If I were the Rangers, I would almost want to lose Cliff Lee.
Don’t get me wrong, Lee would be a tremendous asset. But for five years, $120 million or whatever the final price will be … well, let the Yankees take that gamble. Lee will turn 33 next Aug. 30 — in the first year of his new deal.
What would the Rangers do without him?
Maybe trade for Royals right-hander Zack Greinke, 27. Maybe sign free-agent left fielder Carl Crawford, 29. Maybe take less glamorous paths and continue relying on their impressive young talent.
The Rangers’ new owners likely will balk at the latter option, preferring to make a splash and further distinguish themselves from the team’s previous owner, Tom Hicks.
Still, the Rangers need not do anything foolish.
People forget, they were only 6-9 in Lee’s regular-season starts. Their greatest attribute was that they were well-rounded. With or without Lee, they will continue to operate from a position of relative strength.
The Rangers already have addressed one of their primary needs, signing free-agent catcher Yorvit Torrealba to a two-year, $6.25 million contract.
Closer Neftali Feliz could replace Lee in the starting rotation. Frank Francisco or Alexi Ogando could replace Feliz as the closer. The Rangers could add additional relievers — free agent Kerry Wood, a non-tendered Bobby Jenks, whomever — and make a strong bullpen even stronger.
Crawford, like Lee, would be almost a luxury. The Rangers definitely need another bat, either at first base or in the outfield. But if Crawford were unattainable — heck, even if he went to the AL West rival Angels — the Rangers could add free-agent outfielder Jayson Werth or even a lesser hitter or two and be fine.
True, Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz frequently are hurt. But let’s not forget, those two and David Murphy were the leading contributors of an outfield that produced the highest OPS of any in the majors last season.
As for designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero, the Rangers’ other principal free agent, the team would be insane to give him the multiyear contract he desires.
Guerrero, coming off an .841 OPS with 29 homers and 115 RBIs, remains an excellent fit. But the market is so flooded with comparable DH types, the Rangers could end up with a bargain in January.
So, the team can wait rather than pay top dollar for Guerrero, Paul Konerko or Adam Dunn. Club officials view the DH as secondary. Pitching will remain the priority, especially if the Rangers lose Lee.
Greinke, signed for two more years at $13.5 million per season, might actually be a better investment than Lee long-term, assuming the Rangers could sign him to an extension.
But the Royals’ asking price — at least one major-league-ready starting pitcher and probably two — could be prohibitive.
The Rangers boast an impressive stable of young arms beyond Feliz — lefties Derek Holland and Michael Kirkman in the majors, righty Tanner Scheppers and lefty Martin Perez in the minors, among others. But Feliz is unproven as a starter. The others are unproven, period.
Would you trade one of them for Greinke? Sure.
Two? Not so fast.
It was different when the Rangers made Justin Smoak, a first baseman, the centerpiece of their trade for Lee last July 9. They had two other young first basemen, Mitch Moreland and Chris Davis, and first base is perhaps the easiest position to fill in the majors.
Pitching surpluses are much rarer.
Yet, the Rangers actually enjoyed such a surplus last season, reaching the World Series even though their top two starters on Opening Day, Scott Feldman and Rich Harden, were not part of the postseason roster.
Another advantage for the Rangers, though it sure did not seem that way initially: They operated under tight financial restrictions during the final years of Hicks’ tenure and had no choice but to curb their spending.
Their one regrettable contract belongs to third baseman Michael Young, who is guaranteed $16 million in each of the next three seasons. That deal was awarded in March 2007, before Hicks’ empire crumbled.
The Rangers need to think twice about losing their flexibility and steadfastly avoid going back to the days when they routinely overpaid free agents such as A-Rod and Chan Ho Park.
If they lose Lee and replace him with Feliz, a four-year, $40 million contract for free-agent closer Rafael Soriano would be an overreaction.
If they cannot get Crawford, a four-year, $60 million contract for a DH such as Dunn would be unnecessary.
The Rangers need not obsess over Lee. They need not worry about the Angels, A’s or any other American League team. They need only remember how they got in this position in the first place.