Things took an unexpected turn on Tuesday when Jon Heyman of SI.com reported that Lee has two seven-year offers of more than $20 million on the table with neither of them coming from the expected frontrunners in New York and Texas.
There's been a fair amount of skepticism about the reality of those offers, but you can't really discount anything in a baseball world that just saw Jayson Werth sign for seven years and $126 million.
If the offers aren't for real, they're likely just a negotiating ploy improvised by Lee's agent Darek Braunecker. And, it must be said, a very good ploy because the thought of losing out on Lee has to strike some serious fear into the hearts of the Yankees.
As long as Andy Pettitte does his Hamlet/Brett Favre impersonation, the team has to operate as if he isn't coming back and that means they have to add a pitcher capable of some heavy lifting next season.
There aren't any other ones available as free agents. The dropoff from Lee is steep, all the way down to Carl Pavano. Since he's got a slightly worse chance of landing a free agent deal from the Yankees than Pol Pot, that means the Yankees will have to trade for another arm.
That's going to cost them a lot in terms of prospects, something that can't fill you with confidence when you look at an aging roster that could be springing several leaks in the next few years.
The Yankees also can't pull a repeat of their refusal to trade for Johan Santana. In that case, CC Sabathia was on the horizon as a free agent, something that justified letting Santana go to the Mets. History has smiled on that move, but there's no adequate Plan B this time.
The best pitcher on the 2011 market will be Sabathia, assuming he opts out of his contract. Contrary to what some believe, he hasn't ruled that out although it would only mean the Yankees throw more money at his feet because the next guy on the list is Wandy Rodriguez. There could be some appealing choices in 2012, but only if teams don't sign guys to extensions and that seems like an awfully big risk to take for a team that wants to win every year.
So Braunecker is banking on desperation, the mother of plenty of moves that haven't worked out all that well in the past. There are reasons to believe Lee can buck trends -- he's not a pure power pitcher and has a similar style as other pitchers who did well as they got close to 40 -- but the real reason the Yankees might blink is because they've found themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Giving Lee seven years runs against everything we've been led to believe about what the Yankees want to do this offseason. There are ways around it, most notably a bigger salary for a shorter period of time, but they come with their own consequences. As does losing Lee. After all, how does a team that just paid a 37-year-old shortstop coming off his worst season $56 million (at the very least) draw the line at one extra year for a pitcher of Lee's ability?
Tough choices, all of which serve to underscore just how good it is to be Cliff Lee right now.