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June 29, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Pressure mounts for Mets to acquire Cliff Lee from Mariners sooner rather than later

If you missed it, here’s today’s Talkin’ Baseball segment from KJR AM 950.
Last week, I wrote about two players the Mariners could be looking at from the New York Mets in a Cliff Lee trade — pitcher Jenrry Mejia and outfielder Angel Pagan. And today, as Lee gets set to face the Yankees in the Big Apple, the buzz about a possible deal with the crosstown Mets is growing louder and louder.
There had been talk that a shoulder injury to Mejia two days ago may thwart New York’s bid to land Lee. Mejia is expected to start throwing again within a couple of weeks and as colleague Larry Stone wrote this morning, Mets GM Omar Minaya is reminding folks that his team has other prospects to deal.
And there’s growing pressure on him to make that deal. The Philadelphia Phillies are not the offensive juggernaut they were expected to be and a Lee acquisition could give the Mets just enough to hold them off and win the NL East. And possibly advance to a World Series.
That’s good news for Mariners fans and also the reason why I think this trade gets done sooner rather than later, either with the Mets or Minnesota Twins. Yes, the Cards offering up the 19th overall pick in last year’s draft, pitcher Shelby Miller, is intriguing if true. But he’s still a few years away and, if anything, the M’s could be better off leveraging those rumors in order to squeeze a better package out of other suitors.
As good as Miller could be, he might never be as good as Mejia is right now at a level much closer to the big leagues. And if Mejia is off the table because of the injury, or the M’s want a position player instead? Then, you make the deal about catcher Josh Thole, 23, (Photo Credit: AP) a prospect who already posted a .356 OBP in his first 56 plate appearances in the big leagues last season.
Throw Thole and Pagan together and you’ve likely upgraded your catching — at least offensively — and left field spot for this year and beyond.
Word out of New York is that the Mariners have set a Thole-Pagan-pitching prospect trio as the parameters to any Lee deal. It doesn’t surprise me the M’s would be looking at Pagan as the deal’s secondary piece, since he’s a better major leaguer right now than any left fielder the Mariners could put out there. At worst, if Michael Saunders were to develop, Pagan would make an excellent fourth outfielder on a championship caliber club. Not a last-place club, a championship caliber club. And there’s a huge difference.
This update from this morning states, as we’ve written all along, that the Mariners expect three top prospects for Lee.
Pagan landing in Seattle would help ease some of the concern about a loss of minor league depth with the trade of outfielder Ezequiel Carrera to Cleveland in the Russell Branyan swap. Because all of a sudden, your fourth outfielder/Class AAA depth would be Saunders. That’s a pretty good swap, the way things stand.
As the linked story mentions, one of the things that could be holding a deal up is that Pagan is recovering from an abdominal injury. He’s skipping the team’s series in his native Puerto Rico to recover. That’s pretty big, because he could have tried to play. Is the team telling him not to risk it? I wouldn’t be surprised, since it appears he is indeed on the trade radar.
When I spoke to Jack Zduriencik about Lee after the Branyan deal, he told me the Mariners are not going to be shy about asking for top returns if any proposal were to be sent his way (remember, he’s yet to flat-out say he’s going to deal the pitcher), even though what he’s offering up is a three-month rental at best. That’s why I think a deal gets done quickly, maybe even after tonight.

Asking for top players means you have to maximize what other teams are going to get. That means a full half-season of Lee. If the M’s truly want something along the Thole-Pagan-prospect lines — a fantastic haul, in my opinion — then they can’t dither for another few weeks and wait for the deadline to approach. You likely won’t get a much better package than that, even from the Twins.
While Wilson Ramos might be a slightly better catcher than Thole, you’re talking about a position where the M’s still have a good prospect in Adam Moore and it’s only one position out of nine being addressed in the trade return, along with a fourth starter type like Kevin Slowey being acquired as well. This team already has a bunch of fourth and fifth starters. Deal with the Mets, and you’re filling two holes at once. Pagan is a good left fielder who can field, get on-base and put up an .800 OPS, which would instantly make him one of the better all-around guys on this Seattle team.
Even if Thole is slightly worse as a catcher than Ramos, as long as he gives you a chance at upgrading what the team already has, you still come out ahead in that deal because you’ve filled two lineup spots. And filled them effectively, not just with junk.
Remember, not all prospects pan out, as good as they look today. And the younger they are, the tougher it is to predict. That’s why I still don’t think the M’s will load up on a bunch of Class AA and Class A players. Zduriencik knows better than any GM I’ve covered, the huge difference between prospects and major league players.
Remember, he’s the guy who decided to junk the Phillippe Aumont-as-a-starter idea long before it became politically correct to do so. I remember all the screaming on this blog, the night before last year’s season opener, when we broke the story on Aumont going to the bullpen. It was so intense that I had to phone Zduriencik back just to clarify why he was doing it.
So, he knows that prospects are a risky gambit. And that players already proven in the majors, even if it’s just for a taste, will be the best bet more often than not. Because there, you start to see the steak, not just the sizzle. And when guys are in AAA, you start to see how well cooked that steak is turning out.
Zduriencik reminded me he can always take two compensation picks for Lee if he allows him to walk as a free agent.
But I doubt that message was for me as much as it was for other teams that would be reading this blog. Those two picks likely have their biggest value as leverage. Again, the M’s don’t want this to turn into a five-or-six-year rebuilding plan. Not with a payroll up in the $90 million range, an edgy fanbase and anxious broadcast partners. Zduriencik knows he needs to get some players who can help in a year or two. Or even starting right now.
And that’s what he’s going to get. And he’ll get them sooner rather than later. Maybe even after tonight.



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