cliff lee fin

Cliff Lee Spurns the Yankees


Good morning! Did you sleep well? We hope you dreamed of holiday warmth and cheer. Feeling good? Smiling? Refreshed? Well, that’s good. Because after midnight last night, Cliff Lee signed with the Phillies.

Shocking everyone in baseball, Lee decided — around midnight, just to mess with newspaper deadlines — that he would turn down huge six and seven-year deals from the Yankees and the Texas Rangers in order to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies, whom he led to the World Series two years ago. He took considerably less money to do so, too. The Phillies’ deal is for five years and around $120 million — two years and up to $30 million less than what the Yankees were offering. That’ll get a man’s players union frowning at him.

Lee instantly makes the Phillies’ rotation theoretically legendary. Mets fans, this is whom you’re going against next year: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. Yankees fans, that is a darn sight better than CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes and (maybe) Andy Pettitte.

Why did Lee take less to play in Philadelphia? Lee hasn’t talked yet, but it seems clear: He (a) has little interest in being the signature star for a team (this is a theme in his career, from back in Cleveland, where he played second fiddle to CC Sabathia); (b) loved his stay in Philly last time and was eager to get back; and (c) surely relishes the weaker lineups in the National League, where he’ll face the Mets, Marlins and Nationals all season rather than the Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays. We suspect that (c) might be the major factor. (UPDATE: It’s also of note that the deals weren’t nearly as far apart as initial reports indicated.)

Long term, this is probably going to end up being a blessing for the Yankees. (In fact, team officials are actually pretending they’re happy this happened). In the madness of free agency bidding and Securing the Player, the Yankees were just about to give a 32-year-old pitcher with a history of back problems $150 million over the next seven years. When you take a step back from that and take a breath, that looks kind of crazy, doesn’t it? Particularly when you remember that Lee has really only been an elite pitcher for three years.

But let’s get serious: The Yankees didn’t get their man. And the Yankees always get their man. (As HardballTalk’s Craig Calcaterra pointed out last night, this is the first big free agent to reject the Yankees’ advances since Greg Maddux in the early ‘90s.) The Yankees also still have a rather gaping hole in their rotation, one that they don’t believe Kansas City’s Zach Greinke — a fragile sort whom neither side thinks will work in The Bronx — can fill. Brian Cashman and company have watched Boston bring in Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez for megabucks this off-season, and they’ve seen Cliff Lee reject their money, their team and their franchise. We’ll talk more a little later today on what their next move should/will be, but right now, their immediate move is to sulk. They needed Cliff Lee next year. They don’t have him. There’s a ton of work to be done.

And that’s just on the field. More to the point, the Phillies have three pitchers in their rotation — Halladay, Lee, Oswalt — that the Yankees have attempted to acquire at some point in the last three years. Baseball observers have recently taken to asking if the Phillies are the Yankees of the National League. The way this Cliff Lee trade has gone, though, it might be better to ask whether the Yankees can get back to being the Phillies of the American League. Because the Yankees did not get their man. Again.

Cliff Lee Spurns the Yankees