ARLINGTON, Texas – One could excuse Cliff Lee(notes) for an accidental slip of the tongue, as clumsiness does indeed befall tongues that spend time bathing in alcohol. The natural reaction to getting soaked with bubbly and beer is to lick off the excess, and after an hour of grooming himself like a cat, Lee started talking about his future, which also meant he was talking about the New York Yankees' future.
The two have been linked for so long and with such strength that their union seems like an arranged marriage. And perhaps it was the booze, or just the excitement that saturated the Texas Rangers' clubhouse following their 6-1 victory to vanquish the Yankees and advance to their first World Series, but the Yankees ought hold off on those wedding bells.
"There's so many things that can happen," Lee said of his impending free agency. "I'm more focused on helping this team win a World Series. If we do that, obviously it would be hard to walk away from that situation."
It was bad enough the Yankees lost the American League championship series in six games during which the Rangers, Derek Jeter(notes) admitted, "were a lot better than us." If the Rangers do prevail in the World Series, though, and it really was Lee – and not the alcohol – speaking, this will prove a far costlier defeat than the Yankees now realize.
Over the next three months, the Yankees will hammer out new contracts for Jeter, Mariano Rivera(notes) and manager Joe Girardi. They'll do-si-do with Andy Pettitte(notes) and try to convince him to pitch one more season. They'll assess A.J. Burnett's(notes) future with the team. More important than any of that will be their pursuit of Lee. Nothing salves Yankees disappointment quite like a shopping spree, and Lee has pitched himself into an epic contract.
Nobody will outbid the Yankees, either, not after their pitching lost them the ALCS. The Rangers exposed New York's rotation as heroin-chic thin, tagging Yankees starters for 25 runs in 31 2/3 innings pitched. What at the beginning of the season ranked among the best group of starters in baseball – CC Sabathia(notes), Pettitte, Burnett, Javier Vazquez(notes) and Phil Hughes(notes) – in the end was a broken, beaten and monstrously overpaid bunch.
New York spent $64.5 million on its rotation this season. The Rangers' opening day payroll was $55.3 million.
And thus it triggers a Yankees motto: What thou can't do, thou shalt get. If it means trading for Zack Greinke(notes), last year's Cy Young winner now on the block, that would work. Target No. 1 is Lee, and the Yankees' question is how much Lee and agent Darek Braunecker want for his left arm. With every start more brilliant than the last, Lee keeps upping the ante. His eight-inning, two-hit, 13-strikeout gem in Game 3 against the Yankees left the organization frothing at the idea of a rotation with him and Sabathia at the front end. And the Yankees do have a working relationship with Braunecker, also the agent for Burnett and pitcher Dustin Moseley(notes).
The prospect of a six-year, $150 million deal is no longer far-fetched, even with Lee turning 32 soon. The Yankees see him as the difference between an ALCS bomb-out and their 28th World Series title, and this playoff exit will only fortify their pursuit. If Lee wants a seventh year or more than $25 million per annum, the Yankees just might be desperate enough to oblige.
Because this one stings. The Yankees' ALCS went something like this: no pitching, poor hitting and decision after boneheaded decision by Girardi, who nonetheless is "absolutely" returning, Cashman said. The losses weren't piddly. Down the Yankees went, 7-2, then 8-0, and 10-3, before the 6-1 kill shot. They batted .201. Their ERA was 6.58.
"They pitched better. They hit better. They overall just outplayed us," Jeter said. "That's just the bottom line."
Apoplexy seized the 51,404 at Rangers Ballpark after Alex Rodriguez(notes) watched an 83-mph slider from Neftali Feliz(notes) for the final strike of the Yankees' season. A-Rod represented the old Rangers, his albatross contract hamstringing the team until he was unloaded on the Yankees, whose revenue streams allow them to pursue superteams year after year.
The last time the Yankees bombed out of a season so unceremoniously, in 2008, they spent $423 million on Sabathia, Burnett and Mark Teixeira(notes). While the free-agent class this year won't necessitate such extravagance, Lee is target Nos. 1, 2 and 3 for New York. As Cashman said when queried about the Yankees' offseason objectives: "It's always pitching."
Because the Rangers finished the Yankees out in six, Lee will pitch Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night. He'll get another start in a potential Game 5, too, another shot to add to a historic postseason, another opportunity to tack on a few more million as his own personal auctioneer.
What, you thought he was going to commit himself to the Rangers just like that? He didn't have that much to drink.
"Free agency is when a player finally gets a choice, and I'm looking forward to that, and it's gonna be a lot of fun," Lee said. "But I definitely enjoy it here. Great group of guys. And it's going to be a good team for several years to come. And I really wouldn't mind being a part of that. But you never know what's going to happen."
No one does. The Yankees hope Lee wants as much money as possible. The Rangers pray he wants comfort. And as Lee celebrated with his teammates, the two men who will be dueling over his services this offseason, Cashman and Rangers GM Jon Daniels, chatted in a dry part of Texas clubhouse. Cashman came to the Rangers' side to congratulate Daniels and manager Ron Washington. It was a simple, classy gesture, the sort for which Cashman is known. A big checkbook surely isn't all he wields.
It is, however, what defines him this time of year, and when the Yankees don't measure up, he adds zeroes with impunity. The prize is Cliff Lee. The winner takes control of the AL. And no matter what Lee says with emotion and so much else coursing through him, that is the kind of game at which, unlike Friday night, the New York Yankees simply don't lose.