Last night, Yankee fans saw Cliff Lee dominate, like he has all year. Next year, he will undoubtedly be the hottest free agent pitcher to hit the market in the 2011 off-season. Teams near and far will be bidding for his services in 2011 and onward. With a free agent class that includes no one particularly special (Javier Vazquez, Tim Hudson, and Jamie Moyer are the other three best starters available), just how much are Cliff Lee’s services worth via the trade market or the free agent market? Last year, John Lackey joined the Boston Red Sox for 5 years/ $82.5 million. He is indeed a very good pitcher, but he cannot lead a pitching staff in a similar way that Lee can.

"Buy a home in Seattle? No thanks, I'll just rent for a year" - AP Photo

I find it very unlikely that Lee will join the Yankees by the trade deadline on July 31st due to the 1) lack of a current need for a sixth starter and 2) the expensive price that will come to get three months of Cliff Lee. The one huge benefit to trading for Cliff Lee before the deadline would be three months of having no other teams competing and negotiating a huge deal for Lee. This would mean the team that gets him would have three months to work out a long-term deal for type of pitcher that doesn’t come around very often.

If Cliff Lee clears the 2010 season without a long-term contract, he will sign a deal that will most certainly pay close to, if not equal, what CC Sabathia earns (7 years, 161 million). While Cliff Lee cannot stand up to CC Sabathia in a conversation of durability, Lee can counter with 700 less innings pitched, a (slightly) better winning percentage (.636-.633), and a better K/BB ratio (2.90-2.69). And also, in case you haven’t been following baseball on the West Coast, Cliff Lee is turning in his best season to date. The numbers in bold are career bests… (Stats through Monday, June 28, 2010).

Record ERA WHIP K BB HR/9 K/BB
6-3 2.39 0.912 76 4 0.3

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If Cliff makes it to 2011 without a team, let me tell you some reasons why I think he could end up in the Bronx. Firstly, they’re the Yankees. Yankee ownership does not mind opening up the checkbooks to win games. An owner’s investment on quality free agents equals winning. Winning equals more championships and more people in attendance. More championships and more people in attendance equals more cash coming into the Yankee organization. This leads to a healthy combination of homegrown, drafted players (Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, Phil Hughes, Mariano Rivera, Brett Gardner, Andy Pettitte) and top-flight free agent signings (Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett) to anchor the team throughout the future. Fans of the 29 other teams in the Majors will complain, but most certainly if their favorite team’s ownership were doing the same thing to bring success, they would not be complaining.

Also, in 2011, there will almost certainly be an open spot in the rotation for Cliff Lee’s services. Three spots in the rotation will be locked down by CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Phil Hughes. However, the aforementioned Javier Vazquez will be a free agent this off-season, and most likely a Type-A free agent, which means two draft picks for the Yankees, so he will probably be let go. Andy Pettitte will obviously have a spot reserved for him in the Yankee rotation, but he reworks his contract every year so he can decide whether or not he wants to come back. If he doesn’t come back in 2011, there is almost twelve million dollars that can be directly deposited into the Cliff Lee fund.

In recent years, the Yankees have made a habit of grabbing players who have destroyed them in the past. A.J. Burnett vs. the Yanks? 6-3 with a 1.030 WHIP and 9 K/9. Mark Teixeira batting against the Bronx Bombers? How about splits of .307/.372/.526? Cliff Lee publicly humiliated the Yankees in the 2009 World Series. That reason along makes him eligible for a long-term deal in the Bronx.

Cliff Lee has become close friends with many Yankees over the years, whether it is from being teammates (CC in Cleveland, Chan Ho Park in Philly) or being from the same area (A.J. and Lee are both from Arkansas). Hopefully, Cliff Lee decides this off-season to join many legends that have donned the pinstripes.