- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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The New York Yankees are wasting no time in taking steps to correct what they believe to be the glaring flaw in their $210 million baseball team.
"It's always pitching," general manager Brian Cashman had said outside the visitors clubhouse shortly after the Yankees were eliminated from the American League Championship Series by the Texas Rangers on Oct. 21. "It's always going to be pitching."
As such, the Yankees contacted the agent for Cliff Lee on Sunday, the first day of the free-agent negotiating period, according to a report by The Associated Press.
Lee, a 32-year-old left-hander who compiled a 12-9 record and 3.18 ERA for the Seattle Mariners and Rangers this year, is considered the prize of this winter's free-agent crop, and a starting pitcher the Yankees have coveted since he beat them twice as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2009 World Series.
Neither Cashman nor Darek Braunecker, Lee's agent, was immediately available for comment Sunday night. The AP attributed its report to a baseball official familiar with the negotiation who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But Cashman has not been circumspect about what he thought the No. 1 priority for his team would be this winter.
"It's all about pitching. Pitching, pitching, pitching," he said at his first postseason news conference. "Pitching is the key to the kingdom, which is why you try to collect as much of it as you can."
Limited to negotiating with his own employees since the end of the World Series, Cashman has re-signed manager Joe Girardi to a three-year contract, discharged pitching coach Dave Eiland, and begun talks with the representative for Derek Jeter, who for the first time in his 16-year major league career is a free agent.
And not surprisingly, as soon as he got the chance to negotiate with an outside free agent, he has reportedly made an overture to Lee. According to the AP story, the message was conveyed that the Yankees would be making an offer to Lee, the 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner.
Cashman clearly laid the blame on the Yankees' failure in the playoffs, as well as their late-season collapse -- they won just 12 of 29 games in September -- on the pitching staff he assembled.
"Our starting rotation fell apart, got hurt, underperformed, that kind of stuff," he said. "I think that's more indicative of our record than anything else. Obviously what we started the season with in the rotation and what we finished with were radically different."
Two winters ago, Cashman spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars to sign CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to long-term contracts. Before the start of the 2010 season, he reacquired Javier Vazquez, who had pitched for the Yankees in 2004.
But while Sabathia had a Cy Young-caliber season, going 21-7, both Burnett and Vazquez failed miserably. Vazquez was left off the postseason roster and Burnett was shelved for the American League Division Series, although he did pitch, and lose, Game 4 of the ALCS against the Rangers.
With Vazquez not being brought back for 2011, Andy Pettitte undecided about whether he wants to return, and Burnett a high question mark, the Yankees clearly need to add a top-shelf pitcher to their rotation for next year.
Lee, who smothered the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALCS before losing two games in the World Series, certainly fits the bill. He had never lost a postseason game, going 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA in the playoffs, before losing Games 1 and 5 to the eventual world champion San Francisco Giants.
Lee is expected to command a contract in the neighborhood of Sabathia's seven-year, $161 million deal, and the Yankees can expect stiff competition from the Rangers, whose outspoken owner, Chuck Greenberg, last week vowed to make a strong effort to hold on to Lee.
"We're not going into this with a peashooter," he said.
There have also been reports that the Los Angeles Angels and their owner Arte Moreno are interested in bidding on Lee. A further complication might be the alleged Game 3 incident at Yankee Stadium in which Lee's wife, Kristin, said fans spat, tossed beer and shouted obscenities at her as her husband threw eight innings of scoreless, two-hit, 13-strikeout ball in the Rangers' 8-2 win.
The Yankees thought they had a trade-deadline deal for Lee in August but balked at adding either pitcher Ivan Nova or infielder Eduardo Nunez to a package that already included catching prospect Jesus Montero. They saw the Mariners instead deal Lee to the Rangers, whom he led to the World Series.
"Anytime you're in a position to make decisions like that, you make 'em and you live with 'em," Cashman said. "Looking back is not gonna help. I was comfortable with what I was offering and uncomfortable with what it was going to take. I'd do the same thing over again."
Now, given a second chance to acquire Lee, Cashman seems intent on not losing out again.
"We have a strong team, but we do have areas of need, areas of weakness," he said. "Our job is to attack those areas of weakness and we fully intend to do that."
And the first area of attack, evidently, is the signing of Lee.
Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com.