By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Daniels met co-chairs Davis and Simpson at the board's first meeting on September 10 when he and assistant general manager Thad Levine gave a baseball operations presentation, and then he spent a lot of time with them and other co-owners throughout the postseason, where he came to know them only as baseball fans, not oil-and-gas tycoons.
"These guys were as into it as anybody," he says. "I hugged more people in October that I only had met a few months before than at any point in my life."
Ryan describes Davis and Simpson as "very competitive" and says they plan to continue building the team from within while improving the ball club through free agency and trades when possible. "I think they're very supportive no matter what we're doing, and they feel like if it makes baseball and financial sense to do something, I think they're prepared to back us on that."
Greenberg, Ryan and Daniels have expressed a desire to bring back Lee—easily the most desirable starting pitcher on the market—but at what point does his price become prohibitive? The Rangers haven't exactly had much success signing pitchers to expensive long-term contracts, with Chan Ho Park (five years, $65 million) and Kevin Millwood (five years, $60 million) as prime examples, and Lee's expected to ink a deal in the neighborhood of Sabathia's seven-year, $161 million contract signed in December 2008.
Handing out lengthy contracts to pitchers has proven to be risky business, and despite Lee's 7-2 record and 2.13 ERA in 10 starts during his incredible two-year postseason run with Philadelphia and Texas, he had a negligible effect on the Rangers during the regular season. The team won just six of his 15 starts, and he showed little consistency, surrendering a total of just nine runs in seven of his starts and 44 in the other eight. His career regular-season stats are also surprisingly similar to those of pitchers who've gone bust once they've been handed big bucks and long-term contracts.
Lee's last six seasons are nearly identical to the six of retired left-hander Denny Neagle just before he signed a five-year, $51 million contract with the Colorado Rockies, and they're on par with the six-year span of Barry Zito's career preceding the massive seven-year, $126 million deal he signed with the Giants in December 2006. Neagle's career was derailed by ligament and elbow surgeries, and Zito has been so disappointing that he wasn't included on the Giants' playoff roster this year. Daniels offers no comment when he's asked if he's hesitant to sign Lee to a long-term deal based on contracts like those signed by Zito and Mike Hampton, whose eight-year, $121 million contract with the Rockies is among the worst returns on investment in baseball history.
Even if Lee's worth an expensive long-term commitment, Ryan admits that he expects the Yankees to outbid the Rangers. "I don't think there's anyone else in the American League or maybe even the National League that feels like they're on an even playing ground with the Yankees," he says.
On November 10, three days after the Rangers' exclusive negotiating period with Lee expired and the pitcher's free agency began, Daniels' eyes are glued to his BlackBerry. Just one year older than Lee at 33, Daniels already has five seasons as a GM under his belt, during which he's developed a reputation as a risk taker and straight shooter. Inside the club's fourth-floor offices in center field at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Daniels ponders a question: How would he reassure fans that the Rangers will re-sign Lee rather than see him bolt to New York?
"I really couldn't tell you," he says in a defeated tone as he spins his phone on the table with his index finger. "It's not really for us to put words in his mouth. When we made the deal, our mindset had to be that we felt comfortable making the trade knowing we were getting Cliff Lee for the stretch drive and the postseason, a full year of [former Seattle pitcher] Mark Lowe, an opportunity to get around Cliff Lee and potentially an opportunity to re-sign him. And, if not, two draft picks. That's how we looked at the deal, so we were really comfortable with that, understanding one potential outcome was that he goes somewhere else."
In other words, don't rush out and buy your No. 33 jerseys.
"I don't want to come across as a defeatist," Daniels adds later, stressing that the Rangers are not making plans without Lee.
Five days after Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had lunch with Lee, his wife Kristen and agent Darek Braunecker in Little Rock for what Cashman would call a "meet and greet," Daniels, Greenberg and Ryan on November 15 made their own trip to Arkansas, where Lee purchased a restored 1927 home earlier this year and Braunecker lives and works. (Braunecker did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.)
Greenberg describes the meeting as "terrific" but offers little else because "no good comes from talking about it a lot publicly." Ryan says Lee made it clear to them that he enjoyed his time with the Rangers. "I think what he did is assure us that he has a lot of interest in coming back to the Rangers."