The waiting game being played out between Cliff Lee and the Yankees and Rangers has to be disconcerting to most Yankee fans by now. Recent reports during the winter meetings that he and/or his agent met with the Texas Rangers brass 4 times, and the Yanks only twice, adds further fuel to the fire that he’s leaning toward Texas, or at least giving them every opportunity to come up with an offer he can live with.
To paraphrase the great Football coach Vince Lombardi, Cliff Lee isn’t everything, he’s the only thing. I know that some fans think that the Yanks, with their enormous resources, will find someone comparable who can take the ball every 5th day and give the team a chance to win. Now of course they’ll find somebody, they’re not going to forfeit every 5th game in 2011. You can always find a Chad Gaudin-type floating around in free agency or the waiver wires. Maybe there’s a mid-rotation starter out there to be had via trade from a team like the White Sox, whose GM Kenny Williams is always up for a deal. But the notion that it will be someone comparable to Cliff Lee, someone with top of the rotation ability, is simply unfounded. Or in the case of Zach Grienke, I would argue ill conceived.
With this in mind, I wanted to take a minute to ponder what the Yankee rotation would look like without Lee. As things stand currently, that would mean Ivan Nova would be the Yankee #5 starter with CC, Burnett, Hughes and Pettitte filling out the starting five. The Yanks generally don’t like to enter a season barely having 5 starters, which is what this rotation would represent. The team would look better if they pick up a back of the rotation type on a 1 year deal, so if things go south they can always cut bait around mid-season. Looking at the list of available free agent starters they would be choosing from pitchers such as Bruce Chen, Jeff Francis, Dave Bush, Freddy Garcia, Brian Burres, Rodrigo Lopez, Jeff Suppan, or Kevin Millwood. Those are the healthy guys, for a more speculative bet on upside you have your choice of Erik Bedard, Brandon Webb, Brad Penny, Justin Duchscherer, Chien-Ming Wang, Chris Young, and Ben Sheets. We don’t even need to discuss Carl Pavano. I have trouble making a case for anything above a minor league invite or a low base incentive-laden deal for any pitcher on that list. Given the dearth of available starters and the sky-high prices free agents are going for this year, any of the guys with even a hint of ability on that list will command more than that.
Further complicating matters is that, as we all know, Andy Pettitte is currently leaning towards retirement. We can all hope that if the Yankee situation is desperate enough, Andy will come in riding on a white horse and save the day. But we can’t count on that. Living with Ivan Nova as your #5 is one thing, but penciling him in as your #4 and filling in with someone from that above list or the next guy on the Yankee depth chart (David Phelps or Hector Noesi) is something they simply can’t live with. Not in the AL East, not with the Red Sox making the upgrades they already have this off season. If Andy retires, I have to think the Yanks would revisit Joba Chamberlain in the starting rotation. They may even let him and Nova battle things out in spring training if just the 5th spot is open. That’s what they did with him and Hughes this past spring, and Ivan Nova has never been viewed by prospect watchers as having the ability of Phil. Despite his sub-par 2010 campaign, Joba still has more upside as a starter than Nova, who lacks a true swing and miss pitch and relies mostly on his heavy, sinking fastball. We know it’s not their preference, but if Andy bows out and they come in second in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, I think revisiting Joba the starter becomes unavoidable as things stand currently.