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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.

June 30, 2010 at 8:04 AM

Mariners can reasonably expect blue-chipper for Cliff Lee

I’ve seen it written, and logically so, that the Mariners’ haul for trading Cliff Lee should be less than his previous two trades.

After all, the Cleveland Indians, who swung their deal with the Phillies last July 29, were giving up one year and two months of the pitcher who had won the Cy Young the previous season. They traded Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco and received right-handed pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Jason Knapp, shortstop Jason Donald and catcher Lou Marson. Only one of those players were ranked in Baseball America’s list of Top 100 prospects heading into this season — Knapp at No. 64. The other three have been up in the majors with middling results. Donald is hitting .254 with a .292 on-base percentage) in 35 games this season. Carrasco was 0-4, 8.87 in five starts last year. Marson is hitting .191 in 45 games this season. All are young, and that’s not to say they won’t develop into fine players, but none are projected as stars. Knapp is — he was the “must have” guy in the trade — but he hasn’t pitched at all this season after shoulder surgery.

The Phillies, who traded Lee to the Mariners on Dec. 16 of last year, were giving up (theoretically), one full season of Lee. They received right-handed pitchers Phillippe Aumont and JC Ramirez, and outfielder Tyson Gillies. Aumont, of course, was the Mariners’ No. 1 pick in 2007, and No. 93 in Baseball American’s Top 100 prospects list. But he is having an awful season in the Phillies’ farm system after being converted from reliever to starter. He was 1-6, 7.43 in 11 starts at Class AA Reading, earning a demotion to Class A Clearwater. Gillies had some injury issues and is hitting .238 in 26 games with Reading. Ramirez is 5-4, 4.31 in 13 starts split between Reading and Clearwater. Again, any of these players could blossom, but those who rate prospects don’t believe the Mariners will be haunted by this trade.

If and when the Mariners trade Lee (and I believe it’s a “when,” not an “if”) they will be giving up, depending on when the deal is made, two or three months of Lee, plus the possibility of October. As I said, logic dictates they won’t get as much back (unless the acquiring team receives a negotiating window to work out a long-term deal. But the list of teams that can accomodate Lee’s asking price — likely to be well north of John Lackey’s five years, $82.5 million with the Red Sox last winter — is small, and Lee seems headed to free agency anyway).

Yet I believe the Mariners still have a chance to reap a very good package for Lee — perhaps better than the two others. Joel Sherman in the New York Post writes that the Mariners will hold out for no less than one blue-chip prospect, and I believe this is the correct stance. And I think they will get it.

For one thing, Lee is pitching at the absolute top of his game right now. He has never been better, which is saying something for a guy who went 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA in his Cy Young season of 2008. Teams know they are getting an absolute difference-maker, someone who can pitch them into the postseason, and then pitch them to a title. That’s a powerful inducement, whether you’re a team like the Mets, hungry to steal some glory from the Yankees, or the Twins, tired of making it to the playoffs and falling short of the World Series, or even the Reds, smelling their first playoff run in a decade.

For another thing, Lee has the proven postseason bona fides from last year as an additional selling point — a combined 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five starts, including a complete-game masterpiece in Game 1 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. Again, a powerful inducement.

And finally, there’s the factor of so many teams being in playoff contention. As one GM told me, any time there’s competition for a player, you have a chance of driving a hard bargain. And here’s a list of teams leading or within six games of first place or the wild card: Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Twins, Tigers, White Sox, Rangers, Angels, Braves, Mets, Phillies, Cardinals, Reds, Padres, Dodgers, Giants, Rockies, Marlins.

That’s 18 teams, each eager to give their fans the gift of someone like Cliff Lee for the stretch drive. The monetary cost is not prohibitive — the pro-rated share of Lee’s $9 million contract. It is true that great young (and therefore inexpensive) players have never been more coveted than they are right now. Teams are loathe to part with them. And yet the desire to win rings often trumps logic in situations like this. And don’t forget the acquiring team gets draft picks if Lee signs elsewhere next year.

I believe the Mariners have a chance to certainly come away with a better package than they gave up to get Lee. And if that’s headed by a blue-chip prospect who can develop into a star of the near future, it will help ease the pain of losing Lee considerably.

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