By Neil Keefe
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And Sweeny Murti
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Derek Jeter is finally a Yankee (again), but Cliff Lee is not. And to make matters worse, the Red Sox have added their own Mark Teixeira in Adrian Gonzalez and enhanced the weakest part of their team (their outfield) by adding Carl Crawford. The balance of power in the AL East has shifted back in favor of the Red Sox for the first time in three years, and the Yankees have no choice but to make sure Cliff Lee is a Yankee in 2011 and beyond.
With the winter meetings coming to a close, and visions of Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury performing double steals on A.J. Burnett’s leg kick and Adrian Gonzalez dropping bombs into the Yankees bullpen at the Stadium, I thought it was a good time to talk to my voice of reason, Sweeny Murti.
Sweeny joined me from Orlando to talk about everything that has gone on with the Yankees over the last week and what is likely to go on with the team between now and spring training. Here is a transcript of our conversation.
Keefe: There has been a lot made about Derek Jeter saying he was “angry” the way his negotiations with the Yankees went since it sort of damaged the private aspect of Jeter’s career that he has always made sure to keep intact. The majority of people seem to believe that he doesn’t have a right to be angry at the way things played out and that he should be happy that he is going to be getting paid $17 million a year at this stage of his career.
You had a chance to talk to him in a one-on-one interview following his press conference. Did you get the sense that he is still angry and does he have the right to be?
Murti: His anger is about how the negotiation played out publicly. My personal feeling is that if the Yankees have started with that offer and Jeter had countered and they eventually ended up with this exact same contract, but no one knew the numbers until the end, I have a feeling he would have been quite satisfied with the way it turned out.
I think he’s happy with his contract because it’s a good contract. The first offer the Yankees made was quite fair, but it’s the way it got portrayed is what really bothered him, and that the numbers came out publicly. It was the bickering that really started to chip away at his image. After a couple weeks it wasn’t pro-Jeter anymore and it was more pro-Yankees and it’s because the numbers were out there that people were thinking why is $15 million not enough for this guy?
As he stated, negotiation is one side offers one number and the other side offers another number and you try to come to an agreement. It’s the things that were said the things that made him look bad during the course of it that he himself didn’t actually say anything. It would have been one thing if he came out and made statements and saying things in response, but he didn’t really say anything and I think people were trying to attribute things to him and that’s why he got really upset about it.
Keefe: Along the same lines at the “angry” comment, there are critics upset that no one at the press conference asked about the supposed “demands” from the Jeter side of the negotiations. There were numerous reports that Jeter wanted a six-year deal for over $20 million a year. Do you believe that these “demands” were true?
Murti: I don’t think it was necessarily a demand. Jeter himself said that he wasn’t in a position to demand anything. He closed off the idea that he would want to go anywhere else, so if he was demanding it, well clearly he stopped demanding it because that’s not what he got.
I think that the number that they settled on is a really good number. I thought the Yankees’ first offer was a great offer for him. It’s more than what people were telling me he would get on the open market. A lot of people said the Yankees weren’t taking into account who they were dealing with, but I think that they were, and that’s why they started at that number. In the end, they ended up at a pretty good number and he made out very well.
Keefe: You have covered Derek Jeter for 10 years and know him as well if not better than any writer that covers the team. There is this common idea that Jeter doesn’t forget and holds grudges against people that have wronged him and it’s expected that the same will happen between Jeter and the Yankees after this contract situation.
I don’t think there will be a problem here in the way that it’s getting played up right now, but do you think the relationship between Jeter and the Yankees is damaged?
Murti: I think there’s an element of truth to that, but I just don’t know how it’s going to play out yet because the relationship is pretty simple now: he goes out there and plays.
I don’t think he really has to deal with Brian Cashman at all until his contract comes up again, so I don’t think that it’s an immediate issue. It might start becoming an immediate issue if Jeter doesn’t start out playing real well, and starts to show of age in 2011. Then the Yankees have to start thinking about where they move him position-wise and where they move him in the batting order. If those types of things become issues right away then it’s probably more of the relationship being strained. If he’s reluctant to do anything that they’re trying to do then that probably takes things in a different direction.
There’s definitely truth to Jeter not forgetting things as far as his past relationships with people and how he looks at them. I’m not sure that this is an immediate concern with the people that negotiated the contract because he doesn’t necessarily have a daily interaction with these guys. Now it’s about playing baseball, which he clearly wants to, and has enough pride to want to do well.
Keefe: The Yankees offered Cliff Lee a six-year deal, but once the Red Sox landed Carl Crawford with a seven-year deal, the Yankees immediately increased their offer to both meet the market and to make sure they would come away with Lee. There is no doubt that they needed Lee going into the offseason, and now I think they need him even more than before.
Is a seven-year deal the maximum deal the Yankees will offer or are they willing to go to eight years if they have to separate themselves from an offer from the Rangers or another team?
Murti: I think they feel they can make the best offer. Do they have to go to eight years? I don’t know. I think they think they can offer more and that’s kind of what they demonstrated when after less than 24 hours from making a six-year offer, they made a seven-year offer. They have gone to some pretty good lengths and they know Cliff Lee and his agent know how badly they want him. There is a cutoff, I just don’t know what the cutoff is.
If the Rangers come forward and offer a seventh year at similar money, I’m not sure what the Yankees can do. It’s not simply a bidding war at this point anymore. It is to a degree, but there’s also that decision about a player and where he wants to go. I don’t think the Yankees can offer a whole lot more than what they already have right now because I don’t think anyone’s topping them right now. There is a ceiling here, but at some point Cliff Lee is going to want to have to come to New York, and if he does, then I think what the Yankees have out there is probably good enough.
Keefe: I joked on Twitter that I was creating a playlist of sad songs in the event that Lee doesn’t sign with the Yankees. Well, kind of joking. If the Yankees aren’t able to sign Lee, their rotation becomes CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes and then three question marks. I don’t know how anyone can trust A.J. Burnett or Ivan Nova at this point, and who would the fifth starter be?
What is the Yankees’ Plan B if Lee signs with another team? Please give me some hope.
Murti: Well, it’s not to make a playlist of songs, I can guarantee you that. The Yankees are going to have to trade and explore options like that. I think it’s one of the reasons they explored Carl Crawford, although I was told they never made an offer for him and they were never serious about bidding for him.
The Yankees have the ability to make a trade for a pitcher. I have been told that they have enough talent in their system to get any player in the majors that they desire. They have that much depth to deal from at this point.
The problem is that there isn’t another Cliff Lee available on the trade market. So whichever pitcher you are targeting after him is a step below. Plan B is exactly that. It’s not as good as Plan A. There isn’t anyone out there available that is as good as Lee. It’s not like you can go get Tim Lincecum. They’re not going to go get Felix Hernandez. They’re going to have to try and get creative and look for some starting pitching, but I don’t believe the Cliff Lee equivalent is out there right now.
Keefe: It now seems like Andy Pettitte will return to the Yankees if they sign Lee, but will retire if they don’t, which puts even more emphasis on acquiring Lee. Is there any truth to this? Is Pettitte’s decision to pitch in 2011 connected with whether or not the Yankees can sign Lee?
Murti: No, Pettitte’s decision is his decision. He called Brian Cashman yesterday and told him, “I’d love for you guys to go get Cliff Lee, and I just haven’t made up my mind yet.” The longer this has gone on, the longer it makes you believe how seriously he is considering retirement this time because he’s never actually said how much he’s considered it in the past.
There’s still something pulling on him to play and I think it’s because he pitched so well last season. But he’s a family man and he’s feeling the desire right now to stay home. Even though the indication has been that he is leaning toward retirement, I think we would all be surprised if he didn’t come back next year. The fact that he is torn right now and didn’t decide to hang it up like Mike Mussina did in 2008 means there is still something there and that tells you he still wants to pitch. As long as that part is still there, I’d be surprised if he didn’t come back. His decision isn’t tied to Lee, and the Yankees will make sure that they have room for Andy Pettitte if he decides to come back this year, It’s just his decision at this point.
Keefe: From 2004-2008, the Red Sox held the edge in the AL East. Once the Yankees landed Mark Teixeira, it swung back in favor of the Yankees. Now, the Red Sox have their own version of Mark Teixeira and arguably the best pitching staff in baseball. The only weak part of their team was their outfield, and even that got a boost on Wednesday. I am worried about the 2011 Red Sox, and rightfully so. I will be even more worried about them if the Yankees can’t sign Lee.
Have the Red Sox become the favorite once again in the AL East?
Murti: I talked to some baseball executives after the Crawford deal was made on Wednesday night the thought was mostly that the Red Sox are still better right now even if the Yankees do land Cliff Lee. The Red Sox greatly improved their lineup and have players that were hurt much of 2010 coming back next year as well. They have a formidable lineup and some good pitching, so right now they have to be considered the favorite.
They did exactly what the Yankees did in 2008 after missing the playoffs and finished third by going out and spending a boatload of money to get right back to the top. That’s where you have to put them right now.
Keefe: Russell Martin has been tied to the Yankees along with some other teams, including the Red Sox, over the last week. If the Yankees do sign Martin, what does that mean for Jorge Posada? Is he officially done as a catcher?
Murti: First of all they can’t do anything until they hear from Cliff Lee. They have other needs including another left-handed reliever, an extra outfielder and some other bullpen help, but I don’t know if they can really do anything until they know if $23 million is going to one particular guy.
I think Martin is kind of a bridge here because if the Yankees sign him, they can deal one of the young catchers as part of a package and get another that they need if they don’t get Lee.
The Yankees are prepared to run Jesus Montero out there and see what they get out of him. This guy has a chance to be a very special bat and has created comparisons to Miguel Cabrera and Manny Ramirez at that stage.
Jorge Posada is being told to prepare as a catcher in case somebody gets hurts, or in the event that the young catcher’s don’t play well enough. I think ideally Posada doesn’t catch at all next year, but ideally doesn’t always work out. He might still have to, which is why he’s being told to prepare as a catcher and he’ll go through spring training that way.
Keefe: I understand that any moves the Yankees want to make hinge on Lee’s decision and they are strapped until he makes a decision, but Kerry Wood’s name keeps coming up and I would love to see Wood back in the Bronx.
There have been reports that Wood doesn’t want to be a setup man again, but I think for the right price he would. Are there teams looking to add him as a closer for more money than the Yankees will offer?
Murti: If he’s going to be a closer than that’s more than what the Yankees are going to pay him. The Yankees have said that they’re not going to pay closer money to keep Kerry Wood. They did that a few years ago with Steve Karsay and they’re not going to do it this time. But they would like Wood back and they might overpay a little bit on the setup side, but not to compete with the closer dollars. Wood was very important to them last year in the second half and they definitely would like to see him back.
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Follow Sweeny on Twitter at twitter.com/YankeesWFAN