Commentary

Cliff Lee wants what Yanks can offer

If the money's equal, what will the lefty decide? Let's weigh the options.

Updated: November 16, 2010, 5:00 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Cliff Lee will base his decision on money, if only because that is what free agents do. You know how it goes -- nothing personal, just business.

But let's assume the Texas Rangers will attack the New York Yankees in the coming weeks with the same ferocity they unleashed on them in the ALCS. Let's assume that Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg will instruct team president Nolan Ryan to throw some high heat under the Yankees' chin, and that Texas will construct an offer -- inflated by the lack of a state income tax -- that lands it right in the Steinbrenners' ballpark.

What happens if the competing offers amount to a wash? Should Clifton Phifer Lee stay or should he go?

The odds say he should go. If winning his first title is Lee's second consideration -- after the money is pocketed -- the Yankees will likely give him the best shot to do it.

On the day he was introduced as general manager of the Mets, Sandy Alderson spoke of the need "to constantly improve the probability of success." The Yankees have won bids to the World Series tournament 15 times in the last 16 years. In a championship context, they constantly improve the probability of any free agent's success.

"A lot of people say they're trying to win, but we demonstrate it," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. "Our best selling point is that everyone in the world knows we do everything we possibly can to reload every year and make every effort to get there, within reason."

And sometimes outside the boundaries of reason, too.

Cashman didn't want to give CC Sabathia seven years and $161 million, but the Yankees had just missed the playoffs for the first time since the '94 players strike and they were desperate to christen their new building by starting a new postseason streak.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Scott Rovak/US PresswireWill he stay or will he go?

California born and raised, Sabathia wasn't eager to pitch in New York, and expressed concern to Cashman over the intelligence he'd received telling him that tension between Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez had left the Yankees a house divided.

Cashman assured Sabathia his neighborly personality would help rebuild some burned clubhouse bridges, sold him hard on the merits of Broadway and suburban Jersey, and presented him with a financial offer he couldn't refuse.

Two years later, Sabathia's presence in pinstripes will help and hurt the Yankees cause. Sabathia's friendship with Lee could help convince an ace from small-town Arkansas that he would feel at home in the big city.

But Sabathia's contract could hurt Cashman's chances of persuading the 32-year-old Lee (CC was 28 when he signed) to accept a shorter deal at a slightly more reasonable annual wage.

In the end, Texas will likely match -- or come damn close to matching -- whatever Cashman offers Lee in salary and years. The Rangers can't afford to score a zillion-dollar local TV deal, make the first World Series appearance in franchise history, and then sell a big-picture commitment to the fan base by letting Cliff Lee walk out the door.

As it turns out, the Rangers have an attractive pitch to make. You might remember that they proved to be a better team than the Yankees in the ALCS. Lee appeared to enjoy his time in Arlington, and yes, the Rangers' home is a whole lot closer to Little Rock (339 miles) than Little Rock is to the Bronx (1,248 miles).

Ryan can also remind Lee that Yankees icons can't fight off the vile forces of gravity and time forever, and that over the course of a long-term contract, Elvis Andrus and AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz are better options at shortstop and closer than Jeter and Mariano Rivera.

Only the Yankees can make the most convincing argument of all, one that speaks directly to Lee's legacy. Over those 16 seasons marked by 15 Yankees trips to the postseason, the Rangers made four tournament appearances, their most recent one ending a 10-year drought.

Sure, Texas has new leadership and new revenue streams and new, exciting players. Who knows, the Rangers might become the Yankees of the AL West. They might keep the Angels down, repel whatever Moneyball sequel is staged in Oakland, and make regular stops in the ALCS and World Series.

But that's an unknown. Marquee free agents prefer to deal in the known.

The Yankees make the postseason on muscle memory, and have the established history of spending whatever is required to absorb mistake signings and land high-end replacements. The previous Texas owner, Tom Hicks, allowed one absurd contract (Rodriguez's record $252 million) to set back the franchise for years. That doesn't happen in the Bronx.

"If you're a competitor, nobody wants to play in obscurity or on a team that doesn't really care," said Cashman, who wasn't referring to the Rangers. "Elite athletes are elite for a reason: They're competitive in nature and want to be successful. We obviously have a history of success we're trying to maintain."

Lee would surely help the Yanks maintain it, a point Cashman made when the two met in Arkansas last week.

"He wants to financially secure his family and put them in a good spot," Cashman said, "and he wants to compete for a championship. Those are his essentials as they were conveyed to me."

So Lee's decision won't be shaped by the way some Yankees fans treated his wife, or by Greenberg's own verbal smackdown of the entire Yankees fan base. It will come down to money, which could be a draw, and the chance to win it all.

If Lee takes a six-year deal with the Yankees, recent history shows he can go to the bank on five or six trips to the postseason. If he signs the same deal with the Rangers, it could be five or six just as easily as it could be one or two.

Lee pitched in the last two World Series. If he wants to improve the probability of winning one, the odds say the Yankees are his safest bet.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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