux’s career as a baseline. After all, his age 35 and 36 seasons (2001-2002) look pretty great to me.  (Quote)

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    EJ Fagan Reply:

    We’re using one of the greatest pitchers of all time as a baseline?

    I just think that a lot of wishful thinking is going on.  (Quote)

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    matcohen Reply:

    My point was even in that case, he dropped off dramatically after he turned 35. This would tend to support your case.  (Quote)

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    MJ Recanati Reply:

    He actually “dropped off dramatically” after he turned 37, not 35. His age 35 and 36 seasons were still very, very good.  (Quote)

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  6. You make some good arguments. However, I still want Mr. Lee to be a Yankee. The Yankee rotation as it currently stands is: CC, Hughes, Burnett, (empty), (empty). Hughes had a good year, we hope that he continues to improve and eventually uses his change and curve on a more regular basis. Burnett is and always will be an enigma.

    It seems likely Pettitte will return, but no one knows 100% if he will or not. If he returns that’s one rotation spot left.

    Trading for Greinke is a good idea, unfortunately he’ll cost a pretty penny and NY is one the teams listed on his no-trade clause. Would I love to have him? Sure. Is it likely that we trade for him? No probably not. Although none of us really expected the Grandy or the Vazquez trade. So who knows.

    Why not go for Lee when all he will cost is money? Yes I know signing players who are on the wrong side of 30 is what got us in trouble back in the mid 2000s. But this guy seems like a player who will age well as he is not entirely dependent on velocity.  (Quote)

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    matcohen Reply:

    Nor was Maddux and he dropped off after 35. The problem is that even if you are not dependent on pure speed, as the delta between your fastball and offspeed stuff narrows, you become less effective.  (Quote)

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  7. Good article but some issues with the ages you listed. Lee turns 33 next August (he is already 32) as others already mentioned. Arod turns 36 during the season next year (he is already 35) Sabathia will turn 31 during the season next year (he is already 30) – so the Yankees are even older than you state.

    Plus, unlike Sabathia and some other contracts they have signed they are going to be in a bidding war on this one and will have to either give more years or more dollars or both by a substantial margin. That being said, they don’t really have many other options. There isn’t much way to improve the offense assuming Gardner is the left fielder and DH needs to be open for Posada/other older players. There is no free agent pitching other than Lee of any renown. The Yankees have painted themselves into a corner with all the long term deals to older players and if they come back with the same team next year (Pettitte, Rivera, Jeter, Rivera) I think they win 10-15 fewer games due to age and injury. No easy solution but Lee would just continue and unsustainable Ponzi scheme that would be great for the team in 2011 but really bad long term.  (Quote)

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    MJ Recanati Reply:

    they are going to be in a bidding war on this one and will have to either give more years or more dollars or both by a substantial margin.

    Just wondering, but which teams do you see involved in this bidding war? The Yanks, the Rangers and…?  (Quote)

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    matcohen Reply:

    It only takes 2 to tango.  (Quote)

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    Bret Reply:

    Maybe bidding war was the wrong terminology but there are going to be multiple teams involved due to supply and demand. With Sabathia, no team was willing to come close to the Yankees but Lee is the only even decent free agent available and some teams have cash. I think the Nats make a bid, Rangers, Cubs could, Angels could etc. I think NY is the best situation (other than Texas) but they also have a much higher tax rate than Texas. It will cost them dearly to get him, I say something like 170 million for 7 years. Long term, not a good move but it also won’t be a good move to give up on 2011 which, if they don’t get Lee, I think they are doing. I do not think the team as presently constructed makes postseason in 2011 – pitching is very thin and suspect and offense will just be a year older.  (Quote)

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  8. Some clarity on Lee’s age: his “Baseball Age” (measured by how old he will be on July 1st) will be 32 next season. I’m of the opinion that a few months either way (or even 1 year) doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. He’s 32-33, and getting close to his decline years.  (Quote)

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  9. I do think they should make him a reasonable offer, and if he signs here, then we have a much better rotation for a while. But a lot of pitchers tend to break down in the age group he’s going to be for the bulk of the contract, so it wouldn’t bother me if he didn’t sign here. Buying age 30+ pitchers after they’ve had their best seasons is buying high.  (Quote)

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  10. Ballsy post.

    I guess it boils down to this. He’ll get $25 million for 5-6 years. So you’ll have 2-3 years of one of the best pitchers in baseball who if combined with CC (if he stays) at the top of the rotation with a very good lineup makes you the favorite to win the Series for 2-3 years. He’s worth $25 million, or maybe more than that if he can continue to perform in the postseason at this level (assigning a postseason leverage multiplier).

    Then you’ll have 2-4 years of a guy worth $10-$15 million which kicks in around the time that Jeter is gone and done eating up value.

    I dismiss silly retorts that “the Yankees can afford it.” Clearly, there is a limit to the amount of value-sucking contracts they can carry and still make the playoffs.

    Tough call.

    My only criticism is that coming out against something is easy. What’s the alternative?

    The answer is that the alternative for 2011 is not great. You’re basically stuck with CC, AJ, Hughes and hopefully Pettite. I’m actually fine with Nova as the 5th starter as I think that he can perform as well as or better than Vazquez did. This team did make the playoffs this year and I think that Tampa will not be as good next year.

    You stick 5 of Betances, Brackman, Banuelos, Noesi, Phelps and Warren at AAA and hope that in a year or 2, you have a bona fide top of the rotation starter or 2 to improve the rotation.

    It’s not the Yankee way but it might be the right thing to do for the reasons that you listed.  (Quote)

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  11. You’re right, we shouldn’t sign a top three pitcher in baseball, who doesn’t have the same wear on his arm as say a CC Sabathia because of his late start mind you, and we should trade top young talent for a guy who needs lithium to function properly or go into the next season with two replacement level starters.

    Awesome.  (Quote)

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    matcohen Reply:

    None of the Yankee starters profile as replacement level.  (Quote)

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    T.O. Chris Reply:

    Ivan Nova? He is a minor league starter that is the definition of replacement player.

    Joba won’t be a starter and if Andy doesn’t come back then one of the other minor pitchers has to start.  (Quote)

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  12. Tomorrow at 1 PM: Cliff Lee alternatives.  (Quote)

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    matcohen Reply:

    Any mentions of Carl Pavano are cause for stoning.  (Quote)

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    T.O. Chris Reply:

    Also no Hiroki Kuroda since he will be 37 next season and relies on a less than thriller sinker/split combo that only works in the NL.

    You’ll bring up Grienke of course but right now let’s just say I don’t think the kid is cut out for New York, if he has a hard time with Kansas City reporters how’s he going to deal with NY media?  (Quote)

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  13. Before we all commit seppeku, let’s remember that the Yanks were close to having the best record in baseball and made it to the ALCS. A bunch of players were hurt or had bad years.

    Positions that should be better in 2011
    1B (Tex had a bad year with a BABIP 35 points below his career average),
    3B (A-Rod’s BABIP was 40 points below his career average)
    CF (Granderson’s BABIP was 37 points below his career average)

    Positions that should be worse
    2B (Cano had a great year, maybe a career year)
    RF Swish had a 50 point BABIP bump in 2010 over his career average

    Positions that should be the same
    C (Montero should swap out some Cervelli atbats with better results, compensating for more Posada decline)
    SS (Jeter had a big down year and should stabilize here for a years or 2 before getting worse)
    DH – Montero and Posada should be roughly as good as Posada/Thames.
    LF – Gardner is what he is

    So net, net, the lineup should score roughly as many runs.

    The staff, assuming that Pettite returns, will be the same with Nova replacing Vazquez who was horrible – he should be slightly better. The pen should be roughly the same, maybe down a tick because we’re losing Wood (only a small number of innings, though). Also, we’ll have 5 studs at AAA waiting to come up if someone getes hurt whereas this year, we had squat other than Nova.

    Meanwhile, the Rays and the Red Sox will lose some productive players.

    So, if Pettite returns, this team should be in the mix for the playoffs out of the East and given what is happening to the Red Sox and Rays this offseason, I don’t hate our chances. I love the fact that Montero is coming up and we have 6 starters at AA and AAA who could be good.  (Quote)

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  14. We have a team that can make it to the playoffs but once we got their we showed no ability to score and very little stability in the rotation.

    We don’t need an overhaul just a re-tooling and adding Lee gives us the 2nd pitcher we didn’t have lastyear and I believe Montero to be the right handed bat we need going forward.  (Quote)

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  15. Provocative stuff, EJ and most of your concerns are valid. A few reactions would be as follows-

    A) Swisher and Grandy’s age aren’t an issue, since they’re only under contract for 2 more years each.

    B) I’m a bit less concerned about Lee as a lefty. Lefties tend to have longer careers, and Yankee stadium being as Lefty-friendly as it is helps as well.

    C) Lee’s game isn’t so much about stuff as it is control. When hitters go into the batters box knowing you’re going to throw strikes, half the battle is already won. David Wells never had dominating stuff, but pitched into his mid-40s because he threw nothing but strikes.

    But I’m glad to see someone still tries to buck the zeitgeist, it’s important to challenge people on what they think they know. Unfortunately the Yankee blogosphere has developed it’s zeitgeist own of late, just the like ‘MSM’ many bloggers love to take shots at. It’s all quantitative analysis and zero qualitative and it’s proponents are every bit are certain of their positions as the Wally Matthews and Murray Chass’ of the world.  (Quote)

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    EJ Fagan Reply:

    You’re right that Swisher and Granderson aren’t on long term deals. The Yankees could jettison them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll get younger. At the very least, the Yankees will have to replace them just as everyone is getting old.

    And thanks for the compliment.  (Quote)

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  16. The back issue bothers me but again, I’m not sure Yankees will maintain a 200 million payroll.Might be either him or ANDY.  (Quote)

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  17. But I’m glad to see someone still tries to buck the zeitgeist, it’s important to challenge people on what they think they know. Unfortunately the Yankee blogosphere has developed it’s zeitgeist own of late, just the like ‘MSM’ many bloggers love to take shots at. It’s all quantitative analysis and zero qualitative and it’s proponents are every bit are certain of their positions as the Wally Matthews and Murray Chass’ of the world.

    An absolutely brilliant comment. I couldn’t agree more with this.  (Quote)

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    Stephen R. Reply:

    No it’s not. It’s a false equivalence.  (Quote)

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  18. None of the Yankee starters profile as replacement level.  

    AJ Burnett was basically replacement level this year. Javier Vazquez was below replacement level.  (Quote)

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  19. CLIFF LEE IS THE MOST OVERRATED PLAYER IN THE BIGS. Just 3 years ago this guy gave up almost a run an inning…he was on pace to give up 37 home runs in a season. Even this year he had a losing record with Texas.

    Yes, he can be magical but he is grossly inconsistent. My old boss used to say I’d rather have a horse that comes in second every time than one who comes in 1st–then 6th.

    I would offer him 3 years–thats all he proved he can be good for–at 18 million…and the only reason I say 18 is because of AJ Burnett’s crazy salary. Its an honor to play for a Team that has 40% of all MLB Pennants and has been in the WS 7 times in the last 13 years. If players dont get that…they dont belong here. Cashman is a spineless twit who is laughed at by other GM’s…he needs to grow a pair.  (Quote)

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