Twins Won’t Sign Cliff Lee… Will They?

My posts are too long. I know. This one is even longer than usual. Sorry. -JC

It’s impossible. It would be lunacy. And say what you will about the Minnesota Twins front office, they aren’t prone to lunacy. Sure, they occasionally screw up and overpay a light-hitting utility infielder by a couple million dollars or so. But the Twins don’t out-lunatic the lunatics in New York when it comes to bidding for the services of 30+ year old starting pitchers.

But still…

I have to admit that I find the Cliff Lee storyline 100 times more fascinating than the laughable Derek Jeter drama we endured last week. While they both involve the Yankees and thus share the same prospect of the Evil Empire ending up looking foolish, that’s about all the two have in common. There are many more compelling reasons to become enthralled with the unfolding Lee scenarios. For starters, Cliff Lee is still really good at baseball.

Cliff Lee

To bring people up to date (though “up to date” in this unfolding drama is, to say the least, a very fluid moving target), Lee is by far the best free agent starting pitcher on the market this off-season. In fact, if you look at pitchers with contracts expiring next year, we’re probably not going to see anyone better at what he does hit the market then either. The term “ace” is thrown around pretty loosely these days, to the point that I’m not even sure what it means any more. But Lee pretty much is everything a team would want in an ace. He’s left-handed. He works deep in to games and saves your bullpen. He has excellent command of multiple pitches. He (generally) stays healthy. He rises to the occasion in the post-season. He beats the Yankees.

The bidding for Lee had the potential to be a story worth following even before the Winter Meetings started this week in Florida. The Yankees and the Texas Rangers were expected to do battle for the right to pay him over $100 million over the next five seasons. In the end, of course, everyone expected the Yankees to get their man. After all, they “need” Lee and they always get what they need when the only determining factor is money. (By the way, I find this concept of the Yankees “needing” Lee to be typical of the Yankees and their fans. What other franchise would have CC Sabathia at the top of their rotation and yet feel they NEED Cliff Lee? What they NEED is someone better than Javier Vasquez and AJ Burnett to add to their rotation… how hard could it be to find someone like that?)

But a funny thing happened on the way to this two-team Battle Royale for Lee’s services. Other teams showed up with money in hand, too. So many teams showed up with so much money, in fact, that the price for Lee seems to be rising by the hour. Almost immediately, it became clear that a five year contract wasn’t going to cut it. It would take six. Reportedly, that was more than the Rangers were willing to go. The Yankees supposedly are willing to do six years… but no more. But so, perhaps, might the Nationals, Angels, Red Sox, Cubs or Orioles. Then, Tuesday, reports started coming out that one team (or possibly even two teams) might go seven years for Lee!

Speculation started about who might raise insanity to levels past all prior boundaries (a.k.a. beyond Yankee-Insanity). Immediately, eyes looked toward Washington where, it seems, the ownership has allowed the team’s close proximity to Congress to instill a total lack of fiscal restraint on the Nationals franchise. The Nats have already made the most excessive (read: dumbest) signing this year by paying Jayson Werth $126 million over the next seven seasons. But the Nationals deny they’re willing to go seven years. As do the Angels. And the Orioles. And the Cubs. And every other team that’s been asked, “Are you the crazy one?”

Which leads us to one of two conclusions: 1) Someone is lying… either about there even being a seven year offer out there (never mind two of them) or about not being the team to have made such an offer; or 2) there’s a mystery team (or two) laying in the weeds who’s willing and able to commit over $20 million a year for the next seven years for Cliff Lee’s services. The entertainment value alone of watching all the big (and small) media types chasing down the answers through the pastel-colored halls of the Dolphin and Swan hotels would almost have been worth the price of airfare to fly down there!

Speculation as to who the “mystery team(s)” might be has run the gamut from the Cubs to the Tigers to the Astros to the Brewers (seriously… the Astros and Brewers?!).

There’s every possibility that the seven year offer is nothing more than a phantom, leaked by Lee’s representatives to drive up the price or by another team just to… you know… drive the Steinbrenners a little nuttier than they already are. In either case, the end result would at least be that the Evil Empire would feel compelled to jack up their offer and overpay even more than they would have if they were only bidding against themselves (see: Jeter, Derek and Rodriguez, Alex).

But what if there IS someone out there with a seven year offer for Lee?

What sort of team would be willing to take on that sort of risk and be able to stay under the radar? Let’s look at the criteria any such team would have to meet.

Need. You have to really, REALLY, need a top-of-the-rotation difference maker. You don’t do something this crazy if you already have one of the best in the business heading your rotation… unless you’re the Yankees.

Motivation. You need to be a contender (or at least see yourself as being a contender) or close enough to being one that adding Lee would sure make you look like one. Ideally, you’re a contender who believes you may be an “ace” away from a World Series.

Resources. You need to have money. This can be tricky for outsiders to figure out because teams don’t broadcast how much money they have so the best anyone can do is estimate. Estimates are loosely based on two criteria: 1) how much you spent on payroll last year (teams supposedly dedicate about half their total revenues to their Major League payrolls); and 2) your home attendance levels.

Stealthy Insanity. You need to have ownership and front office people willing (or at least motivated, for some reason) to do something a little crazy… or a lot crazy… AND be able to keep their craziness quiet.

When you apply those four criteria, the possibilities narrow in a hurry. (Again, I say, the Astros and Brewers? Really?!)

The Red Sox, maybe. They’ve got solid starting pitching already, but they missed the playoffs last season and they could use Lee. They have no shortage of money, though they’re going to have to shell out megabucks to keep newly acquired Adrian Gonzales around more than a year. They’ve shown a willingness to do crazy stuff before (like post a bid of a gazillion dollars to Dice-K’s Japanese team a while back). They’re also motivated by Yankee-envy and could figure that even if they don’t get Lee, at least they’d have the satisfaction of knowing they made the Yankees pay more for him than they wanted to.

The Tigers, perhaps. They had over $50 million come off their payroll this year and they’re clearly intent on spending it. They have every fan’s dream: an owner who’s really just a fan with an obscene amount of money who just wants to win, no matter what it costs. In addition, despite the Detroit economy, fans are still attending their games.

But let’s quit beating around the bush. We all know where this post is heading.

What about the Twins?

Do they need a playoff-proven, Yankee killing, ace?

Are they a contender that’s perhaps one or two key pieces from a World Series?

Do they have money?

Of course, the question is, “How much money do they have?” Nobody knows. But here’s what we DO know. They posted a bid for Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakura and were rumored to have posted the second-highest bid. Oakland “won” with a $19 million bid. Let’s say the Twins bid $10 million (I suspect it was more). They would have had to be prepared to shell out a total of $15 million in 2011 for Iwakura (including posting bid and at least $5 million for his first year). In 2012, the Twins potentially have over $15 million in payroll coming off the books in just two outfielders (Cuddyer and Kubel) just as the next crop of young (cheap) outfielders should be arriving. The Twins also have every reason to expect that they’ll continue to sell out Target Field’s 40,000 seats, resulting in another 3,000,000 attendance figure next year. While their average ticket price is only about $35 (thus just over $100 million in ticket revenue), let me ask you… how much money do you suppose the average ticketholder spends at a game? Does $30-$50 over and above his/her ticket price seem unlikely? And we haven’t even talked about media rights or advertising. Is it really impossible to imagine that the Twins are pulling down $300 million in revenues?

But even if we all would agree the Twins have the need, the motivation and the resources to make a seven year play for Cliff Lee, do we have any reason to believe they’d actually do something so totally un-Twinslike? Of course not.

But still…

A year ago, Bill Smith traded for a new shortstop, signed Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson as free agents, and went out and obtained Brian Fuentes and Matt Capps during the season in order to give his team its best shot at a serious title run. All in addition to locking up Joe Mauer to about the richest non-Yankee contract in baseball. In previous seasons, losing cornerstones like Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau would have meant writing the year off and dumping contracts, not to mention trading Mauer away for whatever they could get for him or watching him sign with New York or Boston as a free agent.

This is all a long (too long, perhaps, but what do you really expect from one of my posts, by now?) way of saying that if I were a writer covering this story in Florida this week and I was trying to unearth the identity of the crazy “mystery team” who’s made a seven year offer to Cliff Lee, I’d at least ask Bill Smith if he’s the nutty GM who’s made that offer.

On the other hand, Smith’s also the GM who probably wouldn’t give a straight answer to a writer who asks what he had for breakfast, so you might not even bother asking about this.

So… do I REALLY believe the Twins might be making a seven year contract offer for Cliff Lee, just because they have the need, the motivation, and arguably the resources to do so? No, of course not. The Twins never do that kind of thing. Ever.

But still…

-JC

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