We know the following as it pertains to the Yankees in the 72-plus hours since the World Series ended:
* Signing Derek Jeter is the top priority, and the general consensus is that the tennis match being played between Yankees management and Jeter’s agent, Casey Close, is a cover. Jeter will be a Yankee and will get a new contract, it’s just a matter of how long and for how much.
* Mariano Rivera is a free agent also. Like Jeter and Andy Pettitte, the Yankees’ exclusive window to negotiate with Rivera ends Sunday. Like Jeter, it’s hard to imagine Rivera, who it can be argued is an even more iconic figure of the recent-vintage Yankees, in a different set of laundry.
* Cliff Lee is on the market.
A few months ago, many members of the media who cover the Yankees, as well as Yankee fans — I’d include myself in this camp — would say Lee coming to New York was a given. Now, it’s not as certain.
Rob Abruzzese over at Bronx Baseball Daily referenced Joel Sherman’s recent column in the New York Post, where Sherman noted that the Yankees aren’t treating the Cliff Lee Sweepstakes with the same level of aggressiveness — others might say desperation — with which they recruited CC Sabathia two years ago. Sherman cites Lee’s age (32) as being a key differentiator in the Yankees’ thought process. Abruzzese notes that the Yankees, still just one season removed from their last title, aren’t in a position where they feel like they have to have Lee. Lee certainly doesn’t have to have the Yankees. He’s proven that.
Since this is the Hot Stove topic, let’s get to it: Should the Yankees sign Cliff Lee, given the cash they’re going to be spending on Jeter, Rivera, and possibly Andy Pettitte? Three weeks ago, I’d have said, “Yes” in a blink. Now, I’m not sure.
Some other things to consider:
* Lee has been to the World Series two straight seasons with two different teams. He’s been with four teams over the past two seasons. In addition to a monster paycheck, he’s probably looking for some stability. This is likely the last chance he has to sign a huge deal. Being three hours away from his home in Benton, Arkansas, the pull of home and the quality of life improvements are tough to compete with. Do the Yankees want to go there?
* Too many years, too much money. Even at 5 years and $125 million, as some have suggested, that contract will extend him through Age 37. Putting a pitcher on the hook for that long is a huge risk.
* Does winning in New York mean more to Lee than winning in Texas or Philadelphia or San Francisco? We say it does because we’re from New York, have an inflated opinion of ourselves, and with that, a tendency to overdramatize the successes of our sports teams. This debate raged for a year-and-a-half with LeBron James. “He’d be a legend if he won here.” Mark Messier was referenced; how he had won five Stanley Cups in Edmonton but cemented his legacy with the Rangers. Conversely, A-Rod did what many others before him did; came to the Yankees to get his title. I get the sense that Lee doesn’t care, and that he’d be happier beating the Yankees than being a Yankee and winning here.
* On Mike and Mike earlier this week, Buster Olney had an interesting comment about the prospect of the Yankees signing Lee, and more specifically, why it wouldn’t be a good fit. To paraphrase, Olney said Lee did not enjoy answering too many questions from the media, even in a postseason setting, leading to questions about his facility and willingness to deal with the scrutiny of the New York media corps that will light him up if he loses a couple of games to the Rays or Red Sox. We might not be looking at Randy Johnson or Jeff Weaver-caliber surliness, Clemens-level denial or Burnett-ish confusion, more like a miffed, frustrated, impatient “I wanna go home” tone.
* Tuesday, per ESPNDallas.com, Lee said, “There’s a lot to build on,” referring to his stint with the Rangers. “We did a lot of firsts for this organization. We were the second-best team in the big leagues. We should be proud of that. We’re going to use this for motivation and come in next year and try to do better.” Tim McMahon, the article’s author, made a point to mention that Lee’s use of the word “we” shouldn’t be mistaken as a commitment to return to the Rangers, but can give a hint to where he’s leaning. Add that Rangers GM Jon Daniels plans on increasing payroll in a clear effort to go after Lee, and the Rangers may make this decision easy for him.
* Check out Lee’s Baseball Reference profile. The most similar pitcher to him through Age 31 is Mark Mulder. Quick tangent: when Billy Beane broke up the Big Three in Oakland, I thought Mulder was the best of that group and thought he’d be dynamite on the Yankees. Injuries derailed Mulder’s career, and not signing him was a wise move for the Yankees. Mulder is now out of baseball, a near scratch golfer and won two majors on the Golf Channel Amateur Tour this year. Lee has proven more durable than “Agent” Mulder, however.
* The Yankees do not have a pitching coach. Externally, that suggests volatility at the core of the coaching staff. (Never mind the fact that the Yankees’ club policy is to sign all their coaches to one-year deals.) If I was Lee, I’d be observing the current landscape and weighing that into my decision.
Is Cliff Lee a must for the Yankees to win next year? The local media, like the Yankees’ front office, have zeroed in on Lee as the focal point outside the organization to their 2011 success. Given the variables listed above, what do you think? Why do you believe the Yankees shouldn’t sign him? (I ask that question because the other one is obvious.)
Put on your thinking caps and hit me up in comments.