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What the Cliff Lee Signing Means for New York

They call it Plan B for a reason. Last week, while meeting with the press at the Winter Meetings, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that the team had a list of five or so players the team had discussed in the event they miss on Cliff Lee. While we don’t know which players the Yankees have identified, we do know one thing: none of them is as good an option as Cliff Lee. But with Lee spurning the Yankees’ bid, they’re stuck with one of these lesser options, or else go into the season with a questionable rotation.

The problem the Yankees face now is threefold. First, they have to find pitchers that are actually available. Second, unless they finagle a deal for Zack Greinke, they’re dealing with a crop of pitchers who won’t produce to Lee’s level. Third, they’ll have to sacrifice a number of their prospects, which would significantly weaken a farm system that made strong progress in 2010. While Lee would have cost them considerable money and future flexibility, the retention of their prospects could have helped keep payroll under some sort of control through the middle of the decade.

Which pitchers will the Yankees target? Here’s a hypothetical list, ordered by likelihood of pursuit:

Zack Greinke: We’ll see Greinke’s name in headlines from now until he’s traded, since it sounds inevitable at this point. Any mention of Greinke in New York will automatically trigger concerns about his social anxiety disorder, but that’s nothing you or I can comment on. In terms of baseball value Greinke would be the best fit in the Bronx, a righty No. 2 to pitch behind CC Sabathia. But do the Yankees have the prospects to fulfill Kansas City’s demands? Jesus Montero gets the conversation started, but the Yankees have to be more concerned with where it ends.

Ricky Nolasco: The Marlins and Nolasco have been talking extension for a while, but nothing has gotten done. Outside of 2008 he has produced disappointing results for them, regardless of his strong peripherals. Nolasco still figures to get a decent raise over the $3.8 million he earned in 2010, which might lead the Marlins to explore a trade.┬áNolasco could work for the Yankees, since they’d be acquiring a relatively young, as well as potentially good, starter. It’s a bit of a risk, and the Marlins won’t let him go for nothing. They could decide to hold onto him, anyway, because their payroll figures to be at last year’s level or even a bit below.

Chris Carpenter: Money is the Yankees’ greatest resource, making them perpetual candidates to pick up big-money, short-term contracts in trades. Carpenter is set to make $15 million in 2011, plus a $1 million buyout of his $15 million 2012 option. The Cardinals already have almost $98 million committed to 13 players in 2011, and Ryan Theriot‘s contract will bring them over the $100 million mark. They do have money coming off the books after the season, but that unfortunately includes Albert Pujols. Might the Cardinals seek to trade Carpenter and use that money to help sign Pujols? If so, the Yankees will be knocking.

(It does appear that Carpenter is a 10 and 5 guy, which might make this proposition a bit tougher.)

Mark Buehrle: There have been rumblings lately that the White Sox could make Buehrle available, though trading him would be no easy feat. This is the final year of his contract, during which he will make $14 million. With Jake Peavy‘s status uncertain, I’m not sure the Sox would trade Buehrle this off-season. There’s also the issue of 10 and 5 rights, which Buehrle gained this past July. It’s also unclear whether a previous contract provision, which would raise his 2011 salary by $1 million and provide a $15 million guaranteed salary in 2012, is still effective. Given all the obstacles, this seems like a longer shot than Carpenter.

Derek Lowe: Within the next few weeks I predict we will see a headline that suggests the Yankees and Braves are talking about a Lowe trade. This doesn’t appear to match the Yankees’ M.O. Lowe is still owed $30 million for the next two seasons, and he hasn’t transitioned spectacularly to the NL East. He also turns 38 in June, meaning he’ll also be under contract for his age-39 season.

Chad Billingsley: There is no indication that the Dodgers will entertain offers for any of their starters, never mind their prospective No. 2. But they do have six starters heading into 2011, and might use that depth to improve other aspects of the team. The odds are quite long on this one, but the Yankees might go a long way for a 26-year old who induces a fair number of ground balls and strikes out his share. Still, I see little reason for the Dodgers to trade him.

If the Yankees decide to essentially stand pat, making just a few small moves to fill out the bench and bullpen, they’d head into the 2011 season with a payroll around $185 million, a level not familiar to them. That allows them to remain flexible and add a piece or two around the trade deadline. They’ll still have all of their prospects, and further progress from them in the first half could increase their trade value. (And yes, the opposite is true as well.) There might be a number of pitchers who become available between now and then, and the pitchers mentioned above might come at a slightly lower price than they do right now.

That scenario would leave the Yankees’ pitching in question heading into the season. They’ll still have Sabathia heading the rotation, but he’s the only known quantity. In order to field a suitable staff they need to see progress from Phil Hughes, a bounce back from A.J. Burnett, the return of Andy Pettitte, and an unexpected leap forward from one of their mid-range, upper minors prospects, such as Ivan Nova or David Phelps. As almost every team learns almost every season, things tend not to break this well.

The off-season is far from over, but the Yankees’ best opportunity at improving their team has passed. They now face two inferior alternatives. They could trade for a starter, which brings about a new set of issues. They could stand pat, which means relying on a lot of luck. The Yankees figure to still have a strong team in 2011, but with the Red Sox improving last week and Lee spurning them yesterday their chances have certainly diminished. For once, money might not solve all of their problems.