Lee and Lowe to Texas for Smoak, Prospects, Heartache

Jay Yencich · July 9, 2010 at 6:30 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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.


58 Responses to “Lee and Lowe to Texas for Smoak, Prospects, Heartache”

  1. Johnny Slick on July 10th, 2010 12:06 pm

    And for the love of Mike, why are we forgetting Mackey Sasser!?

  2. joser on July 10th, 2010 12:17 pm

    Yes, there’s risk with prospects. There’s no getting around that. But unless you have an unlimited budget and can get all your players via free agency, you have to live with it.

    But here’s thing, and this really crystallized for me listening to Brock whining about this before or after Dave’s segment on Brock and Salk:

    You weren’t going to get a “proven” player for Cliff Lee. You simply weren’t. Cliff Lee was only interesting to teams who have a shot at the postseason this year. Any proven player who’s producing at a high level right now is incredibly valuable to those teams for precisely the same reason Cliff Lee is valuable to them. Trading a player like that to get Cliff Lee defeats the purpose of trading for him. Yes, there are some teams that have a bit of a surplus at certain positions but they’re just not going to rob Peter to pay Paul like that.

    So you’re getting one or more prospects for Cliff Lee, and if you can’t accept that then you need to go follow the Storm or the Sounders your something. Once you get your head around the idea of trading Lee for prospects, then the only question is: which is the better package of prospects?

    So yes, Smoak isn’t a sure thing. None of these guys are. The nice thing, though, is that there’s a chance for an upside surprise too. Even setting aside the budgetary benefits of a prospect vs a vet, there’s potential value too. A proven vet is a known quantity, but that cuts both ways: you’re pretty certain about the floor of talent you’re getting (barring injury or collapse), but you’re also accepting something of a ceiling. A prospect like Smoak has been scouted and projected enough that you have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting, but there’s a chance for a surprise. And while we might dread the surprise bust, we have to also acknowledge the possibility of a surprise boom.

    But that’s true of any prospect, and it was prospects we were going to get for Lee. The M’s weren’t going to be able to keep him; at best they were going to get draft picks that were both riskier and further away from the majors than Smoak and company. There’s room for debate about this package vs what the Yankees were offering (or what the Twins or Rays might’ve offered in theory) but I really don’t see any way to complain about the idea of getting a package of prospects in general. That’s what Cliff Lee was going to get you, and as packages go this is a pretty good one. It’s considerably better than what the M’s gave up to get Lee, after all. If we just think of the Lee interregnum as a pleasant dream during an otherwise forgettable season, then we can look at this as trading up in the 2007 draft from #11 to #7, and then turning a couple of other guys into the #11 pick in 2008 plus a potentially good reliever and the 24-year-old version of David Eckstein. That’s a pretty nice upgrade, and all it cost was Mark Lowe.

  3. ctdawg on July 10th, 2010 12:31 pm

    Of course the M’s had to trade Lee and they absolutely upgraded their return on Aumont/Gillies/Ramirez.

    But I think they will be disappointed if that’s all Smoak becomes. I’d like to see what Montero projects as, i can’t help but feel his numbers project better than that.

  4. seahopp on July 10th, 2010 2:28 pm

    You know if the Rangers are losing their starting first baseman, couldn’t we have just thrown in Casey as part of the deal. I mention this purely as a way to open up a roster spot for someone from Tacoma to come up and get experience. Comments?

  5. Jay Yencich on July 10th, 2010 2:31 pm

    You know if the Rangers are losing their starting first baseman, couldn’t we have just thrown in Casey as part of the deal. I mention this purely as a way to open up a roster spot for someone from Tacoma to come up and get experience. Comments?

    They have Chris Davis. It’s not ideal, but they don’t need another first baseman.

  6. Johnny Slick on July 10th, 2010 4:23 pm

    Also, we can open up that spot just as easily by cutting Kotchman if it came to that. Why just give away value, even a little value, to a competitor? Make the Rangers have to deal with the chance that another crappy team wants Kotchman more and therefore claims him off of waivers instead of them. Or give us something more for him.

    Also, with all due respect to Casey’s D (and however good/average Smoak’s might be), it’s not all that hard in general to replace a first baseman. The A’s famously turned a backup catcher into one a few years back. Really, all the Rangers have to do is take someone, anyone, who isn’t good enough to break the starting lineup and stick them at first if Chris Davis doesn’t work out. Or find someone cheap off of someone else’s AAA roster.

  7. samregens on July 10th, 2010 6:25 pm

    Johnny Slick, joser, and others, thank you.
    I see Kotchman was already something of a “bust” (from high initial expectations) when he came here. Hope Smoak follows a different career course. Fingers crossed.

  8. Justin on July 20th, 2010 1:54 pm

    I’m curious, The Ranger’s seemed pretty set to keep Smoak before this deal went down. A lot of the buzz around this trade was that the Rangers “caved” when The Yankees were going to get Lee and the Yankee’s involvement was what pushed the Ranger’s to finally give up Smoak. While I think the Yankee’s aggressiveness contributed, it seems like the bankruptcy issue was also a major factor. As it looks now, I doubt the Rangers, world series champs or not, will be able to keep Lee. So, they gave up their best prospect for a 3 (maybe 4) month loaner? The decision to give up Smoak “appears” to be closely tied to the ownership issues the Ryan’s group is facing. Ryan, more-so at the time of this trade, had just been told that bids for team ownership were going to open again and he might lose his presidency. I think, to a great extend, Ryan knows his future as Team President is in jeopardy, and that he is put in a situation where this year might be the ONLY year he can win a championship for Texas. Smoak to the Mariner’s might have been Ryan’s way of saying “If I can’t have this team, than I’m going for this year.”

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