Rangers

Battle For Cliff Lee Heats Up

By Danny Knobler, CBSSPORTS.COM
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Cliff Lee of the Texas Rangers reacts after hitting a double in Game 1 of the 2010 MLB World Series against the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park on October 27, 2010 in San Francisco, California. (credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Cliff Lee of the Texas Rangers reacts after hitting a double in Game 1 of the 2010 MLB World Series against the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park on October 27, 2010 in San Francisco, California. (credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (CBSSPORTS.COM) – Remember Darek Braunecker’s words when he arrived at the Winter Meetings? “It’s good to be Cliff Lee,” Lee’s agent said on Monday afternoon.

Well, it’s even better to be Cliff Lee now.

Braunecker left the Winter Meetings Wednesday afternoon, but Lee’s position only got better as the day went on.

First, Rangers president Nolan Ryan told a group of Texas writers that the Rangers had basically told Lee to name his price, while also saying that he’s softening on the idea of a six-year deal.

Then, the news broke that Carl Crawford had agreed to his stunning seven-year, $142 million contract with the Boston Red Sox, further ratcheting the pressure on the New York Yankees to sign Lee.

Suddenly, the Yankees’ initial offer to Lee, reported to be six years and $140 million, looked like a starting point for negotiations, rather than something that would scare other teams away. Suddenly, Lee looked to be more in the driver’s seat than ever, because not only are the Yankees left without a viable backup plan, but their arch-rival now looks like baseball’s super-team.

Sure enough, SI.com’s Jon Heyman reported early Thursday that the Yankees are now offering Lee a seven-year contract. Perhaps because of that news, Rangers people were said by others in baseball to be newly pessimistic that they can keep Lee away from the Yankees.

It’s hard to imagine the Rangers going to seven years. It was hard enough for the Rangers to convince themselves to go to a six-year deal for a 32-year-old pitcher.

The years matter, because it means a huge difference in total dollars. With the Yankees offering something in the neighborhood of $23-25 million per season, Lee would be leaving a gigantic amount of money on the table if he signs a shorter contract. Players almost never leave gigantic amounts of money on the table.

The Rangers had hoped that their other advantages — the lack of a state income tax, and the short commute to Lee’s Arkansas home, among other things — would make up for the difference in money. But it’s looking again like the difference in money will be too much to overcome.

Before the Yankees went to seven years, Ryan’s statements Wednesday night had seemed to give the Rangers a chance. “It really comes down to whether we’re willing to go to six years,” he told a Dallas-area newspaper. “I’m probably more there today than I have been the last few days about six years, realizing that if you’re going to have Cliff Lee pitching for you, that’s probably what you’re looking at.”

Ryan told the writers that the Rangers don’t want to get in a bidding war with the Yankees, and that what they preferred instead was a number for Lee that they could say yes or no to.

Unlike the Yankees, the Rangers would seem to have a viable Plan B behind Lee, and perhaps even a Plan C. Rangers officials reiterated Wednesday that if the team can’t sign Lee, the Rangers will make a strong effort to acquire Zack Greinke in a trade with the Kansas City Royals.

The Royals, who came to the Winter Meetings planning to explore the Greinke market, now believe they will be able to trade their young ace.

Greinke isn’t as viable second choice for the Yankees, because some club officials believe it would be risky to bring him to New York. It’s hard to imagine what the Yankees’ backup plan would be now, although part of it would likely be to work to persuade Andy Pettitte to delay retirement.

Until now, one person familiar with the Yankees’ plans suggested Wednesday, Pettitte was likely headed into retirement, in part because the Yankees were not planning to offer him as much money as he made this year. One reason for the pay cut, the person suggested, was to save money for the pursuit of Lee. Now, that pursuit seems harder, even as it has gained more importance.

It’s not great to be the Yankees now. But it sure is great to be Cliff Lee.

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