In the race for free agent left-hander Cliff Lee, people familiar with the talks indicate that the the New York Yankees have a big advantage over the Texas Rangers in terms of total guaranteed dollars offered and also have one more guaranteed year currently on the table. But while it would still be a surprise to see Lee turn down the Yankees' offer, several other factors beyond money are at play here as Lee considers what are said to be three viable options, including the Arkansas resident's love of the Rangers, who play 4½ hours away from his Little Rock, Ark., home by car.
With all the considerations in mind, and Lee receiving the latest Rangers and Yankees proposals in the past few days, the former AL Cy Young Award winner is not expected to make a decision Friday night. There is also thought to a third mystery team in the running, though the outside perception at least has been that the Yankees and Rangers are the main combatants. The Boston Red Sox admit they are not in the mix; a possibility could be the Los Angeles Angels, though that is unconfirmed.
The favored Yankees made a bold seven-year bid to Lee either sometime late Wednesday or early Thursday, which was first reported by SI.com, and while the Rangers are said by sources to still be alive in the spirited derby for the best pitcher on the free-agent market this offseason, signs are strong that the Rangers' menu of most recent offers, presented only Thursday, still force Lee to consider contracts below what the Yankees have offered. While the Yankees are the very likely leader in this race, Lee is said by people close to him to have really enjoyed his three months in Arlington and has not ruled out the Rangers.
One sticking point with the Rangers could be their reluctance to add a guaranteed seventh year. They increased their original five-year, $100 million offer Thursday with a menu of better choices, and have added a guaranteed sixth year believed to include some form of option that could turn the new deal into a seven-year contract when Rangers managing partner Chuck Greenberg and assistant GM Thad Levine made another trek to Little Rock to visit with Lee and agent Darek Braunecker. The Rangers have been emphasizing the personal touch in the seemingly long-shot hope that Lee will choose camaraderie and proximity over the offer.
Greenberg took an almost unprecedented step of calling a news conference Thursday night to express optimism that Lee would still stay, but unless the Rangers up their offer yet again, just about everyone else in baseball will be surprised to see Lee remain with Texas. One competing GM, upon hearing of the Yankees' offer Thursday, which was made within hours of Carl Crawford joining Jayson Werth as seven-year stars this winter, termed this derby as a "fait accompli'' for the Yankees. While that is merely the opinion of a non-participant, it appears to be shared by most in the game. The Rangers are already seen as stepping out by offering six guaranteed years, though they have a new TV deal and wealthy members of the new ownership group who could dip into their own personal coffers. It's been done before in Texas by former Rangers owner Tom Hicks, whose outrageous expenditures took the team into bankruptcy.
The dollar figure attached to the Yankees' seven-year bid isn't known, but since their original six-year bid was for about $138 million, it would be surprising if their seven-year offer was for anything less than $150 million; it quite possibly could approach the record seven-year, $161 million contract they bestowed on CC Sabathia, Lee's former teammate and close friend, two years ago. A deal similar to Sabathia's was Lee's goal all along, and though he is four years older now than when Sabathia was a free agent, he's in better shape, not nearly as reliant on a power fastball and a much more proven October dominator.
The Yankees and Rangers, last year's two ALCS participants, have Lee as by far and away their No. 1 winter target -- and it isn't even certain the Yankees have a viable No. 2 target, though if Lee shocks the world and rejects the Yankees' big offer there's still an outside chance they might reconsider a run at the Royals ace Zack Greinke. Both AL powers have no choice but to let Lee dictate the pace of the negotiations and can't very well press him to make a decision within a few hours after receiving vastly improved offers from at least those two teams in what is believed to be a three-team race at this point.
It is almost unheard of that the best player on the market eschews the biggest financial offer and potentially leaves tens of millions of dollars on the table. Greg Maddux was a rare exception, but that occurred in the Yankees' dark years, when he took at least $5 million less, and probably even more than that, and signed with the Braves instead of the Yankees.
Like his good friend Sabathia, Lee is viewed as a superb competitor who enjoys the limelight, and he is said to crave a World Series championship after his teams fell just short the past two seasons. Texas' advantage is its proximity to the new home Lee is building in Little Rock, but that's small potatoes compared to tens of millions of dollars. Rangers people have coyly tried to suggest it's a decision about priorities, about family vs. money, but in the real world it's hard to name people who eschew $20 million, or more, for a shorter plane ride.
The idea that the money can be made up via decreased taxes in Texas doesn't appear to have much merit. Beyond the fact that Lee is an Arkansas resident, he'd only be responsible for New York taxes for the 81 home dates each year. Over the course of a seven-year contract, the tax differential would be expected to be no more than $1 to $2 million.
Two executives who know Lee dating back to his Cleveland days say he would not be the least bit averse to going to New York after competing in just about every corner of the country already; Lee has been with Cleveland, Philadelphia and Seattle as well as Texas in a much-traveled career. Sabathia held the advantage in his negotiations because the perception -- incorrect as it was -- was that he much preferred his home state of California and might shy away from New York.
Yet another intriguing caveat is that there is still believed to be a third mystery team in the race. The Red Sox are said by several sources to be understandably "out'' of this race after their two big acquisitions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford -- though they were in at one time, and offered a seven-year deal at one point, according to Foxsports.com. The Angels could be that third team, as sources familiar with their thinking say their No. 2 target after Crawford is Lee, despite a very strong rotation and obvious offensive needs. But the Angels aren't viewed as an organization that wants to go toe-to-toe with the Yankees in terms of dollars, never mind that Lee really isn't a need for them.