Today the big news in baseball was the trade that sent Cliff Lee from the Seattle Mariners to the Texas Rangers, with Justin Smoak leading a very attractive package of players coming back to Seattle, thanks to the cash that Seattle paid to help cover Lee’s salary. Earlier in the day, the Yankees were rumored to be closing in on Lee, to the point where a deal was almost done. That deal was rumored to be centered around Jesus Montero.
Prior to the 2010 season, Smoak was rated the number 13 prospect in baseball by Baseball America. Montero was rated the fourth best prospect in the game. To put that in to perspective, if the Pirates wanted Cliff Lee for the remainder of the season, until the point where he reaches free agency, Pedro Alvarez wouldn’t be enough. They would probably have to include two or three more prospects, with one of those prospects being a pitcher like Rudy Owens, Justin Wilson, or Jeff Locke.
Now that doesn’t make sense for the Pirates, as they wouldn’t accomplish anything by adding Lee for two months, but it does show the price that Lee fetched. He wasn’t always this expensive though. There was a time when he would have been on the other side of one of these deals, getting traded as the key piece in a deal for an established player. That almost happened with the Pirates before the 2008 season.
Neal Huntington was working on trading Jason Bay, when an agreement was struck with the Cleveland Indians. The deal would have sent Bay and catcher Ronny Paulino to Cleveland, with Lee, Franklin Gutierrez, and Kelly Shoppach coming back to the Pirates. However, Frank Coonelly shot the deal down, saying it wasn’t enough of a return for Bay.
In hindsight, that seems like an absurd statement, although at the time it did make sense, depending on your opinion of Lee. He was fresh off a season where he posted a 6.29 ERA in 97.1 innings, with a 6.1 K/9 and a 3.3 BB/9, plus a 1.6 HR/9. His career line to that point was a 4.64 ERA in 741.2 innings, with similar ratios as the 2007 season. He did post a great season in 2005, but it wasn’t repeated the following two years.
Gutierrez was coming off a year in which he hit for a .266/.318/.472 line in 271 at-bats, with 13 homers and eight steals. He hasn’t been much better, posting a .764 OPS in 2009, and currently working on a .738 OPS in 2010, although his defense has been very strong in center field. Shoppach was coming off a year with a .782 OPS as a backup catcher. In 2008 he broke out with 21 homers and an .865 OPS, although that seems to have been the peak of his career, as he’s struggled since.
Bay was coming off a down year, plagued by injuries, which led to a .746 OPS, his first professional season below .900. Paulino had struggled some in 2007, with a .703 OPS, and was no guarantee to be the starting catcher in 2008. You could see how there was plenty of room for the values of both players to increase.
Lee’s breakout would almost be like if Paul Maholm would break out as an ace in 2011. After 700+ innings, it seemed like the book was written on him. I figured that he could bounce back, but probably not better than his 2005 season, and more likely something like we saw from Zach Duke in 2009, with an ERA around 4, and a lot of innings. There was no guarantee that Lee would become the ace he is today, and there’s no guarantee he would have become that ace with the Pirates. However, if there is someone who knew his potential, it would have been Neal Huntington, who had just been hired from Cleveland, and knew Lee, Gutierrez, and Shoppach’s potential very well.
I was thinking about this move today, and was thinking about the potential impacts this move could have had. First, you probably don’t see the 2008 breakouts of Ryan Doumit and Nate McLouth. With Shoppach and Gutierrez coming over for Bay, Doumit and McLouth would likely remain on the bench (although McLouth could have taken Bay’s spot with Bay gone, but there’s no guarantees since Gutierrez likely would have been in center field, where McLouth had more value). It’s hard to say how that would have worked out in the long run. If the McLouth trade produces a quality major league player, then that part of the deal won’t look so bad.
There’s no getting around the Lee aspect of the deal though. As I mentioned before, there’s no guarantee that Lee breaks out in Pittsburgh. In fact, looking at the history, there’s probably a strong chance that he doesn’t break out. Let’s just assume that Lee does have the same breakout season. Chances are the Pirates would have flipped him in their rebuilding plan, similar to what Cleveland did in 2009.
Cleveland received Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Jason Knapp, and Lou Marson in return for Lee and Ben Francisco. Prior to the 2009 season, Carrasco was the number two prospect for Philadelphia, Marson was number three, Donald was number four, and Knapp was number ten. Knapp was the only player not listed in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects prior to the 2009 season. None of those players have made an impact in Cleveland yet, but they’re all young, and it’s only been about a year since the deal was completed, so nothing is in concrete yet.
It’s unlikely that you see that same deal go down. The Pirates probably don’t trade for Marson after dealing for Shoppach. But that deal illustrates what Lee could have brought back to the rebuilding efforts: three top 100 prospects, and another strong prospect in another team’s top ten.
I don’t think the acquisition of Lee would have affected the chances of the team winning. Sure, you’re adding an ace, but you’re removing the best bat from the team in Jason Bay. I feel those moves would off-set, and the team would be in the same place they are today. I did think about the actual Jason Bay trade, and how that might have been different, especially with Andy LaRoche no longer being part of the team.
If Andy LaRoche isn’t acquired in the Bay deal, the Pirates have no third baseman. There was no one in the upper levels of the farm system outside of Neil Walker, who wasn’t ready for the majors at the time. Pedro Alvarez had just been drafted, and wasn’t expected up until 2010. Maybe, due to those circumstances, the Pirates decide to keep Jose Bautista, at least until Alvarez is ready. That would give him enough time to have his surprising 2010 season in Pittsburgh before Alvarez arrives (although, again, there’s no guarantee he’d have that success in Pittsburgh).
Then there’s a potential downside. Without Jason Bay in the lineup, there’s a chance Xavier Nady doesn’t have the monster year he had in 2008. Without that performance, the Pirates don’t get the trade from the Yankees that brings in Jose Tabata and company. With another pitcher added to the mix, there’s a chance Paul Maholm doesn’t get a chance to break out in 2008. Maholm was the fifth starter at the start of the 2008 season, although he likely would have been up by the time Matt Morris was released.
the long term effect of the deal. If the Pirates have Lee in 2009, chances are they win a few more games. That could be the difference between selecting Jameson Taillon over Manny Machado with the number two pick in the 2010 draft, or ending up with Drew Pomeranz with the fifth pick, which is a big difference.
The deal wouldn’t have been perfect. It probably wouldn’t have brought a winner to Pittsburgh (Seattle is proof of that). However, it’s clear that the near-acquisition of Lee could have been a huge move for the Pirates, with the chance to give the team it’s first ace since Doug Drabek left. It also could have fueled the rebuilding big time, as every time Lee has been traded, he has fetched a big return. I think those two impacts are enough to safely say that passing on the Lee trade has been the biggest mistake this management team has made.