Continuing the three questions series, here are three questions facing the AL champ Texas Rangers:
1. Can they afford to keep Cliff Lee?
Look, the point isn't to be creative here. That's the question, really. The Rangers entered 2010 with one of the lowest payrolls in the league, but they're looking at a massively huge pay raise for Josh Hamilton, be it through arbitration or a new contract, and slightly less big ones for Nelson Cruz and C.J. Wilson. Then there are planned raises for Ian Kinsler, Colby Lewis, and Scott Feldman. The team elected not to pick up Vladimir Guerrero's $9 million option, but they'll either sign him back or have to find another DH to replace him, which is unlikely to cost significantly less than the $6.5 million they ended up paying him this year.
But all this is just kind of an interesting sidebar, because no one seems to have any idea how much the Rangers will be able to spend for 2011. They had the bankruptcy thing, but they've also got a reportedly crazy-huge TV deal and, no doubt, a nice load of cash coming in from the 2010 playoff run.
So can they afford to do what everyone outside of the immediate vicinity of New York City wants them to do, and spend whatever it takes to get Lee? Nobody knows yet, but it won't surprise me at all if they can. It also won't surprise me too much if they can't come anywhere close, because again, I have no idea what's going on with them, and I don't think many people in the world do.
2. Can they afford NOT to keep Cliff Lee?
That's right, two questions about Cliff Lee. There seems to be a thought in some quarters (mostly, I think, Yankees fans who want to believe it) that it wouldn't make sense for the Rangers to get into a bidding war with the Yankees for Lee, because it would end up crippling them.
Well, I have no idea whether that's true or not, for all the reasons above, and I don't think anyone else who's talking about it does, either. It's entirely possible that the TV deal, the playoff profits, and an expected increase in attendance this year will give them the freedom to pay a little more than they "should" for Lee, even more than the Yankees will be willing to.
What I do know, though, or think I know, is that the 2011 Rangers need Lee. Almost more than any other team needs any other player that isn't currently theirs, and certainly more than the Yankees need Lee. The back of the Rangers' rotation was a terrible mess last year, and failing to sign Lee will mean, first, way too innings for Scott Feldman, and second, either (a) trusting at least one young pitcher that probably isn't ready yet, or (b) throwing less, yet too much, money at a mediocre and/or highly risky free agent (like, say, what happened with Rich Harden). Lee figures to be worth six or so wins in 2011 (or more, of course), and it really seems possible that to the Rangers, that could be something close to a straight-up six-win improvement. With the A's and Angels both figuring to be better in 2011, and with Josh Hamilton likely to take a step back in 2011 (just because nobody is likely to repeat that kind of performance) that could be exactly what it takes to keep the Rangers on top. I have no idea what it'll mean for them financially or for 2012 and beyond, but for 2011, signing lee at all costs seems like a reasonable plan.
3. Who plays center?
24 year old Julio Borbon played about 75% of the team's innings in center, and whether he was intolerably awful or simply well below average depends on what you think of his defense (the various systems disagree). Whatever it is, there have to be some serious questions now about whether Borbon is going to be able to hit in the big leagues, and it seems like the Rangers fans, at least, would rather have another option. It seems as though the team would like to put Hamilton out there, but left seems like a much better fit for him; he's less likely to get hurt flying into the walls and such, and he's frankly just probably not good enough to play in center. And center field is one position where there's literally absolutely nothing worth considering on the free agent market. It's possible that, if they fail to sign Lee, they go get a free agent corner outfielder and try to get 140 games or so out of Hamilton in center field...but that seems like a bad idea to me, and I have to assume it does to them too. You're probably stuck hoping that Borbon figures out a way to play more like the guy he looked like he was between the majors and minors in 2009. Which, since he'll be just 25 and put up a .310/.360/.401 career line in the minors, is probably the way to go (but it could hurt a lot).