Trading Cliff Lee
This post deals with where Lee might end up. If you’re interested in what his trade value is, check out this post at FanGraphs.
With the season basically over and focus shifting to the future, there’s one obvious big story left in this season – what will the Mariners get for Cliff Lee?
This is essentially the last drama of 2010 for Mariners fans. At some point in the next six weeks, the Mariners will trade Lee. Don’t buy into the smokescreen about keeping him around for the draft picks – at least one team will step up and make an offer that gives Jack Zduriencik significantly more value than he will get from keeping Lee and letting him walk at the end of the season.
Who will that team be? Well, the easiest way to guess is good old process of elimination. First, let’s throw out all the obvious non-contenders – that eliminates Baltimore, Kansas City, Cleveland, both Chicagos, Washington, Houston, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Arizona. Lee won’t be going to any of those teams.
Among the teams that are currently contenders, let’s cross off cities where Lee doesn’t make sense – Tampa Bay, Florida, Colorado, Cincinnati, Atlanta, San Diego, Toronto, Philadelphia, Oakland, and San Francisco fall into that category. If any of those teams are buyers in July, they’ll be buying someone else.
That leaves the teams that could potentially be interested in Lee – both New Yorks, Boston, Minnesota, Detroit, Texas, both Los Angeles’, and St. Louis. Those are your ten potential destinations for Cliff Lee.
So, who’s the best fit? Well, as we talked about last week, the Mariners have a lot of holes on their 2011 roster, and they don’t have a lot of ways to fill those holes with limited budget space this winter. The Lee trade is going to be their best bet to get a player or two who they can slide right into next year’s team, and who could be a productive player almost immediately. I don’t think the M’s are going to be hunting for a bevy of A-ball prospects in this deal, no matter what their upside is – the emphasis is going to be on getting someone (or a couple of someones) who can get to Seattle in a hurry.
That makes St. Louis pretty unlikely. They simply don’t have a high level premium prospect to give up that will make the Mariners pull the trigger. You could probably say the same about Detroit and the Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s tough to imagine any of those three teams being able to put together a package of players that the Mariners would really fall in love with. There are good prospects in each system, but they’re not the right kinds of prospects, and there aren’t enough of them.
Of the remaining six, I’d call Boston a pretty big longshot as well. Theo has consistently sat out of big pitcher sweepstakes, determining the cost was more than he wants to pay in young talent. The Red Sox farm system isn’t in great shape either, so their only hope to get Jack Z to listen would be to include someone like Casey Kelly, who they’ve been adamant that they’re not trading. Their pitching staff is pretty good anyway. I just don’t see it happening, though it potentially could, so they go to the bottom of the final six.
Coming in not too far ahead of the Red Sox in the longshot category would be both AL West teams – the Rangers and Angels. While both could really use Lee in their rotation and have the chips to make an interesting offer, inter-division trades of this magnitude are pretty rare. Teams are generally loathe to give their competitors players who can come back and hurt them long term. While both teams would love to have Lee, they don’t want their star prospects beating them 19 times a year for the next six years. It might not be rational, but it’s how baseball works, and it makes it unlikely that the M’s will deal Lee to another AL West team.
So now, we’re down to three – the New Yorks and Minnesota. Last week’s speculation from Ken Rosenthal about Lee’s eventual destination has made a lot of people assume that the Yankees are the favorites, but I’d make them the least likely of this trio, honestly. It’s fine and dandy to suggest that Lee would make any rotation better, and while its true, its less true with the Yankees than any other team in baseball. Right now, their playoff rotation is Sabathia-Burnett-Pettitte-Hughes. Yeah, they could put Lee in the rotation and bump Hughes back to the pen to strengthen their relief corps, but is that the kind of upgrade that is going to make a big enough difference for Brian Cashman to give up a blue chip prospect? And we haven’t even mentioned Javier Vazquez, whom the Yankees liked enough to give up one of their top young arms for this winter. They’re not just going to discard any chance of him pitching meaningful innings in November no matter how badly he started the season.
So, really, I see two teams that make sense on most levels – the Mets and the Twins.
The Mets have the glaring need, with only three big league starters on their roster and a GM whose job is almost certainly on the line. Omar Minaya has shown a willingness to give up a bushel of prospects for an arm he believes could put him over the top, as he did when he traded Lee (along with Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips) to Cleveland for Bartolo Colon. The Mets have spent a lot of money to try and win, and yet, they are one starting pitcher short of being a legitimate contender. Lee would give them a real chance at grabbing the NL East title and playing well in October. And in Jenrry Mejia, they have the kind of dynamic young pitching prospect who the Mariners would see as a valuable long term piece who could also potentially be part of the 2011 rotation. The Mets could put together a strong offer for Lee built around Mejia. There’s a potential deal to be made there.
However, if I’m Jack Zduriencik, I’m praying every night that the Twins get heavily involved. The fit is almost perfect.
Lee is everything the Twins love in a pitcher. They groom a never ending supply of strike throwers who get outs despite not having big velocity, and Lee is the quintessential version of that kind of arm. Paired with Francisco Liriano, the Twins become a lethal post-season team. And, they have what the 2011 Mariners need – young, cheap, major league ready starting pitching.
The Twins could create a package for Lee built around either Scott Baker or Kevin Slowey that would certainly pique the Mariners interest. Rather than getting a prospect that you hope develops into something, the Mariners would be able to slide either of them right into the middle of their rotation, filling a big hole on the 2011 roster but providing future value as well. In addition, the Twins have a quality young catching prospect named Wilson Ramos who doesn’t have a future in Minneapolis thanks to the presence of Joe Mauer, and while he’s not that much different than Adam Moore, he’d offer the M’s another option at a position that has been a huge problem since Jack got to Seattle. A package of Ramos and a second prospect, along with either Slowey or Baker, is the kind of deal that the Mariners simply couldn’t turn down.
The Twins have the depth to make that kind of move without crippling their future, and could capitalize on the primes of Mauer and Morneau with a legitimate World Series run with Cliff Lee in their rotation. It makes the most sense of any deal possible. Lee was made to pitch for the Twins, and they have exactly the kinds of players that the Mariners are going to want in return.
So, don’t be surprised if Lee ends up in pinstripes this fall, but not the Bronx version. Lee to Minnesota makes sense on a lot of levels, and you have to think that both teams see the same things we do. There’s a win-win deal here where both teams benefit, and that’s why I’d put Minnesota as the favorites to land Cliff Lee this summer.