Why the Cliff Lee Decision is Good for the Yankees

it seems like the prevailing theory on cliff lee’s decision to join the phillies is that the yankees are screwed. you will hear all kinds of rumors about this player and that player being yankee targets (grienke and chris carpenter are two hot ones right now), and they will undoubtedly do SOMETHING before the season opens. but there is no way they can compete with the red sox and the phillies now right?

the immediate/gut-level reaction is: yes. at the very least, there is revelry over the fact that for once new york didn’t just open the checkbook and get their guy (which makes texeira look like even more of a bottom-line scum bag now).

we will see how this all plays out but i actually think this could be good for the yankees long term. i’ll admit, there was a secret part of me that hoped the yankees would sign lee and then be stuck with a bunch of old guys getting paid 20 million dollars a year for the next several years.

don’t get me wrong, i think lee is great. he was the cornerstone of my pitching staff in my most important fantasy league last year. he just struck out 185 guys and walked 18 during a season in which he missed over a month with an injury (that is an otherworldly k/bb ratio of 10.28). he’s been ridiculous in the post-season. he is a really, really good pitcher and is everything i wish barry zito would be/become.

but here’s my other line of thinking on lee. he was in the MINOR LEAGUES at the end of 2007 because he was really, really bad. he will be 33 before the 2011 season is over. he will be 38 when the contract runs out. he does not throw hard and relies on some of the best (freakish) control you will ever see. the giants exposed how hittable lee can be when he doesn’t hit his spots (see game one of the 2010 WS and edgar renteria, 2010 WS MVP). he also strained an abdomen in spring training last year and missed all of april, then tweaked his back in august and struggled up until the post-season.

lee is still nasty and likely has two great seasons left in him, but the decline will come soon, if it hasn’t started already, and it will not be pretty, especially in that ballpark. the phillies were right to go after halladay last year (similar age, but the kind of pitcher who will get old in a more pleasing way, plus he’s cheaper).

to top it all off, how much better does lee actually make a team that has 3 excellent starters? (this brings up the question of value, value added, and allocation of resources. not something i’ll explore in this post, but it is an interesting question.)

bottom line, as a giants fan i am very scared of the phillies now. but, this is a team that is getting older, doesn’t have jason werth (or any right-handed presence), and is going to continue spending on aging stars for some time now. they will be a beast in 2011, but after that it could get interesting (rollins, for example, might be following werth out-of-town next year).

all of which brings me back to the yankees. anyone with a brain who read moneyball in 2004 had to wonder how long it would take for the rest of baseball to catch up with the billy beanes of the world. well, that has happened in the last few years, with the yankees, of all people, teetering on the brink of being a full on moneyball team (at least in the sense of valuing young players…especially since brian cashman took over more of the baseball ops circa 2006). no one doubts their ability to spend, but the question has always lurked: what if the yankees were forced to be shrewd and still had all their financial resources available to them?

the 2011 yankees as presently constructed are still extremely talented but also something of a mess. there are about 10 other rotations in major league baseball i would take over the yankees right now. they are not deep in the bullpen or the bench. the core is getting older especially the left side of the infield.

i hoped they would sign cliff lee because that would have been business as usual and helped gloss over some of the cracks showing in the walls of the house that jeter built. now, though, anything is possible. it will be fascinating to see if the yankees panic, or if they (and i mean cashman who should be empowered by this rather than the opposite) take this as an opportunity to get creative.

i don’t know what the answer is or what they should do (sherman has some ideas, as does sheehan) but i have been fearing a moment like this: one where the yankees can no longer simply write a big fat check and band aid over whatever ails them and instead have to get smart. what if the yankees become efficient on top of being rich as a result of losing cliff lee to the phillies?

that could be a problem.

(-SB)

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