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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.

July 9, 2010 at 3:53 PM

In many ways, this Cliff Lee trade will define Zduriencik

This crazy, whirlwind day reached its climactic moment with official announcement of the Mariners trade: Cliff Lee and Mark Lowe to the Rangers for first baseman Justin Smoak, right-handed pitchers Blake Beaven and Josh Lueke, and infielder Matt Lawson.

Scouts and pundits can weigh in all they want about the pros and cons of the prospects the Mariners received (and they have). I think I would have leaned toward the upside of Jesus Montero from the Yankees’ system over Smoak and friends. But I’m going purely on the word of scouts and other observers I’ve talked to, statistics, and what I’ve read. I haven’t seen any of the players in person, other than small samples of Smoak since he joined the Rangers.

No one can really say for sure how good a deal this was for the Mariners until it plays out. And we all know from past experience (think Randy Johnson, coming and going) that the full evaluation can take a few years. It’s a big step from Baseball America to the real world. Smoak is in it right now and struggling a bit with a .209 average and .670 OPS in 70 games for the Rangers, with eight homers and 34 RBIs. That doesn’t scare me off at all. He’s 23 years old and still learning on the job. I just talked to someone who believes that can Smoak approach being another Mark Teixeira (who is, like Smoak, a switch-hitting first baseman). I talked to a couple of scouts who definitely preferred Montero over Smoak. Said one: “I tend to believe in Smoak. I tend to think he’s a legit guy, but maybe more of a 5-hole hitter than 3 or 4. But Montero is a monster.”

One National League scout I know was really down on Smoak and didn’t believe he’d ever be a star. But I’ve talked to other scouts today who are really high on him. The Mariners certainly are, and as John Manuel of Baseball America told me today, “Jack Zduriencik’s track record on hitters is pretty good.”

Talking further to Manuel, he noted that Smoak slugged just .443 last year in 106 minor-league games: “I do think stats matter the higher you go in the minors. At some point, it can’t be all about potential, or you start to be Casey Kotchman. If I had a choice, I’d rather have Jesus Montero. Montero is a pure masher. I’ve never had anyone tell me he can’t hit for power at the major-league level. Smoak is smoother and more conventional, but Montero has more natural power.”

We’ll see, just like we’ll see what Beaven, Lueke and Lawson turn into. We know what Lee is — a master craftsman at the absolute top of his game. He could well pitch the Rangers into their first World Series (leaving the Mariners and Nationals/Expos as the only franchises without a Fall Classic appearance), at which point he’ll most likely tip his Stetson and move on to his fifth team since last July.

But this trade will continue to be judged long beyond this season, and will help define Jack Zduriencik as an evaluator of talent. The M’s desperately need this haul of players — especially Smoak — to be the centerpiece of their revival. Trade chips like Cliff Lee don’t come along very often. And it’s going to be pretty easy to “keep score.” All you’ll have to do is judge the progress of the Mariners’ incoming quartet against, first, the three players they gave up to the Phillies last December to get Lee in the first place (Phillipe Aumont, JC Ramirez and Tyson Gillies), and the three they turned down today from the Yankees (Montero, infielder David Adams and, reportedly, pitcher Zach McAllister).

It will be there for the world to see.

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