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So far, I’ve given my argument against signing Cliff Lee, and laid out some alternatives (most of which don’t look pretty good), and stated my belief that the Yankees should stand pat and fill the position internally. Assuming Andy Pettitte re-signs, the team will go into 2011 with the same top-four as they did last year. How much of a problem is this?

The 2o10 Yankees won 95 games, giving them the second-best record in the American League by just 1 game. They scored 859 runs (leading the league by a good margin) and allowed 693 (6th-best in the league) for a Pythagorean record of 97-65, the best in either league. In the playoffs, they swept the ALDS against the Minnesota Twins, and lost in 6 games against the Texas Rangers in the ALCS.

If the 2011 Yankees replicate the performance of the 2010 Yankees, they will almost certainly make the playoffs. Once there, you roll the dice. Few Yankees pitched or hit well in the ALCS, and the Texas Rangers put together some outstanding performances. That’s how baseball works: any team can win on any day. Playoff victories are almost all about luck. Cliff Lee isn’t a magic baseball fairy – look at what the light-hitting Giants did to him. Its still about luck.

The Yankees would need an upgrade if they think that the 2011 Yankees will be significantly worse than the 2010 Yankees. However, looking at the team’s performance last season, I think that its fair to argue that the team as currently constituted will be better. The Yankee offense led the league without too many players having career years. Robinson Cano had a great year, but his only real improvement over past great years was new plate discipline. There’s no reason to believe he can’t bring that discipline through his prime. Nick Swisher had what looked like a career year, but in reality he improved only mildly over his career norms by trading on base percentage for slugging percentage. Brett Gardner could very easily play much worse next season, and probably isn’t an odds-on favorite to post a .383 OBP again, but his defensive value should remain. And Marcus Thames’ production on the bench probably won’t be replicated.

That’s it. Everyone else actually had a down year – a testament to how strong the team’s hitting core is. The team lost Nick Johnson, their primary DH, early in the season. Curtis Granderson missed time and had a down year. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter had horrendous down years. Francisco Cervelli played almost as much as Jorge Posada. Mark Teixeira had a season to forget. After Thames, contributions from the Yankee bench were anemic, with Russo, Pena, Winn, Curtis, Kearns, and Miranda all getting playing time but playing terribly.

Regressions go both ways. Players that were better than average tend to regress to the mean. But players that were worse than average tend to get better. Most of the Yankee hitters are odds-on favorites to play better than they did last year. The offense should be even better. Especially if the Yankees use some of their extra cash (they aren’t really freeing much up this offseason) to do a better job on the bench.

There is good news on the pitching side too. They balanced out terrible performances by A.J. Burnett and Javy Vazquez with great years by Andy Pettitte and C.C. Sabathia, plus a strong introduction to starting from Phil Hughes. We all saw how good Hughes was at the beginning of the season, and can probably expect him to improve in his second MLB season as a starting pitcher. Hughes probably got tired as the season went on, which is understandable. He’s your #2-3 pitcher with Andy Pettitte. Pettitte won’t be nearly as good as he was last year, but he’s still a pretty good pitcher and a great guy for the playoffs. Any regression by Pettitte should be made up from the poor performance of his replacement pitchers. And regressions work this way with A.J. Burnett: we may not like him, but he’s usually reasonable effective as a pitcher. This year, he everything took a dive. It may be age-related decline, but even so he should rebound a bit.

So, if we can upgrade from Javy Vazquez, we probably will upgrade our pitching staff. I don’t see any reason why the best of Ivan Nova, David Phelps, Lance Pendleton, and Joba Chamberlain (who was already a lot better than Vazquez just a year ago. and actually had a pretty good FIP this season and his best K/BB since he was a rookie) and whomever else comes along can’t beat a 5.37 ERA. By mid-season, players like Andrew Brackman, Hector Noesi, and even Dellin Betances or Manuel Banuelos will be ready to take the ball.

Signing Cliff Lee would add another long term commitment on top of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett (and soon, Robinson Cano) deep into the next decade. Long term contracts, especially for aging players, are very risky. Lee would be a win-now move at the expense of win-later. The Yankees are already set up to win now. For a marginally better chance at winning now, the Yankees could jeopardize their chance to win later. Don’t sign Cliff Lee.

29 Responses to “No Need For An Upgrade Like Cliff Lee”

  1. The first part is confusing. You wrote if Andy Pettitte resigns, which can be read as resign aka resignation….put a hyphen to make it re-signs.

    Also, you wrote that they lost Nick Swisher, their primary DH, early in the season (did you mean Nick Johnson???)

    Also Teixeira had a forgettable season? He lead the team in homeruns with 33 and had almost 110 RBIs.

    This is a pretty innaccurate article in need of significant edits.  (Quote)

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    EJ Fagan Reply:

    You get what you pay for.

    And its undeniable that Teixeira had a disappointing season. I didn’t think that it was necessary to cite career lows since his rookie year in OPS+ and Slugging. This is a self evident statement.  (Quote)

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    matcohen Reply:

    true this.  (Quote)

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  2. oh and there is a typo at the bottom with the word “especially”  (Quote)

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  3. I wonder if Joba will get another chance at starting. I’ll restate what I’ve said before about Lee: make him a reasonable offer, and if he goes elsewhere, so be it.  (Quote)

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    EJ Fagan Reply:

    Yeah, I don’t disagree with you on Lee. I’m not sure what I would call a reasonable offer. I doubt he’ll get one. 4 years, 84 million dollars? I’d have to consider it. But I feel like someone (Detroit, Texas, Washington) is going to blow him out of the water.  (Quote)

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    matcohen Reply:

    My gut is that he stays in Texas. They have a great GM and the money to be in the playoffs each year. He lives a short distance from the ballpark. He has a child who almost died of cancer. That kind of thing reminds you what is important.  (Quote)

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    Craig Reply:

    The first two (GM, $) are legit arguments – which also apply to the Yankees. However, I would have to say distance from the ballpark and his child’s near death experience are irrelevant.  (Quote)

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  4. Are Betances, Brackman, Warren and Banuelos really that close? None of those guys have thrown an inning in AAA and their experience in AA is as follows:

    Betances: 14.1 IP
    Brackman: 80.2 IP
    Banuelos: 15.1 IP
    Warren: 54.1 IP

    Even more developed guys like Noesi, Phelps and Pendleton might not be ready this year.

    Noesi: 18.2 IP at AAA
    Phelps: 70.1 IP at AAA
    Pendleton: 34 IP at AAA

    I hope some of those guys see major league action this year, but it’s hard to forecast that they’ll be at all ready for it. IPK and Hughes needed a few stints at AAA before they were ready for serious major league work. (Though part of that was due to IPK’s 2009 injury i guess.)  (Quote)

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  5. You make some persuasive arguments, but I just don’t see it. I almost think Cliff Lee is a must. I think he not only helps us win now but also in the future.

    I said this on an earlier thread but the state of the rotation is this: CC, AJ, Phil, (empty), (empty)

    CC is well, CC. Fantastic year. There isn’t much to say, aside from get well soon big man.

    Next we have AJ, who after this past season cannot be relied upon to do much. I just hope he has a bounce back year.

    Then we have Phil Hughes, a good young starter with promise. He had a great year. We hope that the huge increase in innings has no effect on his health next year. Yes I am aware he pitched 146 innings in 2006, but that was 4 years ago. You don’t say oh well I ran 14 miles 4 years ago so it’ll be fine if I run 17 now. However, I do have faith in the Yankee training staff that he wasn’t Dusty Baker’d. We also hope he continues to improve. Obviously to do that he’ll need to implement his curve and changeup more. All we heard coming out of spring training was that Phil Hughes’s changeup was what won him the 5th starter battle. But once the season started and progressed we rarely saw him break it out.

    After that our options are limited. If Andy Pettitte decides not to retire, that takes care of one spot. But then again he’ll be 39 and will be coming off a great but injury shortened season. If Andy Pettitte does retire then, you’re left with no choice. You have to get Cliff Lee.

    As for the last spot, the farm system is at a bit of a cross roads at the moment. The major league ready talents are more along the 5th starter type. That would be fine if we were in say the AL Central, or the NL. The Killer Bs all took some huge steps forward last year but they are still about a year away from being ready. If you have a competition for that spot in spring training it’s likely Nova would win. (I’m not even going to throw Joba’s name into the mix, otherwise I’ll wind up writing a 3000 word comment).

    As for the non-ace FAs. Ted Lilly is thankfully off the market. I want no part of him. Bronson Arroyo I wouldn’t go near with a 10 foot pole. Jake Westbrook doesn’t miss bats. That won’t get you very far in the AL East. Jake Westbrook fits the pitch to contact philosophy of the Twins. Brandon Webb looks finished. Erik Bedard….Pass. Ben Sheets may retire. Jorge De La Rosa is in interesting option, admittedly I do not know much about him. But he is a type A. Is there anyone else worth discussing?

    The last spot should be Cliff Lee’s. (This is all contingent on Pettitte returning). He immediately gives us a massive upgrade. He gives us the best chance to win now. But also he gives us a chance to win in the future. By signing him we get to keep all our prospects. There would be no need to trade for Greinke or whoever else. It would give the Yankees tremendous depth. It would give the Yankee prospects more time to develop as there would be no room in the rotation for at least another year. By then someone might be ready to contribute.

    I’m not going to talk about any trades because I do not know who is available or what that team would ask for.  (Quote)

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    Craig Reply:

    Bingo.  (Quote)

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  6. When Pettitte went down, the Yankees became a very ordinary club.

    You have more faith in Hughes, EJ, than I do. I looked for improvement over the season and saw little. Neither his change-up nor his curve is an adequate pitch, and he does not throw them with consistency — or confidence. I saw hitters adjust better to him this year than the other way around. I agree he may get better, but I would not bank on it. To me, his ceiling is that of a mid-rotation pitcher on a contending team.

    Burnett displays signs of an aging power pitcher who cannot adjust as he begins to lose his stuff. Although I hope he will improve over this year’s performance, I would not want to count on him for anything more than the back-end of the rotation.

    Much as I love Andy Pettitte and what he’s done over the past fifteen-odd seasons, he is nearing the end. He cannot be counted upon to last a full season. Nova is really there to step up when Pettitte goes down.

    By my calculation, then, the Yankees have a #1 (CC) starter, a #3 (Hughes), a #5 (Burnett), and about a half-season’s worth of a #3 (Pettitte).

    That might be good enough — in another division. But Boston will spend money to get better now, Tampa has a lot of young talent even if free agents depart, and Toronto has taken strides to get better. Even Baltimore no longer seems to be the AL East Pirates. Winning 90+ games in this division will get harder, and it is not clear the wild card will come out of such a competitive race.

    None of the in-house minor-league options can be counted on to play a major role in either 2011 or 2012. Some of them (Nova, Noesi, or Phelps) could replace Burnett or an injured Pettitte, but asking them to carry the load (as I said yesterday) is unfair and risky. The high-ceiling guys are between AA and AAA and need seasoning. If all goes well, one or more will break into the back end of the rotation in 2012. I would not count on them in a key series or the post-season for at least another year.

    Cliff Lee is all about maximizing the probability of winning the division and going deep into the post-season in 2011 and 2012. By 2013, Pettitte is long gone, Burnett is probably doing his best impression of Kei Igawa in the bullpen, and one or more of the Killer Bs or the other young pitchers is holding up the back end of the rotation. CC, Lee, and Hughes front a powerful staff that carries the Yankees as Posada and Jeter fade into history, A-Rod becomes the most overpaid DH in the game, and some young position talent begins the transition to a new era without the Yankees ever having to go into rebuilding mode.  (Quote)

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  7. Check out Swisher’s 2010 BABIP vs his career numbers. .335 vs .286 He had a lucky year.
    Gardner, on the other hand, can repeat 2010 imho. Fast players can maintain a high BABIP for obvious reasons.  (Quote)

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    Damian Reply:

    The BABiP discrepancy with Swisher is obvious, but he had a more aggressive year at the plate than he has in the past, which shows up in his swing rates. So while part of the BABiP lift may be attributable to luck, I think a big part of it is that he looked for pitches to hit earlier in counts. League average BABiP is about .300, so his mark of .335 isn’t way out of line for a good hitter who decided to take fewer walks.  (Quote)

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    Moshe Mandel Reply:

    Agreed, and well said.  (Quote)

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    matcohen Reply:

    This is a complete non sequitur.  (Quote)

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    T.O. Chris Reply:

    It actually makes sense whether you see it or not.

    Swisher has always been a guy who passed up opportunities to swing at hittable pitches in order to work counts and get walks but this year he traded the OBP mentality for a more SLG mentality swinging earlier and more often in counts which can lead to a raise in his BABIP. While we don’t expect it to stay .330+ there is no reason to assume his BABIP will drop down to his career number if he continues to swing at better pitches more often that he ever has before.  (Quote)

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    Damian Reply:

    Swisher’s LD% went up 3% this year. It’s not a complete non sequitur. When I disagree with people, I try to do so constructively. We’re all (kind of, in an internet sense) friends here. Don’t take it personally.  (Quote)

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    matcohen Reply:

    There are 2 reasons that BABIP can go up:
    1) luck
    2) an increase in the type of batted ball that is more likely to result in a hit. Swisher’s line drive percentage did go up a bit but this is not enough to drive an increase in BABIP of that magnitude.

    Swisher was lucky in 2010. In all likelihood, he’ll regress in 2011.  (Quote)

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    T.O. Chris Reply:

    Increase in balls that results in hits? Like swinging at better pitches to create more hits?

    Before Swisher went with a very Nick Johnson like strategy taking pitches right down in the middle on 2-0 and 3-1 counts trying to work walks but over the past season you have seen him start swinging at these pitches putting balls in play with more authority.  (Quote)

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    matcohen Reply:

    “As a general formula, BABIP equals the percent of batted balls that are line drives (LD%) plus .120.”

    So a .009 increase in LD% over his career numbers should give him a .009 increase in BABIP not a .049 increase over his career numbers.

    Some of the increase in BABIP is a result of the increase in LD% but most of it is luck.

    There is no question that Swisher was more aggressive. His strikeout rate dropped by a bit and his walk rate dropped a ton. Having said that, his power numbers were almost identical to last year – so it’s not like he went from Pee Wee Reese to Albert Pujols in terms of results.  (Quote)

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  8. Excellent article. Calm and reasonable. And I agree with much of what you say, but……I still want Cliff Lee.

    And Johnny Crash, you are the life of the party.  (Quote)

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    Johnny Crash Reply:

    hey just out there to make sure public material is accurate. I did refute a negative statement about Teixeira by saying he had good year and not “a year to forget” which is how I would refer to Burnett’s, so I’m not the negative one here…….and i am always the life of the party.  (Quote)

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  9. Well written article but I do disagree I think what scout said both today and yesterday pretty much hits the nail on the head.

    This is a team that is slowly regressing from last year, we weren’t as god as the team that won the series in 09 and I just don’t think staying pat will make us better if anything I just think we would be slightly worse and you run the risk of going into the playoffs with Pettitte hurt and Hughes nd Burnett as your main pitchers after CC.

    I just don’t think we can go into every playoff series knowing if we lose 1 CC start the series is probably over.  (Quote)

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  10. Hughes is not that bad where he should be looked at as an automatic loss in the playoffs, but I admit I’ve lost faith. I used to be a huge fan, but between the injuries and the stint in the pen, he’s lost his other pitches and fallen overly in love with his FB. I would hardly be shocked if he really improves next year, but then I won’t be shocked if he takes a step back, whatwith his innings and refusal to adjust. Even if he does take a step forward, I think we need Lee very badly.  (Quote)

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  11. Pul-eeeeze!!!! No USD 125MM for a max two years of Cliff Lee!!!  (Quote)

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  12. Cliff Lee makes sense. He is actually someone that is worth signing. He has proven consistently that he’s a winner wherever he goes. The Giants game was a fluke. He is human. In the postseason, he is the Mariano Rivera of starters. He dominates like no pitcher has in years. Oh, did I mention he makes fools of hitters in Yankee Stadium? He handles the media. He likes the spotlight. He is not emotionally messed up in the head. Those last three things I mentioned are what the Yankees have gone after in the past 10 years. Let’s be real, CC is the smartest pitching move they have made in years. Now Cliff Lee is what they need to take this team back to winning 2-3 Championships in a row. It would be smart to drop money on this guy. You can’t sit around and wait for AJ to get his game back. Hughes was fantastic last year, but still needs growth. Andy is not sure to be back. If Lee goes elsewhere the Yankees can be looking at a lot of circumstances like 2010, and not 2009.  (Quote)

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  13. A strong post, even if I disagree with a couple things, and quite thoughtful comments for the most part. EJ, I strongly disagree with your characterization of Jeter and A-Rod’s down years as “horrendous.” This is a serious overstatement. Down years for both? Unquestionably. But especially for A-Rod, he had a very productive year (.270/.341, 30 HR, 125 RBI) despite missing 25 games. His OBP was surely down not just because of his average, but also because no one would walk him to face Cano.

    Jeter’s down numbers meant a bit more because his game isn’t power-oriented. His 22 GIDP last year, and 85 in the last 4 years, worry me. Yet, thanks to a good bottom of the order, still drove in 67, one more than in 2009, when he was 3rd in the MVP race, and were on par for the last few years. Little noticed is that he yet again scored over 100 runs (111) despite his lowered average and OBP. Certainly A-Rod and Jeter had down years, but they were NOT horrendous. In fact, they were productive but not what we’re used to, in some ways what they’ve done throughout most of their careers and, in fact, reflect just how great they’ve been historically. That, as much as their respective performances in 2010, has skewed our perception and analysis of them.

    Sorry, EJ, I am in the sign Cliff Lee camp. Certainly not for 6 years, but 4 years, $84 million would work for me, even if it’s a big financial commitment. He’d tie together the rotation now and in the next few years, and he commands people’s respect both with his performance and his presence. He’s an excellent pitcher and a leader.

    Good to see you stick to your guns, though, and you’re a very good writer. Keep up the very good work, EJ.  (Quote)

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  14. Good idea…don’t sign Cliff Lee so he can beat you everytime in the postseason…Genius!  (Quote)

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