Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cliff Lee and the Yankees: Loss, Rejection, and the Art of Moving On

Rejection never feels good.

We've all experienced it before, whether it be at the workplace, playground, or singles bar around the corner. Everyone gets their ego bruised from time to time ... even the New York Yankees.

We just witnessed Cliff Lee treat the Bronx Bombers like the pimple-faced freshman who asked the prettiest senior to homecoming. She had no intention of accepting the offer, but she didn't want to break his heart either. So she just let it sit ... and sit ... and sit. The freshman held out hope...until the crushing sight of his dream girl slow dancing with the star quarterback.

When it comes to free agency, the Yankees are always the star quarterback. That's their thing. Teams like the Angels and Brewers and Athletics, they're the scrappy underdog that can't compete. To see the Phillies take the alpha dog role while the Yankees scrambled for their Proactiv? It was almost surreal.

Predictably, things were pretty gloom and doom in Yankee Universe the day after The Decision. Red Sox and Phillies fans—charmers that they are—pounded their chests while gallows humor about the signings of Mark Prior and Russell Martin flew across Twitter like a loogie at Kristen Lee.

Make no mistake, Lee's surprising choice has sent reverberations throughout the sport. Some thoughts on The Decision:

Cliff ain't LeBron

Sure, there are parallels. Like LeBron, Lee was the biggest fish in the free agent market. Like LeBron, he had several clubs vying for his services, including his most-recent team and a celebrated New York franchise. Like LeBron, he left money on the table to join a team with an established superstar already in place. But the comparison ends for one crucial reason: Lee didn't stab the Rangers in the back. He was nothing more than a hired gun in Arlington, and he never made promises the way LeBron did to Cleveland. He even called Nolan Ryan to personally inform him of his decision. This was essentially the opposite of announcing his intentions on live television as a horde of confused inner-city children looked on. Man, that was weird.

Don't discount the wife factor

It seemed like just another stupid media creation at first, but the more that comes out, the more it sounds like Kristen Lee's dislike of New York played a pivotal role here. This seems pretty ridiculous, but consider the source. Cliff and Kristen are middle school sweethearts from Arkansas. Seriously, what the hell is that? When I was 13, the only thing I cared about was Donnie Baseball and Naked Gun movies. Cliff Lee was locking it down? Ugh. After Kristen's unfortunate ALCS experience at the Stadium she probably made The Decision on the spot. Am I not-so-subtly implying that Cliff ain't exactly "driving the bus" here? You bet I am. Bitter, table of one!

Take it easy on Cash

Like many of you, I haven't been Brian Cashman's biggest fan of late. He's become the Eddie Murphy of GMs over the past 12 months—attaching himself to bomb after bomb after bomb. And while Cash has certainly taken some wrong turns—Yankees clubhouse personnel are still trying to figure out how to get Nick Johnson through the door frame—he appeared to do everything in his power to get Lee in pinstripes. As for those who point to the failed attempt to land the pitcher via trade in July, why should we assume Lee wouldn't have turned around and headed back to Philadelphia anyway? When Jesus Montero hits .340 with 38 homers and 120 RBI in 2013, you will hail the man as a visionary.

The race for the AL East ain't over 'til it's over

There's no way to spin Lee's signing as anything other than bad news for the least in the the short-term. New York has a glaring weakness in their starting rotation behind CC Sabathia, and Lee was the ideal solution. But as I alluded to Monday, it's not like we're about to be shuttled back to the Stump Merrill era or something. And here's another news flash: The Red Sox aren't as good as people seem to think. Their rotation has serious question marks (Beckett and Lackey anyone?) and their bullpen is a mess. They're going to be good, but this isn't the '86 team reincarnate. (Whoops, poor example.)

Yankees have played the bridesmaid before

The Yankees have developed a reputation as baseball's most successful team during free agency, but that hasn't always been the case. The team struggled mightily in the 80s to lure top stars as anti-Steinbrenner sentiment swelled. Fast forward to the 1992-93 offseason to find the best parallel to today. That year the Yankees went hard after free agent pitcher Greg Maddux, who spurned the Yankees—or more specifically, New York City—to sign with the Braves for $8 million less. Undaunted, dynasty architect Gene Michael went back to work, "settling" for a crafty left-hander by the name of Jimmy Key. The veteran went 35-10 over the next two seasons, capping his time in pinstripes with a win over Maddux and the Braves in Game 6 of the 1996 World Series.

Is there a Jimmy Key lurking somewhere on the market right now? Time for Brian Cashman to make less like Norbit and more like Beverly Hills Cop and find out.

Dan Hanzus writes three columns a week on his New York Yankees site, River & Sunset. He can be reached at Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

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