The overwhelming expectation is that Cliff Lee will end up as a Yankee. They have the resources to pay him more than anyone else, the need for him in their rotation, and they expressed heavy interest in acquiring him in July, even going so far as to include Jesus Montero in their offer. It is no secret that they plan to offer him a lot of money to come to New York.
What if he doesn’t take it?
To me, the possibility of Lee declining the Yankees might be the most interesting question of the off-season, because there is no obvious Plan B. After Lee, the next best free agent starters are Jorge de la Rosa, Carl Pavano, and Andy Pettitte. Bringing back Pettitte just keeps the status quo rather than providing an upgrade, so he’s not a real alternative. There’s no way the Yankees go back to Pavano after the debacle that was his first stint in pinstripes. That leaves them with de la Rosa, who is something of a left-handed A.J. Burnett – not a great fit when they’re frustrated with the right-handed version they already own.
If Lee spurns the Yankees, their fallback plan is almost certainly not a free agent. It’s a terrible crop of starting pitching once you take him out of the picture. So, they’d almost certainly have to turn to the trade market to get the kind of impact pitcher they’re after. Are there actually decent alternatives to pursue in trade?
The big pitcher who will likely be available this winter is Zack Greinke. But he has a limited no-trade clause that lets him block deals to half of the clubs in MLB, and reports are that the Yankees are on the list of teams to which he would not accept a trade. He’s not a person who enjoys a lot of attention, and the spectacle of the New York media market may keep him from being an option. Perhaps all of that talk is overblown, but the working assumption has to be that Greinke is not an option for New York.
The next best pitcher who might be available in trade is… Matt Garza, maybe? But then there’s the issue of whether the Rays would want to trade Garza to their division rival. Seems unlikely at best.
You have to imagine the Yankees thought about this in July when they made their offer for Lee. They knew that their options dwindled quickly if he wasn’t wearing pinstripes next year, as the other available pitchers simply don’t match up to their prime target. If they don’t get Lee, this winter is going to be a challenge for Brian Cashman. That’s one of the reasons I expect that their offer will be significantly more than the 5 years, $105 million that the crowd estimated Lee would sign for yesterday.
For the Yankees, this winter is basically Cliff Lee or bust. Expect to see an offer that reflects that mentality.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.