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

June 9, 2010 at 9:10 AM

Mulling over the Cliff Lee trade front

leeout.jpg

(Photo by Associated Press. Cliff Lee reacts after Casey Kotchman makes the final out of Monday’s win over Texas).

Last year at about this time, the blogosphere was abuzz with speculation about where Cliff Lee, just one season removed from a Cy Young Award, was going to end up once the flailing Indians inevitably traded him.

Guess what? It’s happening again. George King of the New York Post checked in today with an article saying the Mariners expect the Yankees to be involved in a bid for Lee — who is just one season removed from helping pitch the Phillies into the World Series.

Well, of course they will. The Yankees are involved with virtually every high-profile pitcher on the market. Never mind the fact that with CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes and Javier Vazquez in their rotation, it’s difficult to figure out exactly where they would squeeze in Lee. They’d figure it out, to get a guy who showed last year that he can be a postseason horse.

Ken Rosenthal at FOX predicts the Yankees will get Lee one way or another — either by trading for him this year, or signing him during the offseason.

An eventual trade of Lee by the Mariners — which would be his third trade in a calendar year — is looking more and more like a certainty with each Seatte defeat.

This ESPN Dallas/Fort Worth article speculates about the chances of Lee going to Texas. The Rangers’ system is laden with prospects, but GMs are highly reluctant to trade impact players within the division, so I’d say it was a longshot.

The L.A. Times recently wrote about the Dodgers’ interest in Lee and Roy Oswalt, the other potential ace on the market. The New York Post wants the Mets to go after Lee.

The fact is, virtually every contender will covet Lee. Jack Zduriencik will be in a position to seek some blue-chip prospects and/or young major-league ready players to start to fill the numerous holes on this team. Last year, the Indians dealt Lee to the Phillies on July 29 and acquired RHP Carlos Carrasco, a top pitching prospect; INF Jason Donald, who is now their starting shortstop with the injury to Asdrubal Cabrera; catcher Lou Marson, who is in the majors (struggling at .193); and RHP Jason Knapp.

Of course, the Phillies theoretically had Lee for not only the stretch drive and postseason of 2009, but also all of 2010. Instead, they dealt him to the Mariners in December for pitchers Phillippe Aumont and JC Ramirez and outfielder Tyson Gillies. (Aumont got off to a terrible start this year at Class AA and earlier this week was demoted to Single-A). Ramirez and Gillies are promising players but not many believe they will be stars.

Now, Lee is a pure rent-a-player, and so you’d have to think, by logic, the Mariners wouldn’t get as good a package as the Indians did for him. As a point of comparison, the Indians traded CC Sabathia to Milwaukee in similar circumstances in 2008 — he would become a free agent after the year — and got outfielder Matt LaPorta, LHP Zach Johnson, RHP Rob Bryson and OF Michael Brantley. LaPorta was supposed to be the key to the deal, but he’s hitting .218 with one homer and seven RBI in 119 at-bats this year. He could, of course, still develop into the power hitter the Indians envisioned; he’s just 25. Brantley has showed promise, and the others are still in the minors. So far, the Indians haven’t hit it big on this trade, but that evaluation could change.

Yet I believe Zduriencik could have a chance to get a real feeding frenzy going for Lee, who now has the added bonus of last year’s playoff numbers — 1-0, 1.10 ERA in two division series starts against Colorado; eight scoreless innings of three-hit ball in beating the Dodgers in the NLCS; and a 2-0 mark with a 2.81 ERA in the World Series — including a complete-game shutout in the opener at Yankee Stadium. I’d think teams with World Series aspirations would be willing to give up some good pieces of their future to obtain that kind of clutch pitcher.

The Indians made the Sabathia deal on July 7, more than three weeks prior to the trade deadline. One of the decisions Zduriencik will have to make, once he decides to trade Lee, is when to pull the trigger. There are two schools of thought: One is that teams will give up more talent to have a player for more games. Sabathia went 11-2 for the Brewers and pitched them into the posteason. They needed every one of his 17 starts to win the NL wild card by one game over the Mets. The other school is that if you wait until the trade deadline, you can feed off the competition among teams, and their desperation to get a player before the (non-waiver) deadline. I tend to lean toward the latter strategy, particularly because it also allows a team to wait the longest time possible to ascertain once and for all if they’re going to be a contender themselves.

I believe Lee will be more coveted than Oswalt for a couple of reasons. One is money. In a strange way, Lee’s pending free agency could be a blessing for teams with a lower payroll. All they would be taking on is the remainder of Lee’s $9 million contract for 2010, whereas Oswalt is owed $16 million next year with a $16 million option for 2012 (or a $2 million buyout). That’s in addition to the remainder of the $15 million he’s owed this season. Considering that Oswalt also has had some health issues, and has a no-trade clause that will limit the teams Houston can deal with, and Lee figures to be the bigger target.

It’s June 9. I’d expect Zduriencik and his people to spend the next month scouting talent and evaluating trade possibilities, while seeing if the Mariners can start to put things together. And, then, if the Mariners are still stumbling, I’d expect the Cliff Lee trade front to get red hot.

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