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Early, but Yankees need rally

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / December 15, 2010

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There are a lot of sports management figures taking a thumping in New York, including Jets coach Rex Ryan and Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, but nobody’s taking more of a beating than Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.

In less than a week the Yankees lost out on Cliff Lee to the Phillies and never got to bid on Carl Crawford, who went to the Red Sox — who also added Adrian Gonzalez to offset the Yankees’ scooping up of Mark Teixeira two years ago.

The Yankees yesterday countered by reaching a preliminary agreement with catcher Russell Martin, after having shelled out millions to graybeards Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, but really, they haven’t addressed their biggest need — frontline pitching.

At least not yet.

C ashman offered Lee a six-year deal for $138 million, and later increased it to $150 million over seven years. The Rangers offered six years at $138 million. The Phillies swooped in Monday night and got Lee to approve the idea of signing with them once talks hit the $100-million mark. Yesterday Lee reached a preliminary agreement on a five-year, $120 million contract in Philadelphia, passing up an extra $30 million from New York.

Cashman did what he’s able to do — outbid everyone. But this time it didn’t work. This time Lee decided to go back to Philly, where he pitched in 2009 and felt very comfortable and where he is now a member of the most heralded rotation in baseball.

Of course the Phillies’ rotation was highly regarded last season when it had Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels, but it wasn’t enough to beat the Giants in the National League Championship Series.

Here’s the worry if you’re a Red Sox fan: Cashman may be feeling low right now, but don’t underestimate his ability to fight his way out of it.

It appears Cashman will have to make a deal to get a pitcher and also coax lefthander Andy Pettitte away from retirement by paying him more than he wants to. He also may opt to take on the contract of a veteran pitcher. But someway, somehow, the Yankees will come up with someone.

Someone as good as Lee? That’s unlikely, but don’t forget that the Yankees can take on any amount of salary. And since they didn’t spend on Lee, they can take on pitchers such as Derek Lowe and Carlos Zambrano (don’t forget that former Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild is now with the Yankees), two players who still can compete at a high level.

The Yankees always could turn to the A’s and take one of their pitchers for one of the Bombers’ hitters. Baltimore would listen on Jeremy Guthrie, the Rays on James Shields, Matt Garza, or Jeff Niemann (though it might be awkward trading within the division). The White Sox also might listen on one of their starters.

While one wouldn’t think Carl Pavano would go back to the Yankees, consider that he and Cashman always have had a great relationship (OK, that probably won’t happen). The Angels would move Scott Kazmir, but he’s more of an end-of-the-rotation guy.

Zack Greinke probably doesn’t want to play in New York, but would it shock anyone if the Yankees got him?

Maybe none of the above scenarios scares you if you’re a Red Sox fan, and if you’re going to be cocky about the Sox, now is the time. But keep in mind none of Boston’s magnificent offense will produce enough wins unless veterans such as Josh Beckett and John Lackey pitch well, unless Clay Buchholz stays at the same level or improves, and certainly not if closer Jonathan Papelbon can’t rebound from his worst season.

“I think it’s way too early to say it’s Boston’s division,’’ said one an American League executive. “If they don’t pitch better than last year, it’s bunched up again. And I’m not ruling out Tampa Bay.’’

Sox catcher Jason Varitek echoed that sentiment last weekend at Fenway Park, indicating that while he was excited about the addition of Gonzalez and Crawford, “We have to pitch better. It’s as simple as that.’’

To this correspondent, Lee always has been a buyer-beware pitcher. He’s starting to have some injury issues. He didn’t pitch that well for the Rangers in the regular season (4-6, 3.98 ERA) or at times in the postseason (0-2 with a 6.94 ERA in the World Series after going 3-0 and being unhittable in the early rounds). Six years down the road, what will you have? Lee will be 33 in August.

The long-term commitment these teams were willing to make is probably bad business.

For those reasons, the Yankees probably feel OK about not having committed to him for up to seven years. They also probably don’t regret failing to trade for him last July, when it would have cost them catcher Jesus Montero, shortstop Eduardo Nunez, and pitcher Ivan Nova, the future of the team up the middle and on the mound.

The Red Sox and Yankees both enjoy it when the other spends an extraordinary amount on a player, or is forced to give up top prospects in a deal. Each side also loves when a long-term commitment results in the other team’s player being paid big dollars at the end of a career, when the level of performance nowhere near matches the outlay. Both teams likely could have a little bit of that down the road after their recent signings.

Nevertheless, in the short term, Lee signing with the Phillies was terrific news for the AL East and the league in general. If the Yankees had signed him, they could have had a CC Sabathia, Lee, and Pettitte lefty trio that would have been really tough against teams such as the Red Sox, who have a lot of lefthanded hitters. If Lee had stayed in Texas, he could have been a major thorn in the side of teams such as Boston, New York, Minnesota, and Tampa Bay in the playoffs.

While the Yankees need to adjust, so do the Rangers.

Without Lee, it looks as if there’s a better chance that closer Neftali Feliz will become a starter and that they will search for a closer such as Rafael Soriano or Papelbon, or just stay in-house with Alexi Ogando. There now seems to be a better chance that Texas will go after Pavano, or bring back Kevin Millwood.

Pavano is the next big pitcher out there, and all signs point toward the Twins retaining him. But at what price?

“We’re just waiting after the dust clears with the Cliff Lee signing and see where things go,’’ said Pavano’s agent, Tom O’Connell.

The Phillies have the staff to die for now with Halladay, Oswalt, Hamels, and Lee, all of whom had ERAs under 3.20 last season. The Phillies are trying to deal righthander Joe Blanton, and there should be enough suitors to get that done, possibly for an outfielder to platoon with Domonic Brown in right field.

The Phillies approached the Red Sox about a deal, and one possibility floating around involved Mike Cameron. The Sox are already too lefthanded at the plate, and the loss of Cameron wouldn’t make sense unless they had another righthanded-hitting outfielder in mind. And those haven’t been easy to find.

The Phillies last season were a prime example that having a great team on paper doesn’t mean you’re going to win the World Series. But with four splendid pitchers, it sure feels like they’re way ahead of everyone heading into next season. The Yankees, on the other hand, are looking at a rotation that has Sabathia, Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett, Nova, and whom? If Pettitte retires, there would be good reason for alarm.

The Red Sox have given the Yankees a shellacking in December. But now we’re all waiting for the Yankees’ response.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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