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Is there a mystery team in hunt for Lee?
There is a mystery team in on Cliff Lee.
I don't know this for sure, but I'm guessing there is one team — maybe even more than one — making a stealth run at the free-agent left-hander, refusing to accept the conventional wisdom that he will sign with the Yankees or Rangers.
There often are mystery teams on major free agents, and not simply random, illusory threats. Sometimes we learn the identities of these clubs after the fact, sometimes not. But the free-agent season is known for surprises.
Deferred payments, back-loaded contracts and disappearing commitments create opportunity. And sometimes, owners just say, “What the heck,” or something to that effect.
True, outbidding the Yankees for Lee might be next to impossible, but no starting pitcher on next year's projected free-agent market is even close to his caliber, which should only increase demand.
Here, then, are five teams that could — repeat, could — at least dream of grabbing Lee.
I'm not including the Washington Nationals, who are known to want Lee, but have virtually zero chance of signing him.
The Phantom Five are less obvious.
I don't have any information that any of these clubs actually is pursuing Lee. I'm well aware that for some, his expected average salary of $23 million to $25 million would be out of range.
I'm just mapping out scenarios, playing a little GM.
ANGELS: Their big target, of course, is free-agent left-fielder Carl Crawford. But what if they don't get him?
Starting pitching is far from the Angels' biggest need — they already have five starting pitchers who will earn nearly $50 million combined in 2011.
Still, owner Arte Moreno is hellbent on improvement. If the Angels can't get Crawford, there's no better way they can improve than by signing Lee.
Trading Kazmir, who is owed $12 million next season, plus a $2 million buyout, would be difficult. However, if the Angels were willing to move righty Ervin Santana, who is signed through 2012 with a club option for '13, they could clear $20 million in future obligations and probably could get a significant return.
PHILLIES: Assistant GM Scott Proefrock, when asked about Lee this week, told Sirius XM's and FOX Sports' Jim Bowden, “That ship has sailed.”
Another source with knowledge of the Phillies' budget says it would take, “Nothing short of a miracle” for the team to make the finances work.
But why wouldn't the Phillies at least try, considering their enduring obsession with Lee?
Yes, they've committed more than $146 million to other players next season, according to the web site Cot's Baseball Contracts.
And yes, they philosophically oppose awarding starting pitchers contracts of more than three years.
How, then, could the Phillies pull this off?
For 2011, it would seem impossible. The Phillies would need to find a taker for right-hander Joe Blanton, who is owed $8.5 million in each of the next two seasons. They may also need to dump another contract on top of losing free-agent outfielder Jayson Werth.
Three big contracts expire after next season — those belonging to left fielder Raul Ibanez, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and closer Brad Lidge. Right-hander Roy Oswalt also could depart if he declines his end of a mutual option.
Interesting, but probably a year too late.
TIGERS: They make this list only because their owner, Mike Ilitch, is a wild card given to fits of spending.
The Tigers already have signed free-agent catcher Victor Martinez and reliever Joaquin Benoit and re-signed third baseman Brandon Inge and shortstop Jhonny Peralta. Their remaining funds probably are limited, and they'd still like to add another hitter.
Yes, the Michigan economy is in tatters, but Ilitch once offered Juan Gonzalez seven years and $148 million.
Comparable numbers could get him Lee.
WHITE SOX: You put anything past GM Ken Williams? Or, for that matter, owner Jerry Reinsdorf?
Williams, after signing Adam Dunn, acknowledged that the White Sox are operating with an “all-in” budget, whatever that might be.
If the Sox, as expected, re-sign free-agent first baseman Paul Konerko, forget Lee. If not, Williams will at least start tapping his calculator, examining the numbers.
If he hasn't already.
REDS: OK, they probably can’t afford Lee, and are more likely to attempt a trade for Zack Greinke. The Royals’ ace did not include the Reds on his no-trade list; they are one of 15 clubs that can acquire him without his approval.
Then again, we know that the Reds tried to acquire Lee from the Mariners last July, with GM Walt Jocketty saying, “We felt me made a pretty substantial offer.”
We also know that the Reds pulled one of the biggest off-season surprises a year ago, signing Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman to a six-year, $30.25 million contract.
Lee would cost at least four times that much. The Reds, after opening last season with a $71 million payroll, already have $54 million committed for 2011 – and that figure does not include MVP first baseman Joey Votto and pitchers Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto, who are set to receive substantial raises as first-time arbitration- eligible players.
Maybe Lee is out of reach. But a rotation of Lee, Bronson Arroyo, Volquez, Cueto and Chapman would make the Reds a legitimate threat for the World Series.
Which, of course, is the whole idea.
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