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12/08/10 7:14 PM EST

Lee deal could be entering record territory

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As the Cliff Lee sweepstakes approach record-setting financial territory, mere mortals are reminded that the issue is not only strength, but length.

In a free-market society, or at least what is left of one here, the human eye is typically drawn first to the number next to the dollar sign. This is natural behavior and does not require either explanation or apology.

But in a baseball contract of historically important scope, we get into the salary stratosphere because the number of years involved grows beyond all original estimates. This appears to be happening in the case of Lee, this winter's dominant merchandise on the free-agent market. The deciding factor in which team finally secures his services may be length of contract.

In the good old days -- a couple of weeks ago -- there were generally agreed upon estimates that Lee's contract might be in the five-year, $100-million range. That seemed pretty hefty, but looking back, it now seems rather understated.

Now the estimates are closing in on the all-time record for a pitching contract, set by CC Sabathia's deal with the New York Yankees signed two years ago. That was $161 million over seven years, an average of $23 million per season.

Earlier in the Lee saga, we heard and read that the involved clubs had been reluctant to go to six years with Lee. Now we are hearing and reading that these same clubs are reluctant to go to seven years with Lee. Next up, of course, would be the clubs being reluctant to go to eight years.

There is a notable difference between these two cases. Sabathia was 28 when he signed the $161-million deal. Lee is 32. There will be those who will dissent from the logic of age difference saying that Sabathia is actually a portly fellow while Lee is a supremely well-conditioned athlete.

But Sabathia's remarkable durability to this point of his career clearly suggests that he is a really big exception to the normal laws of conditioning. He's a man-mountain who has thrown at least 230 innings in each of the last four seasons. He has left most of the slender world behind in terms of performance and staying power and he has left all of the slender world behind in terms of earning money for being a big league pitcher.

But now it appears that Lee is gaining on him financially. The problem, or at least the theoretical problem, is that a seven-year contract would take Lee right up to the brink of age 40.

Do not mention Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson in this context. Lee is not that type of pitcher. Nor is he Roger Clemens, and in this case, good for Lee. He would have to be more like the all-time leader in victories among lefties, Warren Spahn. Could Lee be Spahn at age 39 or 40, winning 21 games each year? We can't possibly know, but that long-term, record-level contract would generate that sort of expectation.

The clubs that are bidding on Lee's services are highly motivated, meaning that they appear somewhere between hyper-interested and desperate to obtain his services. Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker, has done a nice job of fanning the flames at the Winter Meetings, without becoming obnoxious about it. This sort of thing is not a particularly difficult job, but others have botched it.

At this point, the Yankees, Rangers and Nationals are most prominently identified as Lee's primary suitors. The Yankees have prepared an offer reported to be six years for $140-150 million. Yes, you can clearly see Sabathia's record pitching contract from here. The Rangers had previously expressed a reluctance to go beyond five years in their offer to Lee. This may change their minds, but again, the critical factor may be the length of contract.

The Yankees spending large amounts of money on player contracts is a fact of life. The Rangers have new ownership. The team has achieved a new level of postseason success. Signing Lee would be a validation of this franchise's newfound prowess. The Nationals spent $126 million on outfielder Jayson Werth, previously a solid, but complementary player on a very good team. This signing announced the Nats' arrival as a player in free agency. If that altered the image of their franchise, the signing of Lee would lift it to another level.

The history of long-term pitching contracts is not a hopeful one. The clubs who engage in these deals enter the arrangements on the long end of the odds. Giving a six or seven-year contract to a 32-year-old pitcher will not shorten those odds.

But this, you know, is different. This is Lee. We've got to have him. Give him another year if that's what it takes to get him.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.