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Can the Brewers sign Cliff Lee?

Something to consider...

The biggest name at the trade deadline this season is most likely Cliff Lee, and since his contract is finished at the end of this season, he will probably be the biggest name in the free agent market this winter too.  Although some are treating it as a foregone conclusion that Lee will end up with the Yankees (yawn...), I don't see why that necessarily has to be the case.  In fact, I think the Brewers could be serious contenders for Lee if Doug and Mark A. were willing to make the effort.

For one, the recent news that extension talks with Fielder/Boras have broken down makes it seem increasingly probable that Fielder could be traded before the 2011 season.  Whether that occurs this year or this winter doesn't really matter, what's important is that his salary will be coming off the books.  I've estimated what the 25-man roster could look like over the next two seasons (2011/2012), though after that it becomes so speculative as to not be very useful.  For arbitration estimates, I deliberately tried to go over what the player will probably get (e.g. does anyone expect Hart to get anywhere near $9 million?).  In both cases signing Cliff Lee at a competitive salary seems more than feasible.

2011 Brewers Google Doc - Since signing Cliff Lee would surely indicate a continued desire to win, and would generate more than enough buzz to counteract the loss of Fielder, I think an $85 million payroll isn't unreasonable (we're at roughly $90 million right now this season).  Using that number for the total payroll and slotting in the probable composition of the roster, a $24 million/year Cliff Lee contract fits fine. 

2012 Brewers Google Doc - Similarly, a rough estimate of the 2012 25-man with $24 million for Lee included also comes in under $85 million.  For 2012, both Weeks and Hart will become free agents and there will be holes at 2B/RF.  I'm making the perhaps slightly optimistic assumption that Lawrie could be up by then; whether or not he sticks at 2B or is moved to RF doesn't really matter, as I budgeted $7 million for a free agent at whichever is left open (assuming no other internal options would be capable)

Someone might argue that I'm being unrealistic by slotting in both Gamel at 1B and Narveson as the fifth starter, but keep in mind that these two mock-ups do not include whatever the Brewers might get in return for Fielder.  Hopefully, at the very least the Brewers can get one younger starter who could push Narveson back into being the sixth starter (though, with a rotation headed by Lee/Gallardo, is Narveson really that bad as a #5?).  Also, since I'm hoping we'll get a young starter, Parra/Narveson wouldn't both have to be in the rotation and even with Lee the team could still avoid having four lefties in the rotation (which apparently leads to the Apocalypse or something).

So, Lee could conceivably fit in an $85 million payroll - in my opinion, at least - but does that mean the Brewers could sign him?  Given that he's already over 30, I really don't see Lee getting a Sabathia contract in terms of money or length.  Halladay signed for $20 million/year and Sabathia $24 million/year, is Lee going to be offered anything significantly more than both of them?  Certainly not by a team that already has one of those monster contracts on payroll.  I know the Yankees technically could reach into their pockets and outbid anybody, but if the Brewers made an offer in the $20-24 million range, I doubt the Yankees would top it yet again.  Lee could probably be a fair amount less than that, which would of course loosen the payroll even further.

Is any of this a good idea? Maybe, maybe not.  I'm sure someone will point out that giving that much money to one player on a payroll the size of the Brewers' is a bad idea, but why?  If they can field a 25-man roster over the next few years that isn't really cutting the corners anywhere even with that one monster contract factored in, what's the problem?  Gallardo and Braun are locked in for dirt cheap, especially considering Gallardo seems to have finally developed into one of the best starters in the majors, and the team still has a decent wave of pre-arbitration players coming up.  The Brewers are going to have a fair amount of money to spend either way if Fielder leaves, and personally I wouldn't mind seeing it spent on an elite talent rather than split between a couple Wolf/Davis type deals.

What do other people think?

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