The biggest name in baseball free agency decided not to sign a contract with the New York Yankees this off season.
I know, right?
Instead, Cy Young award-winner and certified ace Cliff Lee opted to sign a five year, $120 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, who already own one of the the most talent-laden starting rotations in Major League Baseball. That rotation, which already includes Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, has just transcended the formidable and is now bordering on the historic. The Lee-to-Philly deal is intriguing for a lot of reasons, but I think the most important thing we can take away from Clifton's decision to play for the Phillies and not the Yanks (or the Rangers) is that sometimes, money isn't everything.
That's a pretty amazing thing to consider with the way professional sports (and especially baseball) usually works, where the highest bidder offering the most lucrative contract nearly always gets their man. The Yankees have made a living off of this heretofore certainty of the paper chase, reeling in big name free agent after big name free agent year-in and year-out. The Yankees always pull in proven talent through free agency because they are one of the most powerful franchises in all of sports with one of its biggest checkbooks.
The fact that Lee spurned the Yanks and the Rangers to play for the Phillies says a lot about the guy if you ask me, and as a die-hard Yankee-hater, it damn near warms my heart. There's an old saying that only two types of people like the Yankees: those from the Bronx and complete assholes. I've always subscribed to this theory, especially growing up a Detroit Tigers fan, because up until realignment and the advent of the wild card spot in the MLB playoffs, the Yankees shared a division with my Tigers in the old AL East. I don't like the Yankees and I never have. I don't like the way they try (and often succeed) to buy World Series titles and their big money bullying tactics -- tactics they use to consistently rob small and mid-market teams of a shot at big name free agents.
It's why Lee signing with the Phillies is such a wonderful off season baseball headline. Lee went where he wanted to go, leaving around $30 million on the table and taking fewer years on his contract to play where he wanted to. He's bounced around quite a bit over the last few years, including a stop in Philadelphia two years back, where he buoyed the Phils to a World Series appearance against the Yankees and was then traded away to the Mariners in the off season. The Mariners shifted him to the Rangers during last season, where he again found himself in the World Series, this year against the Giants.
The Rangers also did their damndest to keep one of baseball's best post-season pitchers around, but Lee turned down more money from them as well, doing what was best for him personally and career-wise instead of chasing more money in Texas or New York. Athletes so rarely go this route, and so rarely spurn the Yankees, that Lee's landing in Philadelphia is equal parts surprising and refreshing.
I have always maintained that I think it unfair to characterize all athletes as money-hungry jerks because I don't think that folks in other professions would turn down more lucrative positions and career paths in favor of their best personal interests either. We tend to criticize athletes for pursuing the opportunity to make the most money, but people in all walks of life and in all professions behave in much the same manner for the most part. Following your bliss can often be derailed by the lure of the almighty dollar, and athletes are not alone in succumbing to it's siren song.
Following what you want to do and not what your bank statements say you should is a tough decision to make and one I can do nothing but commend Cliff Lee for. He has recently stated that he never wanted to leave Philly in the first place and is happy as a clam to be back with the Phillies. If you look at the starting rotation he is a part of now, it isn't hard to see why.
Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels could all occupy (and in the past have occupied) the top spot in just about any rotation in baseball if they wanted to, but now they all find themselves wearing the same uniform. This is a scary thought for any team in the NL East and probably the entire National League, with many a sports pundit already proclaiming the Phils the prohibitive favorite to reach the World Series in 2011.
Halladay is arguably the best pitcher in baseball (for those with short memories, he's the dood that threw a no-hitter in this year's playoffs), and is now surrounded by three other pitchers (and Joe Blanton in the five spot, I see you big fella...) that are also among the league's most dominant arms. Baseball analysts like Tim Kurkjian (whom I love) and Bob Costas (whom I don't so much, but is one of the sharpest minds baseball has to offer) are already calling the Philadelphia rotation one of the greatest in baseball history, which makes Lee's decision an even more eye-grabbing headline.
I think that Lee's move to Philly is going to pay dividends during baseball's long regular season for all of the obvious reasons, and I'll go one step further to say that it will only make the Phillies a more dominant force in the postseason. I just don't buy the argument that you need four or five solid pitchers during the season, but only three in the post season.
Having Hamels as the number four option during a playoff run can eliminate many tough decisions that might present themselves should one of the other three starters be looking at pitching on short rest. The Phillies not only have a dominant staff in this sense, but a flexible one to boot. The rotation's depth can alleviate headaches that scheduling and travel can create, and make skipper Charlie Manuel's job all the easier in 2011.
So the Phils are freaking loaded now (sheesh, we haven't even talked about their line-up, which is also laden with All-Star talent like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard...) and the Yankees are in big, big trouble. They lost out on free agency's other big name too, that being Carl Crawford, who signed with the rival Boston Red Sox (who also added All-Star Adrian Gonzalez) and are now a team without the bat they wanted and the front-line pitcher they desperately needed.
The Yankees' rotation is as shaky as Philly's is solid, with CC Sabathia anchoring a staff that might have to follow him with only Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett if Andy Pettitte decides to hang up his cleats. The Yankees are now forced to turn to the trading block, and will most likely have to part ways with many young prospects (most notably catcher Jesus Montero) in order to do so. They also recently signed Russell Martin, another catcher, which leads this writer to believe that Montero and many other fine young players will get the ol' Austin Jackson treatment and find themselves in another team's farm system post-haste.
Oh yeah, the Yanks just signed Mark Prior (of the glass-armed Priors) too. Panic, thy name is Brian Cashman. It looks like Cliff Lee's decision to skip the Bronx is going to have some very interesting aftershocks in New York and if you can't tell from the previous body of this post, I am smiling a very large smile as a result.
Clifton gets what he wants, the Yankees don't, and I'm talking baseball in the middle of football and basketball season. Gotta love the hot stove.