Lee and Lowe to Texas for Smoak, Prospects, Heartache
This was always the realistic endgame. Few of us wanted to admit that. After an offseason that saw us sign one of the top third basemen on the market, extend our current ace, and bring a second one in for kicks, we started printing out “In Jack We Trust” banners, which Jack himself seemed uneasy about, wanting results first, making him perhaps the only sane one. The Mariners became a national story around the premise of using defense as the new market inefficiency. It was a good division surely, but surely not so decided that a 85-90 win team couldn’t take it all and then use the 2001 Diamondbacks formula to charge through the post-season, guns ablazin’.
The game is not so kind as to work out that way. Our risky infield switcheroo resulted in neither players being able to hit, the big bullpen arm we acquired wouldn’t throw the pitch that made him any good (the rest of the ‘pen has been a mess), Milton Bradley has been lovable but aggravating in new ways, Kotchman’s change of scenery resulted in little change in his perpetually terrified expression and playing style, our wonderful infield gremlin pulled something and had return to his dugout lair for a while, and dear, sweet Clifton got himself hurt in spring training. Not even Gutierrez’ early season performances were enough to save the team, so big was the mess we had on our hands.
But for a few weeks in there, we were afforded some of the best pitching any of us have ever seen, and in the process got a hazy glimpse of what a championship team might look like in Seattle. The first chance I had to see Cliff pitch was not long after I flew back from the east coast. It was a Friday night and my friends and I were at the Rock Bottom in Bellevue and I, being the baseball fan of the bunch, positioned myself across from the nearest TV screen. I saw Lee execute, but turn in what was the worst start any of us will see out of him this season. And even without the star pitcher at his best, the Mariners managed to keep up and knock out our hated interleague rivals. As if to reward us, Lee spent the next several weeks grinning like a madman and putting on a pitching clinic the likes of which we might not see again for some time.
Right now, Cliff Lee has a case for being the best southpaw in the game. It’s more than the pure stuff, which is great, but not eye-poping. It’s more than the endurance that allows him to throw three complete games in a row, because why should he give the ball to anyone else? Part of it, though, is in the post-game comments where he addressed his much lamented walk that broke the streak. Cliff Lee complained about doing something that even the best pitchers do probably once a game.
This is the position Cliff Lee has placed him in. Even the greats that we think of as exemplary in their field often use the accomplishments of past or contemporary heroes as a yardstick by which to judge their own progress. It’s natural to set up such milestones, but they’ve become irrelevant for Lee. Consequently, things that would have seemed inevitable for another man, even one with better talents, aren’t anymore. Lee only has his own standards to judge himself by. It’s remarkable, and more than a little dumbfounding. Texas is going to see a very special pitcher the next few months.
In return, we’re getting Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke, and Matt Lawson. Comparisons to the proposed Yankees haul are going to be inevitable, so I’ll do what I can with that, putting aside comparisons to previous Lee trades because that stopped being fair sometime last night. First, there’s the matter of Smoak versus Montero. Montero has hit and power tools that grade out close to 80. Such grades are not handed out readily. You can usually count the number of players that have them on one hand at any given time. He’s also a right-handed hitter without a true defensive position and probably can’t be considered a catcher long term. Smoak, meanwhile, is a great defender, a switch-hitter, draws walks, and loses maybe five points off both hit tools, which isn’t that much in the overall scale of things. As an added bonus, if you were like me and horribly upset on missing out the once-in-a-generation first baseman draft of aught-eight only to select a reliever, we just got in it two years late! It’s a bad day to be Dennis Raben or Rich Poythress because there’s a good chance Smoak not only holds the position down, but becomes an all-star player in the Mark Texeira mold for the next five+ years. Haha, I just thought of the Yankees.
Beavan would be the player we parallel to McAllister, being both back-end rotation types with some potential. Back in the ’07 draft, Beavan was a big deal, both in the literal and figurative senses, a 6’7, 210 lb right-hander who was throwing in 91-6 with iffy mechanics. The Rangers went out and tweaked his throwing motion and got themselves a pitcher with slightly above-average velocity and a career walk rate of under one-and-a-half. He lost the anticipated strikeouts in the process, something that has made him quite suspect in the eyes of some. Relative to McAllister though, he’s been rushed. At the same stage, Zach had two years in short-season and was entering his first year in double-A. Beavan is in his second full season of double-A already and never saw short-season for so much as a game. The Rangers have been very aggressive with him and he’s done all right with it, but his development, particularly of the breaking ball (he’s quite good vs. lefties with his change) could have been assisted by some patience. This is close enough to a wash, without acknowledging that circumstances might have been working against the Beav.
There was no parallel to Lueke in the original Yankees deal, so instead I bring in Mark Lowe, who was also a part of the deal. Lowe was absolutely delightful when he was called up initially in 2004. A lot has happened since then and that has included Lowe being a little less awesome on the field (no less awesome in person) and oft-injured, the latest being season-ending back surgery. He hit his first year of arbitration this year as well. I like Lowe and his place in the bullpen, and am happy that he’s going to his hometown team, but since Lueke has yet to hit the big leagues and has a mid-90s heater, a mid-80s slider, and strikeout rates that have ranged within double-digits, you could see him as effectively replacing Lowe in the org, and for four more years.
Since I can’t avoid addressing it though, I’ll note that Lueke has one nasty incident in his past. This is something that I feel strongly about personally and have a great deal of difficulty being objective about, to the point where trying to talk about him in terms of ability alone still leaves me with my skin crawling. I’ll leave it at that by saying that the rape charges were later dropped, and offer to judge him based on his pitching from here out. This is not a posting for open season on the comments, speaking on behalf of both the authors and moderators. Lueke is going to have this hanging over his head for the rest of his days and the hornets’ nest is going to stir up every time he does anything of note. Let’s agree not to pile on.
The last piece in the deal, Lawson, is effectively your parallel to Adams, in that they’re both right-handed, probable future utility infielders who could provide stopgaps before the Ackley era begins. Both have gone station-to-station in the minor leagues and have been a little old for their levels in each instance. Adams may have been the stronger hitter of the two, but Lawson was ranked the best defender in the Cal League last year at second, where Adams was only a little above-average. Fourth pieces in deals are rarely interesting, except that Lawson might have a big league career as a role player and could force an Ackley promotion, as all three of the non-Smoak prospects are heading to West Tenn.
Overall, people are probably going to judge this deal in the short-term by us not getting Montero’s dual-80s, which isn’t the best way of looking at it. Smoak can help us sooner and is a better defender now than Montero will ever be, and could turn out to be an extremely valuable player. We’re also getting a young flamethrower for our older, slightly broken one. The rest could come out as a net positive for the M’s anyway.
I’ll miss Cliff very much, but this was the right trade to make, and helped our team while taking some weapons away from a frightening division rival. Don’t try to look for the bad in it, because given the circumstances, you’re not going to find a whole lot.