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Yanks likely will give Lee 6th year

If it takes a six-year deal to sign

If it takes a six-year deal to sign Cliff Lee, expect the Yankees to be the team that offers it first. Credit: John Dunn

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.

Watch this players' market go - seven years for Jayson Werth and, just as bad, three years for Joaquin Benoit - and you can see where we're headed on the biggest sweepstakes of the offseason.

Even the bigwigs in Major League Baseball headquarters, who cringe every time a team bids against itself for something as small as a breakfast croissant, have taken off their blinders:

Cliff Lee, they and everyone else know, will get a six-year deal.

Common sense tells you that the Yankees, who appear increasingly desperate to sign the lefthander, will be the team to step up to six. In doing so, they'll ensure that Lee turns away the Rangers, for whom he enjoyed playing so much.

And baseball wisdom tells you that the Yankees, by doing so, again would be sacrificing long-term viability for the sake of a short-term gain. It's a practice they've exhibited too often, even since Brian Cashman took full control of the baseball operations after the 2005 season.

"I know what and where we are willing to go," Cashman told reporters Monday after a meeting with Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker. The general manager declared that Werth's contract won't impact his Lee price point.

Cashman repeatedly has changed the Yankees' philosophies for the better. They've worked doggedly to put together a younger roster, which is why Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui are faded pinstriped memories. They've spent bundles of money on the amateur draft, considerably improving the organization's talent inventory.

Yet Cashman boasts with a smile that the Yankees still can be "big-game hunters" when they so desire, and he has backed that up repeatedly in the last few years. The result is a roster featuring a number of extremely large commitments, the type that can explode in the face of even the game's richest team.

We've already seen that with A.J. Burnett, who will get a chance to redeem himself in 2011 because the Yankees still owe him $49.5 million over the next three years. We saw Alex Rodriguez put up the worst season of his career in 2010, knowing that he has seven years and $174 million still coming to him.

We saw Derek Jeter likewise record a career-worst season, and although the Yankees impressively held the line with him, they still paid him through 2014, if he so chooses.

And while CC Sabathia has given the Yankees everything they could have wanted from him in 2009 and 2010, he has five more years and another $115 million on the books.

Lee will turn 33 in August. He would turn 38 in the final year of a six-year deal. He's a precision guy who relies significantly on his smarts, so it's not as though he'd turn to jelly if he starts losing a few miles per hour off his fastball. Nevertheless, most pitchers can't maintain that elite level of pitching into their late 30s.

The lefty also has an interesting second option in Texas. From all accounts, he enjoyed his time with the Rangers and his proximity to his Arkansas home. We can't envision the Rangers matching the Yankees dollar-for-dollar, but they won't have to, thanks to Texas' lack of a state income tax.

So in order to ensure a Lee signing, with no good Plan B out there, the Yankees probably will commit that sixth year. They'll justify it by hoping that Lee thrives in the early going and helps secure another world championship.

Hal Steinbrenner creates real budgets, however. Down the road, the Yankees might find themselves with an aging nucleus of profoundly overpriced players. And they might have to wait out the expiration of those deals.

That's tomorrow's problem. Today? As Braunecker put it, "It's good to be Cliff Lee."

New York Sports