It’s a jarring juxtaposition in a billion-dollar industry fueled by the performances of rugged, often rurally raised men: Many a ballplayer has mulled over which mega-million dollar contract to accept from the stillness of a whitetail trophy-buck hunting stand.
Today Cliff Lee(notes) is the hunter and the hunted, in the woods near his Arkansas home, nearing a decision that will shape not only his own baseball future, but that of the American League. The offers are from the New York Yankees and the Texas Rangers, at least. Another team might be in the mix, and if so, has stalked him with a stealth any hunter would admire. Lee’s choice will come any day, any hour, any minute.
The Yankees and Rangers are both believed to have made more than one offer, allowing Lee to choose between the higher annual value of a five-year deal to the additional security of a seven-year deal. A six-year compromise deal? Either team would gladly do that as well. As the best postseason pitcher in recent memory, as a steady presence with impeccable command and a steely competitive edge in a market that lacks an alternative, Lee is on the verge of signing one of the most lucrative contracts in baseball history.
The Yankees offer the most money, the biggest stage, the place of the greatest historical import and an assurance that they would continue to spend to keep the team a World Series contender through the duration of Lee’s contract. Their best offer is believed to be seven years at a tad less than the $161 million they gave Lee’s one-time Cleveland Indians teammate and fellow left-handed ace CC Sabathia(notes).
The Rangers offer allegiance, proximity to Arkansas, no state income tax in Texas and the exuberance of new ownership clearly smitten by the success of 2010 and intent on remaining a contender for the foreseeable future. Their best offer is believed to be six years with a vesting option on a seventh year for an average annual value about $2 million less than the Yankees’ offer, an amount Lee would realize in tax savings by establishing residence in Texas.
For the Yankees, Lee would put into their own uniform their biggest nemesis – Lee has defeated them three times in as many starts the last two postseasons. He would step into the rotation behind Sabathia and in front of several relative question marks, including the aging and ambivalent Andy Pettitte(notes), the youthful Phil Hughes(notes) and inconsistent A.J. Burnett(notes). And he would provide an immediate antidote for rival Boston Red Sox additions Carl Crawford(notes) and Adrian Gonzalez(notes), both left-handed hitters.
For the Rangers, Lee would be the unqualified ace, stepping back into the role he filled the second half of the 2010 season and the playoffs. He would be followed in the rotation by two pitchers coming off career years, C.J. Wilson(notes) and Colby Lewis(notes), and by his hunting companion, the redundantly named Tommy Hunter(notes). And he would enable the Rangers to keep their edge over the Los Angeles Angels in the AL West.
Yankees decision-makers, including general manager Brian Cashman, rate their chances at getting Lee about the same as heads coming up on a coin flip. Rangers manager Ron Washington said his “gut feeling” is that the coin comes up tails.
We’ll all know when Lee puts down his gun and picks up the phone.
In lesser markets …
• Stuck in the middle:The Twins’ offseason fixation on their middle infield won’t end soon. Their efforts, best or otherwise, to obtain St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Brendan Ryan(notes) ended in failure when Ryan was dealt Sunday to the Seattle Mariners for starter Maikel Cleto, who posted a 6.16 ERA in Class A. Which is to say the Twins must not have offered much themselves. This, only days after Minnesota shipped its shortstop, J.J. Hardy(notes), and utility infielder Brendan Harris(notes) to the Baltimore Orioles for two hard-throwing but unproven relievers, Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey(notes).
Since the offseason began, the Twins let second baseman Orlando Hudson(notes) go as a free agent and won the bidding for Japanese middle infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka. They have until Dec. 26 to sign Nishioka, who is projected as a No. 2 hitter in the lineup and an above-average second baseman or an average shortstop. The wild card is Alexi Casilla(notes), a great-field, mild-hit four-year veteran to whom the Twins are tempted to hand the shortstop job. If only he could hit.
So the Twins remain in the market for an insurance middle infielder, and after all the machinations it remains to be seen whether the result will be any better than the Hardy-Hudson combination of 2010.
• Cardinal moves: Peddling Ryan hands the shortstop position in St. Louis to Ryan Theriot(notes), who was non-tendered by the Dodgers and signed to a one-year, $3.3 million deal. Theriot is a compromise solution, but Ryan’s offensive deficiencies and unpredictable decision-making wore on manager Tony La Russa.
The last Cardinals roster spot will go to a backup catcher, and the first choice is starter Yadier Molina’s(notes) older brother, Bengie. Whether Bengie, who split 2010 as the starter for the two World Series combatants, has reconciled becoming a backup to a catcher who is good for 135 games a year is the only question. Yadier, apparently, would be fine with his older brother looking over his shoulder more intently than Jim Joyce.