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

July 10, 2010 at 9:42 AM

Cliff Lee post-mortem: Some thoughts (and case studies) on trading within the division

Part of the considerable buzz surrounding Friday’s Cliff Lee trade concerned the fact that the Mariners sent him to a team within their division. The wisdom of doing that was hotly debated in some quarters.

Naturally, there is a certain level of risk involved. The Mariners have to be prepared to watch the Rangers, with a healthy lead already in the AL West, march into and through the playoffs, perhaps all the way to the World Series, with Lee anchoring their rotation. Perhaps even all the way to a World Series title.

The Angels’ Torii Hunter weighed in yesterday with this quote to the Los Angeles Times:

“Nobody trades within their division for that pitcher to come back and whip your butt,” Hunter said. “I wouldn’t do that.”

But I’d maintain the hauntability factor is actually greater from Texas’s standpoint. The Rangers were already kicking the Mariners’ butt. In fact, that fight’s over. The Mariners have conceded for 2010. Yes, Lee may pitch the Rangers to the title, but that’s going to be a short-lived psychic blow. Lee will almost certainly not return to the Rangers, and the Mariners will only have to worry about the draft picks they get when he walks and setup reliever Mark Lowe haunting them down the road.

The Rangers, meanwhile, sent a player to Seattle whom they thought highly enough of to draft in the first round, No. 11 overall, in 2008. He’s struggling at the plate now, especially against left-handers, but there are still scouts who believe Justin Smoak will be a star, if not a superstar. He’s just 23 years old. The Rangers run the risk of watching Smoak haunt them for years to come — not to mention any of the three other prospects thrown into the deal, should they develop as the Mariners hope.

That said, there’s not a general manager I’ve ever talked to who wouldn’t go for it when you get a chance to win a World Series. Sometimes the risk is worth it, and that’s certainly the case for Jon Daniels and the Rangers — a team that, like the Mariners, has never been to a World Series. That’s why former Houston GM Gerry Hunsicker always said he had absolutely no regrets about renting Randy Johnson in 1998, even at the cost of Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and John Halama. Johnson was tremendous down the stretch, but the Astros were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs with Johnson losing two tough games to the Padres, and the Big Unit signed with Arizona after the season. But Houston gave itself its best shot at getting to what then would have been their first World Series. A gamble worth taking, even as Garcia and Guillen developed into All-Stars. The Rangers are doing the same thing, and even if it doesn’t work out, I’m sure there fans believe it’s worth the risk.

I polled a few of my sportswriting friends to come up with historical examples of inter-division trades. This list is far from definitive, and I welcome additions (but I’m talking about significant trades; not Donnie Scott for Orlando Mercado; And Donovan McNabb to the Redskins doesn’t count). It’s potentially more treacherous nowadays, with smaller divisions and an unbalanced schedule, than in the pre-wild card days of 1969 to 1994, when there were two divisions in each league of six or seven teams.

The Mariners’ deal that jumps to mind for me is the one in 1986 that sent outfielder Ivan Calderon, a supremely talented young player, to the White Sox for young catcher Scott Bradley (yes, young’uns, the Mariners and White Sox were once in the same division). Calderon turned out to be a good, but not great, player (he hit .293 with 28 homers and 93 RBIs in 1987; sadly, he died in 2003 at age 41), while Bradley was a solid, unspectacular catcher for several years with the M’s. No harm, no foul.

Here are other examples relayed to me:

–Toronto sends Roger Clemens, coming off two Cy Young Awards, to the Yankees for Homer Bush, Graeme Lloyd and David Wells, Feb. 18, 1999. Clemens went on to rack up four American League pennants, two World Series titles and one more Cy Young with the Yankees, while Wells went 37-18 in two years with Toronto before being traded to the White Sox in an ill-fated deal for damaged goods pitcher Mike Sirotka.

–On July 28, 1995, the Blue Jays sent David Cone to the Yankees for Jason Jarvis, Mike Gordon and Marty Janzen. None of those players helped the Blue Jays, while Cone was a mainstay on four championship Yankee teams.

–On June 18, 1989, the Mets sent outfielder Lenny Dykstra and reliever Roger McDowell to the Phillies for Juan Samuel. Dykstra helped the Phillies win the 1993 National League pennant — the same year the Mets lost 103 games.

–In one of the all-time haunting division trades, the Phillies sent Larry Bowa and a young infielder named Ryne Sandberg to the Cubs (who were in the NL East in those four-division days) for Ivan DeJesus. in 1982.

–This deal comes with a footnote, because when the Cubs traded Lou Brock to the Cardinals in June of 1964 for three players, most prominently pitcher Ernie Broglio, there were no divisions in the National League. But much of Brock’s Hall of Fame career was played in the divisional era (1969-79), with the Cubs and Cardinals both in the NL East.

–This wasn’t a whopper, but the Indians last year sent Carl Pavano to the Twins for minor-league pitcher Yohan Pino, and Pavano was a difference maker in the Twins’ division title run.

–Old-timers will remember the Red Sox sending reliever Sparky Lyle to the Yankees for Danny Cater and Mario Guerrero prior to the 1972 season. Lyle won the Cy Young in 1977 and helped the Yankees win the World Series.

–The Cardinals rued the day they sent Keith Hernandez to the Mets for Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey on June 15, 1983. Hernandez made three All-Star teams and won one World Series as a Met.

–For just this very reason, (and with memories of Babe Ruth-for–cash still reverberating) the Yankees and Red Sox simply do not trade anymore. The last deal between the two teams was Aug. 17, 1997, when the Red Sox sent Mike Stanley and minor-leaguer Dave Brown to New York for Tony Armas Jr. and Jim Mecir.

–In July of 2004, the Diamondbacks dealt Steve Finley (and Brent Mayne) to the Dodgers for three prospects (Reggie Abercrombie, Koyie Hill and Bill Murphy). Finley hit 13 homers and drove in 46 runs in 58 games to help the Dodgers win the division.

–The Marlins sent Carlos Delgado to the Mets after the 2005 season for Mike Jacobs, Grant Psomas and Yusmeiro Petit, none of whom have made the Mets cringe. Delgado put up three pretty good years but played only 26 games in 2009 and hasn’t played at all this year because of a hip injury.

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