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As Yankees close in on Lee, other teams brace for impact


LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Yankees came to the winter meetings with every intention of holding their contract offer to free agent pitcher Cliff Lee, who turns 33 next season, to six years. But as the courtship dragged at the pace of Lee's agent and not their own, and as the Boston Red Sox snagged the two best available hitters with precision strikes, New York tossed another year and a score or so of millions of dollars upon the pile.

What the Yankees did was make clear to Lee what seemed obvious all along: they need him more than they've needed any player in years. So the industry braced only for what the final damage will be, not where Lee will be going.

"The only thing you can hope for with the Yankees," said one NL executive, "is that eventually adding years onto contracts leaves them with a very old and very expensive team."

Most teams look for a window in which to win. In the Yankees, other clubs look for a window in which it's even imaginable that they could lose. It happened in 2008, the first season under Joe Girardi and after the Yankees passed on Johan Santana.

The next such window -- at least under the old-and-expensive theory -- could be 2013. If New York signs Lee, three seasons from now they will be paying six players aged 32 through 39 more than the combined 2010 payrolls of three teams (Pirates, Padres and Athletics). The table to the right shows what the bill for six aging players would look like in 2013:

That's a total of $133,786,000. Of course, the Yankees are so flush with revenue they could still be a strong team with the $95 million or so on the rest of the roster. And by then, we're probably looking at an extra wild card team in each league, which makes it even less likely that the Yankees, even with a half-dozen mega-contracts that represent poor value, might miss the postseason.

If the Rangers don't re-sign Lee, all might not be lost. Here's one idea for Plan B: send third baseman Michael Young to Colorado, sign free agent third baseman Adrian Beltre and trade for pitcher Zack Greinke from Kansas City. Would you rather have Young, 34, and Lee, 33, at $39 million a year or Beltre, 31, and Greinke, 27, at $28.5 million a year?

Over the next two years, anyway, the Rangers would have the two younger players and an extra $10.5 million a year. (Of course, they would have lost the prospects traded to Kansas City, too.) And how would you spend the extra money? Go get a closer and put Neftali Feliz in the rotation. Go take your chances with a rotation of Greinke, 27, Feliz, 22, C.J. Wilson, 30, Colby Lewis, 31, and Derek Holland, 24.

The line of the meetings had to come from Angels GM Tony Reagins, when cornered by reporters Thursday after making a relatively weak run at Carl Crawford, he said, "I think we already made a huge splash with [Hisanori] Takahashi." I waited for him to smile or chuckle after he said that, but he didn't.

Takahashi was a nice pickup, but he's a 35-year-old pitcher who is neither a full-time starter nor a full-time closer. He is much closer to Darren Oliver than a "huge splash."

Just what gives with the Angels? They don't have the stomach or money to actually win bids for such players as Crawford, Mark Teixeira, John Lackey, Chone Figgins or Sabathia. There is a term for such restraint: it's called the AL West.

One of the greatest injustices in baseball is that every year AL West teams have no worse than a one in four chance of being in the postseason -- usually much better than that as one or two of the four teams in the division typically are scaling back or just plain awful. The bar isn't set very high for the Angels, A's, Rangers and Mariners, so it's easy to walk away from players.

In the AL West you can build a team to win 90 games, which is how many the division-champion Rangers won in 2010, and feel good about getting to the playoffs. Not so the AL East, where no division champion in the past 10 years has had fewer than 95 wins. In addition, all four AL West teams finished at least five games under .500 against AL East competition last season.

Here's how soft the division was in 2010: Against AL East and AL Central teams, the four AL West clubs went 156-192, a .448 winning percentage. Against their intradivision foes and the National League, they were 156-144, a .520 winning percentage.

It's great fun to start playing with lineup combinations of the Boston Red Sox now that they have Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez and have Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis healthy. There's no one "right" lineup, but I don't think Ellsbury has to hit leadoff just because he's fast and steals bases.

Look at it this way: would you rather give Ellsbury 72 more plate appearances than Gonzalez over the course of the year? That's about what would happen if you hit Ellsbury first and Gonzalez fifth (with Pedroia, Crawford and Youkilis between them). You could simply start with Pedroia first, then Crawford-Youkilis-Gonzalez to get the big guys to the plate more often, especially in the first inning.

The bottom line is it doesn't make much difference where you hit them, but it is fun to talk about.

So Miguel Olivo signed with the Mariners and I am thoroughly confused. Since 2005 he has bounced from the Mariners to the Padres to the Marlins to the Royals to the Rockies to the Blue Jays and back to the Mariners. Talk about your round-trip excursions.

He's pretty much the same player as Yorvit Torrealba, who in those same five seasons has hopped from the Giants to the Mariners to the Rockies to the Padres to the Rangers. And both of them are very similar to Rod Barajas, who in the same span jumped from the Rangers to the Phillies to the Blue Jays to the Mets to the Dodgers.

And all of them are a bit like John Buck, except Buck, at 30 years old, is the youngest and has bounced only from the Royals to the Blue Jays to the Marlins. (Don't know how Toronto missed Torrealba; the Jays have had the other three just since 2009, even if Olivo was just passing through this winter.)

Take a look at their similar career hitting numbers:

All of them signed as free agents this winter, and that's where Buck really stands apart:

Finally, here's one more measurement of how well our four well-traveled guys have played this game of musical catchers: career organizations and career earnings, including the money guaranteed on their new contracts.