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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

December 14, 2009 at 2:23 PM

Some thoughts on Cliff Lee as a Mariner


(Update 7:20 p.m.: If the Mariners are really giving up just Phillippe Aumont and Tyson Gillies for Cliff Lee, it’s a heck of a deal, even with the risk that Lee can walk away as a free agent after one season. They apparently got this done without having to give up Brandon Morrow, Carlos Triunfel or Michael Saunders — giving them the pieces for another potential trade down the line).

First of all, here’s a reminder of what the Mariners would (will?) be getting with Cliff Lee. He is a 31-year-old left-hander from Benton, Arkansas who attended the University of Arkansas. He was originally in the Montreal Expos organization (fourth round pick, 2000) and was traded to Cleveland in one of the most lopsided trades of recent memory: Lee, Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Lee Stevens to the Indians for Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew.

If the Indians had only held on to Phillips, it would have been the steal of the century. As it was, Sizemore has become an All-Star center fielder, and Lee won the Cy Young Award two years ago, going 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA. This past season, when the Indians fell out of contention, they traded him (along with Ben Francisco) to the Phillies on July 31 as their consolation prize for losing out on Roy Halladay, in exchange for four prospects: Triple-A right-hander Carlos Carrasco, Class A righty Jason Knapp, catcher Lou Marson, and shortstop Jason Donald.

With the Phillies, Lee won six of his first seven decisions to help them take control of the division, and was their ace in the postseason, supplanding Cole Hamels. Lee was 4-0 with a 1.56 earned-run average in five starts, picking up both of the Phillies’ wins in the World Series (I gave them a phantom win earlier; sorry).

If and when this deal is finalized, the question that will have to be asked is whether the prospects the Mariners give up (and no one knows the exact names just yet, although it appears almost certain that Phillippe Aumont is going somewhere) will be worth the worst-case scenario of one year of Lee, at a reasonable contract ($8.5 million), and then he walks. One reason the Phillies are trading Lee, in addition to the upgrade to Roy Halladay, is their conclusion that they have no guarantee of locking up Lee to a long-term contract. He is eligible for free agency after this season, and the initial rumbling from those familiar with his thinking is that he intends to hit the open market rather than negotiate an extension.

But that’s subject to change, of course. The Mariners no doubt hope that he finds the Seattle situation — the team, the coaching staff, the ballpark — so pleasurable that he winds up signing on with them long-term. But if not, a couple of positive things could still happen, first and foremost being, obviously, that a Felix Hernandez-Cliff Lee tandem at the top of the rotation leads the Mariners into the postseason. For a team that hasn’t sniffed playoff baseball since 2001, that’s no insignficant factor.

Even if Lee were to walk after that, he would presumably be a Type A free agent resulting in both a first-round and sandwich pick as compensation.

That’s one scenario. Another scenario is the Mariners fall out of contention, in which case Lee would immediately be the hottest pitcher on the market at the trade deadline. The M’s could re-coup some of their expenditure in prospects for acquiring Lee by trading him to a contender at the deadline.

Much depends, of course, on just how deep they have to dip into their core of prospects to get what, at this stage, is a technically a “rent a player” in Lee. It shows me a couple of things: 1) The Mariners have confidence they are ready to contend, and win, now; and 2) The Mariners have confidence that they now have such a positive situation going here that it will be enticing to any player to commit long-term.

Sure, there’s some risk involved. But it definitely seems to me to be a calculated gamble worth taking. At some point, you have to just go for it.

(Photo by McClatchy Newspapers)



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