Speculation is that highly sought free agent pitcher Cliff Lee will make a decision early this week on which team to pitch for in 2011 and beyond to be said team’s ace for years to come. It’s basically down to two teams: Rangers or Yankees. But there have been reports that a third “mystery” team could be involved in talks, though it’s unlikely Lee would end up signing with this unknown team. Well, that kind of talk gets my mind thinking (never a good thing), and I thought what if my hometown Pittsburgh Pirates surprised everyone and signed Lee to a long-term deal? Hey, I can dream at least. Caught Looking enters my dreamland to see what the future would hold for a Cliff Lee-lead Pirates club…

Lee holds a press conference Tuesday afternoon to stun the baseball world with his announcement that he signed a six-year deal worth $146 with the Pittsburgh Pirates that includes a player option for a seventh year. The presser sends shock waves through the country as pundits wonder when the Pirates came into the Lee sweepstakes, and where did they suddenly get the money for the left-handed ace?

Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington is quick to tell media members that this is the move that will help put them over the top.

“We are serious about building a championship-caliber ballclub here in Pittsburgh. We actively pursued multiple starting pitchers this offseason with Correia and Olsen, and we felt that by adding Lee for the next six years gives us the move we have been looking for to make that next step and compete for a championship.”

Lee explains to a hoard of reporters that the Pirates came out of nowhere to sweep him off his feet.

“I honestly didn’t hear from Neal and the Pirates front office until about a week ago, but they brought me in and surprised me with the deal they laid on the table. I love what they are building here and the way they’ve gone about it. This team has a lot of young, talented players that are on the cusp of doing great things. Pittsburgh is a great town with a fantastic ballpark, and I can’t wait to spend the rest of my career here. The Yankees and Rangers made very enticing offers, and this was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, but ultimately I felt that Pittsburgh is where I’m supposed to be.”

Columnists and experts around the country bash Lee in print and the internet throughout the rest of the offseason. Meanwhile, Lee mania officially hits the Steel Town as the Pirates see an immediate increase in season tickets, advertising, merchandise sells, etc. Lee’s number 37 jersey easily becomes the Pirates top-selling jersey.

The Pittsburgh Baseball Club opens its 2011 season at Wrigley Field on April 1 with an afternoon game against the Cubs. Lee is on the mound for the Pirates and looks in midseason form on his return to the NL, blanking the Cubs through 7.0 innings of work while striking out eight batters in a Pirates 4-1 victory. Six days later, Lee is on the hill in PNC Park for the home opener in front of a frenzied, sellout crowd the likes of which has not been seen in Pittsburgh for years. Lee mows down the Rockies with a four-hit shutout, and second-year slugger Pedro Alvarez hits two home runs, one into the Allegheny River, as the Bucs cruise to a 7-0 win.

The Pirates hover around .500 through April and May as Lee goes 7-2 with a 2.58 ERA in the first two months. They sit at 35-36 on June 17 when the Bucs travel to Cleveland for an interleague series with Lee’s former employer. Lee starts the first game of the series and has a no-hitter through five before finishing with 8.0 stellar innings and one run allowed to propel the Pirates to a 5-1 win. Lee’s brilliant performance against the Indians was the beginning of a three-game sweep to push the Pirates over .500 as Correia continued his surprising season by blanking the Tribe through seven innings of work the next night. The sweep turns the Bucs red-hot to finish the first half, going 12-6 through their next 18 games to take a 50-42 record (good for second place, 2 games behind the Cardinals) into the All-Star break, which is the first time the Pirates have taken a winning record into the break since 1992.

Lee’s return to the National League has proven to be a success as he owns a 12-4 record with 2.74 ERA in the first half, good enough to start the game for the NL. Lee tosses two scoreless innings in his brief work in the All-Star game. The NL goes on to win its second straight All-Star game with a 7-4 victory over the American League.

With the Pirates playoff aspirations the talk of Major League Baseball at the break, the Pirates fall into a rut to start the second half. The offense goes into a coma as the Bucs struggle to provide Lee any kind of run support. They scuffle back to .500 with a record of 56-56 in early August and fall eight games back in the NL Central. With the playoffs not looking like a realistic possibility, the fans now hold hope that this will at least be the year they can finally end their years of futility and pull out a winning season.

The Bucs enter the month of September one game above .500 with a 69-68 record. Thanks to two wins in the week by Lee, the Pirates bring their record to 74-70 as they desperately try to hold on to this winning season. The city of Pittsburgh gets behind the team hoping to see the end of the record losing seasons streak. Attendance is the highest it has been since PNC Park opened in 2001, and the near-sellout crowds in September show how far this team has come.

With the division out of reach thanks to a hot month of August by Albert Pujols and the Cardinals, the Pirates play .500 ball for the majority of the month and continue to countdown their own “magic number” to a winning season.

On September 23, 2011, with the Pirates hosting their last three-game series of the season against the Reds, they sit at 81-75 and need just one more victory to clinch a winning season. As fate would have it, Lee just happens to be starting for Pittsburgh that Friday night as a sellout crowd watches in anticipation. Lee pitches as if it was Game 3 of the ALCS, fanning 14 Reds on the night for a three-hit, one run complete game victory for his 20th win of the season. It’s the franchise’s first 20-game winner since John Smiley in 1991. Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Alvarez all go deep for the Pirates as the celebration starts early in a Pirates 12-1 rout. The win halts the franchise’s losing streak at 18 straight seasons and the Pirates celebrate like they have just won the pennant. Lee is given the key to the city prior to Saturday night’s game, and the Pirates finish the season with two more wins to end with an 84-78 record.

Lee is awarded the NL Cy Young award, the second of his career, with a 20-8 record and 2.89 ERA while leading the Majors in complete games and strikeout-walk ratio. Alvarez comes into his own in his second ML season as the Pirates premier power bat with 37 home runs, 42 doubles and a slash line of .272/.352/.528. McCutchen excels in his third season becoming the newest member of the 20-30 club after belting 26 home runs and swiping 31 bases in his first All-Star year. The rotation seems to have fed off of Lee all year as well. Correia turns out to be another solid pickup in the offseason as he finishes his surprising year with 14 wins and a 3.80 ERA. James McDonald and Paul Maholm each picked up 10+ wins, which rounds out a rotation that exceeded anyone’s wildest expectations.

The Pirates use 2011 as a stepping stone in the right direction and are ready to take the next leap forward. 2010 No. 1 draft pick Jameson Taillon arrives in 2012 and teams with Lee to become one of the best 1-2 punches in the game. The Pirates roll through a weak NL Central to finish 92-70 for their first division title since ’92. After defeating the Braves in the NLDS for a very late dose of revenge, the Pirates meet the Phillies in a NLCS battle of the Keystone state. Lee faces the pitcher the Phillies got to replace Lee years ago and defeats Roy Halladay in a pitching duel that goes down as an instant classic. The Pirates advance to the World Series for the first time since 1979 and meet the New York Yankees. Lee shows the Yankees what could have been if he had signed in the Bronx. He wins all three games he starts in the Fall Classic to lead the Bucs to their sixth world championship by defeating the Yankees in seven games.

Not even two months later on December 21, 2012, Earth spins off its axis, skips out of orbit and flies into the sun promptly ending the world.

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