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.