Lee shocks baseball world, jilts Yankees and Rangers for reunion with Phillies

For just the second time in the last two decades, a premier free agent pitcher has spurned the Yankees for less money elsewhere.

In the biggest offseason shocker since the Yankees’ signing Mark Teixeira two Decembers ago and perhaps one of the biggest surprises in baseball history, Cliff Lee declined both the Yankees’ and Texas’ higher offers to return to the Philadelphia Phillies, the team he pitched to the World Series in 2009. Turns out I — and just about everyone else — was wrong about Lee’s eventual destination.

Lee’s new contract with the Phillies is for $120 million over five years with a vesting option, making his $24 million AAV the second-highest ever for a pitcher, after Roger Clemens‘ pro-rated $28,000,022 in 2007. According to Jon Heyman, the Yankees offered Lee six years at $22 million each, plus an option year for $16 million, for a total of $148 million over seven years. The Rangers apparently offered six years, $138 million, which may or may not have included an option, while Heyman’s colleague Joe Lemire said the Rangers offered what could have been worth as much as seven years and $161 million if the final-year option vested. Without knowing how much Lee’s vesting option with Philly is worth, we don’t know for sure how much money he ended up leaving on the table, but it sounds like it could’ve been anywhere from $20 million to $41 million (though as William J. notes at TYU, the gap may actually be quite a bit smaller than many have speculated on), not to mention the fact that Lee also signed for less years than most expected he’d desire. It also sounds like the Rangers either matched the Yankees’ money and may have actually even been offering more.

This tells us several things: For one, Lee is that rare athlete who clearly isn’t all about the money. Two, I’m not sure Lee ever seriously considered playing for the Yankees or the Rangers in light of this signing. I find it rather baffling that the negotiations even got as far as they did, with everyone in the industry widely assuming that New York or Texas were the only two legitimate destinations. It would appear that Lee, after turning down Philly’s three-year, $54 million extension last offseason, which resulted in the trade that sent him to the Mariners, was using New York and Texas as leverage to get Philadelphia GM Ruben Amaro to up his offer. Turns out by waiting another year Lee was able to extract an extract $60 million out of the Phillies. I imagine there are some pretty angry members of the Yankees’ and Rangers’ front offices this morning.

So what does this mean for the Yankees? Well, it stings in the short-term. As you know, I wanted Lee very badly, but just because the Yankees didn’t get him it’s not the end of the world. I think this whole Lee situation should help teach Yankee fans (as well as Yankee haters) a very valuable lesson: The Yankees, no matter how much money they may throw at a player, can’t sign everyone. Yankee fans have been spoiled during the last 10 seasons in literally signing every free agent the team set its sights on, and losing out on Lee is a real wake-up call. Additionally, if Lee was going to ditch the Yankees, better he go to the National League where the team will only have to face him if both they and Philly make it back to the World Series, which, even with four hypothetical aces is no guarantee.

Unfortunately there is only so much silver lining one can grapple for. While some fans will be relieved not to have another $20 million-plus player on the roster, Lee was one of the few pitchers in the game actually worth the exorbitant cost. It’s not as if there’s another premier free agent pitcher out there for the Yankees to throw $150 million at, and the free-agent pitching crop doesn’t look overwhelningly promising the next few seasons. As of now it looks like the top two names of next year’s free agent class are Mark Buehrle and C.J. Wilson.

One of the other reasons I felt strongly about a Lee signing was the increasing number of teams locking up their young superstar pitchers to relatively team-friendly extensions, making players like Felix Hernandez and Josh Johnson essentially impossible to acquire prior to free agency. At least Felix will still only be coming off his Age 28 season when his current deal with the Mariners expires after 2014, while Johnson will be fresh off his Age 29 year at the end of 2013. Still, those contract expiration dates feel like quite a ways off.

Last night Heyman posited that the Yankees would now look to spend big money on the bullpen, but that makes zero sense. I suppose they could decide to shower dollars on Rafael Soriano and Kerry Wood, but that does little to solve their rotation, which currently features two empty slots.

As indicated previously, my desired course of action for the Yankees would be to try and fill their gaps internally, and their number-one priority right now — and this is assuming Andy Pettitte does not come back — should be shifting Joba Chamberlain back to the rotation, considering the #4 and #5 starting pitchers on their depth chart are currently Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre. I could live with Nova in the five spot, but I can’t live with Mitre. If Pettitte does come back, I’d still rather see Joba in the rotation than Nova, who seems like a better fit for the ‘pen.

I think most Yankee fans could live with a rotation of CC SabathiaPhil HughesAndy PettitteA.J. BurnettJoba Chamberlain. That’s arguably better than the rotation that took them to the 2009 World Series.

What I don’t want to see the Yankees do is make a knee-jerk stupid trade just because they feel they have to do something. As I said last night on Twitter, I’m not convinced that any of the pitchers that might be available via trade are worth the player cost to Yanks. While many have already speculated about including Jesus Montero in a package for Zack Greinke, there have been indications that the Yankees aren’t terribly keen on the idea of importing the righthander. While Greinke is one of the few pitchers I would actually be willing to surrender Montero for, at this point I’d rather just keep Jesus. After all, this is a Yankee team that lost nearly .020 points of wOBA from the 2009 iteration, and while I know offense was down league-wide and the Yankees still led the Majors in wOBA, I don’t really see the utility in trading away the team’s biggest impact bat for pitching, unless it’s for a King Felix or Josh Johnson type, neither of which are going to happen.

What does this mean for the Phillies? Well surely the city of Philadelphia is in a celebratory mood today. They now have one of the best rotations on paper in baseball history, and perhaps an argument for best ever.

As much as it stings to miss out on Lee, I actually feel worse for Rangers fans. I would be utterly outraged had the original Montero-for-Lee deal gone through back in July only to see Lee sign with a team that seemingly came out of nowhere. That’s why this Joel Sherman column is nonsensical — the Yankees not landing Lee back in July makes this better, not worse, unless you believe Lee spending the last four months of the season in New York would’ve been enough to persuade him to stay. Perhaps that would’ve been the case, but he seemed to love Texas and still wound up choosing Philly, so I’m not necessarily convinced. Additionally, not only did Ranger ownership not lowball Lee at all, but they may have actually been offering the most money, and it would appear that all of the “Lee loved his time in Texas” stories were just a smokescreen.

And so the offseason just became even more difficult for Brian Cashman and company, but that doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless. The Yankees’ brain trust can and should be able to come up with a smart alternative. After all, they’re getting paid good money to run this team — the rest of us are just speculators, but I feel comfortable knowing that the organization will do what it needs to do to improve, and do so intelligently and rationally.

ETA, 10:15am: Lee’s vesting option for 2016 is worth $27.5 million with a $12.5 million buyout, bringing the total package to six years, $147.5 million. Looks like Lee didn’t end up leaving money on the table after all.

ETA, 10:33am: Interesting piece from ESPN New York on the Yankees’ resignation and acceptance over the weekend that Lee likely wasn’t signing.

ETA, 10:59am: RAB’s Joe Pawlikowski discusses What the Cliff Lee Signing means for New York at Fangraphs.

ETA, 11:56am: Via Tango, Beyond the Boxscore graphically explains Lee’s success since 2008.

ETA, 12:06pm: Always-excellent insight from The Pinstriped Bible’s Steve Goldman and Jay Jaffe.

ETA, 1:45pm: We initially heard that the overall package for Lee was worth $147.5 million; however, the actual breakdown of the deal is $107.5 million for 5 years, with the $12.5 million buyout bringing it to $120 million guaranteed over six years. The $27.5 million vesting option for the sixth year brings the potential package to $135 million over six, for an AAV of $22.5M. The Yankees’ highest offer was seven years and $148 million ($21.1M AAV).

4 thoughts on “Lee shocks baseball world, jilts Yankees and Rangers for reunion with Phillies

  1. Good post, but I can't get on board the Joba train. Except for a very few brilliant performances, he's done nothing to show that he would be a capable major league starting pitcher.

  2. One thing I forgot to mention in the post is that I wonder if there was any dollar amount that would've lured Lee away from Philly to New York. I imagine no, otherwise it seems like Cash would've tried to bowl Lee over with more money than he'd know what to do with.

    According to Sherman on Twitter this morning, sounds like Yankees were actually resigned to not getting Lee as early as last week, for what it's worth.

  3. Larry, excellent post, as always! (You should send it to Cashman!) I think it's very interesting that it turns out that Lee didn't really leave money on the table. — Sherri

  4. Just read Dave's terrific post. Every Yankees fan who mistakenly thinks Lee turned down our money for his beloved Phillies, and every sports writer who's been nominating Lee for sainthood for not caring about money, should read Dave's post asap. — Sherri