The Cliff Lee Trade.
It will be popular
to suggest that Jon Daniels has just made the opposite of his 2007 trade of
Mark Teixeira to Atlanta, buying now as he sold then, but I’m thinking of
another trade that Friday’s acquisition of Cliff Lee reminds me of, in a 180-degree
sort of way.
Daniels had been on
the job a little more than a month when, days before Thanksgiving 2005, Florida
traded big leaguers Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, and Guillermo Mota for prospects
Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Jesus Delgado, and Harvey Garcia. It was clear from a barrage of local and
national media reports that, prior to the trade going down, Florida and Texas had
been on the verge of closing a deal themselves, one that supposedly would have
sent the same Marlins trio (though some reports omitted Mota) to Texas for Hank
Blalock, John Danks, and possibly Joaquin Arias.
Because Daniels, the youngest General Manager in baseball, had
no trading track record, there were columns written denouncing the 28-year-old
for failing to pull the trigger on the opportunity to land Beckett (the
groundwork having reportedly been proposed by Florida owner Jeffrey Loria to
Rangers owner Tom Hicks). Daniels
himself has admitted he might have been too deliberate in his efforts to solicit
input from within the organization.
But there has also been the notion that the player Florida
wanted all along was Ramirez, and that a key reason Loria approached Hicks at
the Owners’ Meetings was to get him fired up about the idea of bringing the budding
young ace home to Texas – which, the Marlins hoped, would be the leverage they
needed to get Boston to agree to part with Ramirez. As talks progressed, stories emerged that a
deal between Texas and Florida was expected to be finalized at any moment.
In stepped Boston, and Texas was boxed out.
That’s the deal I thought about yesterday when I read this
comment from Tyler Kepner in the New York Times:
likes to feel used, and privately, that was the Yankees’ prevailing sentiment
on Friday, when the Seattle Mariners traded the All-Star left-hander Cliff Lee
to the Texas Rangers for a four-player package headlined by Justin Smoak, a
switch-hitting first baseman they had coveted for weeks.
Cliff Lee, Josh Beckett.
Justin Smoak, Hanley Ramirez.
New York, Texas.
The Yankees, according to Kepner, felt “they were a pawn” as
Seattle fielded offers for Lee, and nobody can accuse New York of being slow on
any trigger. When the Rangers told Mariners
GM Jack Zduriencik, evidently on Friday, that they’d put Smoak in the deal, he
used the ankle injury to Yankees AA second baseman David Adams – unquestionably
the secondary piece in the New York offer that was fronted by 20-year-old
catcher Jesus Montero – as an excuse to back out of a deal that the entire
national media had characterized as virtually done, one that apparently was
agreed on pending the review of medicals.
It took only two hours, according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, for
Texas to pounce in and close a deal.
(Said Passan of the “livid” Yankees: “This is how it feels. This, New York, is what it’s like to be a
baseball fan anywhere else in the country.”)
(An “angered” Yankees official to Joel Sherman and George A.
King III of the New
York Post, regarding the “double-dealing” Mariners: “The Yankees do
not do business that way. When we say
something is a deal, it is a deal. . . . This is frustrating and disappointing.”)
When Zduriencik told reporters Friday afternoon, after the announcement
of the trade that sent Lee, reliever Mark Lowe, and $2.25 million to Texas for
Smoak, righthanders Blake Beavan and Josh Lueke, and second baseman-outfielder
Matt Lawson, that Smoak was one of four or five players he and his staff had
pinpointed around the league as key trade targets, it became clear that even if
Montero was on that list, Smoak was higher on it.
He was their Hanley Ramirez.
More evidence that that’s what was going on here? Seattle held the number one trade asset in the
league in Lee. The conventional trade
deadline doesn’t arrive for another three weeks. So why didn’t the Mariners sit tight, letting
demand build and desperation mount as July 31 approached?
As of yesterday, they could get Montero but not shortstop Eduardo
Nunez (who they reportedly asked for in place of Adams [who hasn’t played in
seven weeks], after the Yankees initially agreed to substitute righthander Adam
Warren for Adams).
They evidently couldn’t get Mets first baseman Ike Davis.
Or Dodgers righthander Chad Billingsley or first baseman
Or Tampa Bay outfielder Desmond Jennings.
Or Twins catcher Wilson Ramos plus outfielder Aaron Hicks,
rather than Ramos plus righthander Kevin Slowey.
But what if one of those teams reconsidered later this
month? Why did Zduriencik jump on July
Because he got his number one man. He wanted Smoak. Texas agreed to move Smoak. Ballgame.
(Not that it was a widely popular decision. Several national writers have weighed in over
the last 24 hours, suggesting that Montero should have been the Mariners’ choice. Said Joe Sheehan, for example: “You’re not
going to win a Cliff Lee trade because Blake Beavan or David Adams works out;
you’re going to win it because you got a player who anchors a future contender
or champion. Justin Smoak may be
that player, but Jesus Montero is that player.”)
It obviously benefits Texas a ton to get Lee now rather than
at the deadline. These three weeks that
remain in July should mean four or five extra Cliff Lee starts that might have
otherwise gone to Matt Harrison, or perhaps Rich Harden or Derek Holland coming
off of injury. And not just any four or
five starts. Though Texas could adjust
the rotation differently after next week’s All-Star Break, Lee could face Baltimore
tonight, then Boston on the road, Detroit on the road, the Angels at home, and the
Angels on the road, all this month.
Put another way, a bad team that Texas desperately needs to punish
tonight after brutal collapses the last two nights (by a bullpen that
desperately needs a starter to go deep), followed by four very good teams.
I could lay out Lee’s numbers against those clubs the last
couple years, but what’s the point? He’s
been brilliant against almost everyone.
Including in the biggest games. In five post-season starts last year with
Philadelphia, Lee went 4-0, 1.56 (including the Phillies’ two World Series
wins), holding the Rockies, Dodgers, and Yankees to a .186/.219/.241 slash and
fanning 33 while issuing six walks in 40.1 innings.
That total of six bases on balls in 40.1 playoff innings is
the same number of free passes that Lee has given up in 103.2 innings this season. Pair them with his 89 strikeouts and you’ve
got a pitcher averaging 14.83 strikeouts per walk, a ratio that has never been
matched over a full season. (In fact, no
qualifying pitcher since 1900 has exceeded 11 strikeouts per walk.) The next best rate in the big leagues this
season? Roy Halladay’s 6.61.
Lee has almost as many complete games (an American League-leading
five) as walks (six) in 2010.
Diamondbacks righthander Edwin Jackson issued more walks
(eight) in his June 25 no-hitter than Lee has issued this season.
Among American Leaguers with at least 10 plate appearances,
who has the best career batting average against Lee? Ian Kinsler (9 for 20, .450).
Who has the worst?
Erick Aybar (0 for 10, .000).
While we’re at it, the Angels collectively against Lee, since
2008, have a .136 batting average, including .114 against his fastball, .077
when behind in the count, and .067 with two strikes.
That second of two starts Lee could make this month against
the Angels won’t be the first time he’ll wear a Rangers lid in Angel Stadium. He’ll be there Tuesday, earning the second All-Star
Game nod of his career.
Lee is 8-3, 2.34 in 13 starts this season.
He leads the league in ERA, and it’s not a product of Safeco Field. The lefthander actually has slightly better
numbers this year on the road (2.24 ERA, .223/.239/.321 slash) than in Seattle
(2.47 ERA, .240/.243/.344 slash).
I’m not going to get into the Lee vs. Roy Oswalt debate, one
that I never
understood, but for many reasons, this trade made so much more sense to me than
any deal for Oswalt would have. While I suppose
there might have been an argument as to whether Oswalt or Colby Lewis, at this
stage, would be a Game One starter in the playoffs, there’s no question in Lee’s
case. He makes Lewis a very solid number
Is it really a foregone conclusion that Lee, an Arkansas native
who still lives in Little Rock with his wife and two kids, will leave to sign
with the Yankees this winter (which would give Texas (1) an extra supplemental
first-round pick and (2) either a late first or possibly a late second or third
as compensation)? That’s a discussion for
Deciding whether to pursue a pitcher of Lee’s caliber was the
easy part. Determining how much to give
up – particularly given the reality that the offer would need to be padded a
bit to cover for the cash necessarily coming back – was trickier.
Let’s dial back to the report I wrote
on Monday that focused on what I figured it might take to get Lee. I listed six categories – centerpiece players,
a second tier, and four more groups: upper-level and lower-level pitchers and upper-level
and lower-level hitters – and presumed it would take one player from each of
the first two groups and then two more minor leaguers to complete the trade.
Specifically, I speculated:
Smoak or Holland or Martin Perez or Tanner Scheppers
Plus Alexi Ogando or Tommy Hunter or Julio Borbon or Nelson Cruz
or David Murphy
Plus two more players from a list that might have included Beavan,
Lueke, Omar Beltre, Michael Kirkman, Pedro Strop, Wilmer Font, Robbie Erlin,
Robbie Ross, Joe Wieland, Chris Davis, Engel Beltre, and Miguel Velazquez
I concluded that report by guessing that, after a number of exchanges,
the final Seattle proposal might be Lee for Smoak and Holland. And that I’d say no.
That Texas landed baseball’s best left-handed pitcher, a
proven big game warrior on a short list of the league’s best pitchers, period, without
giving up Perez or Scheppers or Holland or Hunter or Ogando is sort of
stunning. I understand that Seattle was targeting
a young hitter. But I’m still having
trouble getting my head wrapped around a deal for a pitcher like this where you
part with a young blue-chip position player but don’t have to dip into what is
a very deep top tier of your pitching prospect stable – and that’s without even
considering that you had to have the Mariners put cash into the deal, something
other teams wouldn’t have insisted on.
According to one media estimate, Lee and Lowe will earn
$4.07 million the rest of 2010. The
Mariners’ subsidy means they will pay $2.25 million of it, Texas $1.82
You tell me I just got Cliff Lee, early in July rather than
late, and that Seattle is paying more than I am for him to wear my uniform, and
I would fully expect someone like Beavan to be in the deal.
As the third piece. Not
When I wrote about the Bengie Molina trade with San
July 2, I commented: “If Michael Main is the cost of $2 million in salary
relief to get a player like Molina, the price tag in prospects to get someone
like Cliff Lee along with a cash subsidy is one I don’t even need to see.”
To me, it would have made sense for a player like Beavan to
be the cost of Cliff Lee cash, if Main was the cost of Bengie Molina cash. And if viewed that way, does that mean this
deal would have been Smoak and Lueke and Lawson for Lee and Lowe if there were
no cash component?
I sure would have hammered that angle home, just a week
after the Main move, if I were Zduriencik.
I’ve got to have Beavan (a Rick Adair favorite), but I need an upgrade
on Michael Main as an added piece to the deal.
If Seattle said righthander Joe Wieland needed to be in the deal, too,
would Daniels really have said no, and missed the chance to add Cliff Lee?
Clearly, Zduriencik didn’t find out.
Another way to view the Molina trade: By including Main,
Daniels bought himself $2 million to use in a bigger deal. By getting Seattle to put $2.25 million in yesterday’s
deal, he still has that payroll cushion to use for yet another piece. A right-handed hitter as protection at first
base? More on that later.
The Rangers’ apparent restraint in this year’s July 2 international
free agent market preserved cash as well, as one local beat writer points out.
Sherman made an interesting point regarding the Commissioner’s
Office’s green light on this trade, suggesting the added payroll not only still
fits within the club’s budget but could also be offset by a boost in attendance
on nights Lee pitches. We’re about to
see what that looks like tonight. I don’t
know if the club keeps records on walk-up ticket sales, but isn’t there a chance
that tonight’s will be the biggest in franchise history?
This is not to dogpile on Zduriencik. In the span of seven months he turned the underwhelming
package of Phillippe Aumont, J.C. Ramirez, and Tyson Gillies (plus Lowe) into Smoak,
Beavan, Lueke, and Lawson, with three brilliant months of Cliff Lee added in. Viewed solely on its face, that’s a fantastic
upgrade. And trading within the
division? What does Seattle care if Lee
pitches well for Texas for three months?
The dilemma, if one exists, belongs to Texas, who has to envision facing
Smoak and Beavan for at least the next six years.
The point is that there’s no reason Seattle should have been
reluctant to trade Lee to the Rangers just because they’re division
bunkmates. Just the opposite – long
term, the Mariners stripped Texas of a couple players that they’re counting on to
make core impacts.
Even if Smoak becomes Adrian Gonzalez, and even if Beavan
becomes Brad Radke or Jeff Suppan, I can live with it. (Partly because in Smoak’s case, Lee is not
The idea of Holland or Perez or Scheppers (the latter two of
whom are number 8 and number 25 on Baseball America‘s
25 Prospects list, published yesterday) pitching near the front of the
Mariners rotation (or closing games) for years to come is what made me most nervous.
Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus wrote earlier this
week: “The Rangers line up for a trade with Seattle extremely well if Texas has
the ability to make a deal due to their financial considerations, and if the
Mariners are willing to trade within their division. Corner infielder Chris Davis is hitting .349/.397/.542 at Triple-A Oklahoma, and
while he’s struggled in the big leagues twice, his bat could be the long-term
solution to Seattle’s first base issue. Seattle
would almost certainly ask for Martin
Perez, one of, if not the top, left-handed pitching prospect in the game,
and Texas is a pitching-rich system that could also dangle top lower-level arms
like righties Wilmer Font and Robbie Erlin to help sweeten the pot.”
That’s the kind of trade – Perez, Davis, Font, and Erlin –
that I expected Seattle to be able to make, with some team, though I hoped not
with Texas. It would have been too much to
give up, but closer to what I thought Lee’s market probably was.
Beavan had taken one of the two or three biggest steps forward
in the Rangers system this year. He’s an
innings-eater and a relentless pounder of the zone – which describes Lee as
well – but the key difference between the two is that Beavan doesn’t miss enough
bats to project as a top-of-rotation starter (though he’s improved somewhat in
that aspect this season). Without the
makings of a legitimate out pitch, Beavan can still be an extremely valuable
constant in a good rotation – think Radke or Suppan or Hunter – but he doesn’t
have the ceiling of a Perez or Scheppers or Holland. Beavan’s sturdy 10-5, 2.78 encore in 17 Frisco
starts resulted in a promotion to AAA earlier this week, but he hadn’t yet appeared
with Oklahoma City when the trade went down.
The 6’7″ righthander will apparently report to AA for the
Mariners. There’s been some talk that he
could get a look in Seattle before the season ends (there was talk about that
in Texas as well), but it would kill a roster spot this winter since he doesn’t
need to be added to the 40-man roster until November 2011.
An interesting observation from Sheehan: “Beavan is actually
a decent fit for the Mariners and Safeco Field, but exactly the wrong type of
player for them to acquire. If the
Mariners have shown us anything this year, it’s that they can extract value for
very little investment in their rotation. Doug Fister and Jason Vargas are middling guys
who have put up good numbers thanks to a big park and a strong defense. The Mariners don’t need to be wasting the
trade value of a Cliff Lee on pitchers, because they can find pitchers. Beavan’s place in this deal should have
belonged to Engel Beltre or Jurickson Profar or some other high-upside
offensive talent, because that’s what they’re struggling to develop. It’s not that Beavan is bad, it’s that they
can make their own Beavan.”
As for Lueke and Lawson, both have taken steps forward this
year but were inventory in this system.
Should the Rangers lose Lee this winter and recoup two first-round picks
(or even a first and second or a first and third), well, put it this way: if draft
picks were tradeable, Texas would certainly swap the 25-year-old Lueke (taken
in the 16th round of the Beavan/Main/Borbon/Hunter draft) and the
24-year-old Lawson (14th round, same year) for the picks they stand
to get for losing Lee.
Lueke, whose troublesome off-the-field story is one I don’t
feel like getting into, has been outstanding this year, posting a 2.11 relief
ERA between Hickory and Frisco, fanning an eye-opening 62 batters and walking
only 10 in 38.1 innings. He’s a
fastball-slider type who figures to factor in as a seventh-inning type if everything
Lawson is an instinctive player and solid defender (primarily
at second base, a little corner outfield) who has hit more and more as he’s
moved up the chain (.277/.371/.438 for Frisco this season). Ceiling?
Maybe Joe Inglett. Tug Hulett. A role player.
As for Lowe, a 27-year-old with two years of club control after
this season, he’s a big righthander with a big arm who was effective last year
(3.26 ERA in 75 relief appearances, 69 strikeouts and 29 walks in 80 innings,
seven home runs) but whose 2010 season was cut short after a month due to a
herniated disc in his lower back. He’s
recovering now from mid-June microdiscectomy surgery and is expected to miss
the rest of the season, but there are suggestions that his rehabilitation is going
well enough that he might be able to join the Rangers’ bullpen in September.
It’s key to note that this isn’t an arm problem, and as hard
as this relief corps has been worked, getting a fresh power arm down the
stretch could be pretty useful. And Lowe
(a UTA product) should figure in next year, perhaps to compete for the role
that Chris Ray was brought in last winter to handle.
Though he may or may not pitch this year, Lowe’s inclusion in
the trade is sort of equivalent to Ron Mahay being tacked on in the Rangers’ deal
with Atlanta in 2007. That was the Mark
Teixeira Trade, not the Teixeira/Mahay deal.
And this six-player deal, with all due respect to Blake
Beavan, whose future I’d bet on more than Lowe’s, is the Lee-for-Smoak trade.
Here’s the thing about dealing Smoak, a player that I still believe
in. Even if his career ends up looking
more like Gonzalez’s or Mark Teixeira’s or Justin Morneau’s than like Travis
Lee’s, it’s massively easier to go find a first baseman than a frontline
pitcher. Is Chris Davis that guy? Don’t know.
Mitch Moreland (.668 OPS in AAA in April, .824 in May, .880 in June,
.885 so far in July)? Really don’t
know. (First things first: Will Moreland
be moved back from right field to first base with Davis’s promotion to Texas?)
But regardless of what happens with the ownership situation,
at some point within the next year this club should be in a position to spend
more on payroll, and there will be opportunities to go sign or trade for an
everyday first baseman, if that becomes necessary.
Plugging holes in the rotation is a more complicated task,
and Texas is in as good a position as any team in terms of developing young
starters internally. The only place this
trade really altered the Rangers’ farm system depth was at first base. If I have to choose a position at which to
suffer a setback in depth (and again, Davis and Moreland and perhaps Chad Tracy
keep it from being an empty cupboard), I’ll live with it at first base.
If Davis doesn’t look in the next two weeks like he’s
figured things out, don’t be surprised to see Texas grab a veteran before the
trade deadline. Cubs first
baseman-outfielder Xavier Nady’s name has already been mentioned in a couple
For what it’s worth, and for various reasons it may not be
much, I do note that Davis was a more productive hitter in AA than Smoak
(.319/.374/.644 for Davis vs. .328/.449/.481 for Smoak) and in AAA
(.341/.407/.571 vs. .255/.386/.397), and has been in Texas as well
(.253/.301/.474 vs. .209/.316/.353), though it must be pointed out that Davis’s
big league numbers have regressed each season since he arrived in 2008. If I had to bet on one’s future, I’d probably
still take Smoak, but his early work, particularly from the right side (not
necessarily an advantage if you believe Davis’s ability to hit AAA lefthanders
has the chance to translate), suggests he’s not the absolute lock for
superstardom that most have predicted. His
plate discipline and unusually low batting average on balls in play promise
better things, but Seattle isn’t hoping they got Lyle Overbay.
There’s also the added benefit of getting Davis back in
there defensively. Smoak made great
strides with the glove the last two months, but he’s not Davis’s equal.
I’m pretty sure I’d take Montero ahead of either of them,
even if he eventually has to move from catcher to first base. Given the choice between a 20-year-old whose
ceiling might be Miguel Cabrera and a 23-year-old who could be Morneau, I’ll
take the younger guy, whether he’s a catcher or not.
Opinions differ on Montero vs. Smoak. But we know where Seattle stands on that
debate. And it wasn’t just good fortune
that had Texas in the position to do business with the Mariners yesterday.
I’m repeating myself, but drafting Smoak in 2008 set things
up for a Matt LaPorta/C.C. Sabathia trade down the road. From the April 23 Newberg
Texas chose Smoak on June 5, 2008, Davis was less than two weeks into his AAA
promotion, having hit his way out of the Texas League with a monstrous
.333/.376/.618 two months. There was
every reason not to pop the 21-year-old Smoak with the 22-year-old Davis
barreling in toward the first base job that Ben Broussard and Chris Shelton
were attempting to hold down. The
Rangers could have taken the second player on their board, Georgia high school
righthander Ethan Martin, and avoided the possible Davis-Smoak conundrum.
You never draft for need.
You take the best player available.
With ownership willing to spend what it would take to pay Smoak’s expected
signing bonus demands, Texas did take the best player available on Draft Day
And they had the best player available, at least in Seattle’s
eyes, again yesterday, enabling the execution of Step Five, for which It was
As a result Texas now suits up the best big league pitcher available,
the latest incredible development in what has been, and promises to continue to
be, an extraordinary baseball season in Arlington.
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(c) Jamey Newberg