Wednesday

6-23-10: The Curious Case of Cliff Lee

Hello again everybody...

Welcome to the middle of your week and the end of mine. Yep, not to beat you over the head with it, but I'm headed over to Milwaukee tomorrow to check out Twins/Brewers at Miller Park, so this is my last day of work this week, and likely the last column you'll get til Monday.

I considered throwing together a DFTU for today since I probably won't be able to do one on Friday, but I wasn't married to the idea since I just did one five days ago. So when, as I lay abed last night, another idea for a column popped into my head, it didn't take me long to put the DFTU back on the shelf til next week.

Hopefully you won't miss it too badly.

Instead, today I'm going to talk about all the speculation swirling around the Twins' possible interest in Seattle ace, Cliff Lee. Where's the speculation coming from? Is it real, or just filler? Should the Twins be interested? Do I think they'll ultimately take a shot like that? All that and more is headed your way...

Right after the quote.

”Never try to tell everything you know. It may take too short a time.”
- Norman Ford


Yet another quote from a guy who's background I was unable to hunt down. But I felt the quote was appropriate since what we “know” about the Twins interest in Cliff Lee is very little. Meanwhile, the speculation is plentiful.

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I mentioned four key questions earlier, so let's break them down, shall we?

Where's all this speculation coming from in the first place?

Obviously, it's mostly media driven. Long about late-May and early-June each baseball season, speculation about major trades starts to ramp up with the non-waiver trade deadline approaching at the end of the July.

That means pundits both national and local start attempting to classify clubs as buyers (those who are in contention for a playoff berth and may be a move or two away from contending for the World Series) or sellers (those who are unlikely to contend for the post- season, but have players whom other teams may covet for a stretch run). It's only natural that a classification process like that would then lead to trying to pair up teams and try to predict possible moves. Hence the Cliff Lee speculation.

Lee was part of a three-team trade this past off-season which sent him from Philadelphia to Seattle. Even then, there were rumblings that if things didn't work out in Seattle, he'd make for a big-time trading chip come July. That only makes sense given his career stats: 95-55, 3.88 ERA, 1.276 WHIP and almost a 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Did I mention he was the 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner? Did I mention he is left-handed?

Yes, Lee's a valuable commodity, and if Seattle chooses to shop him, he'll command a hefty price.

All of that leads me to my next question...

Is the speculation real, or is it just filler?

Perhaps I could sub-title this portion as: where is the speculation not coming from?

First of all, there's been no public indication from the Mariners that they're shopping Lee. When Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik was asked by the Seattle Times about whether he was taking offers for Lee, he said:

“It really depends on how we play in the next 10 days to two weeks. That determines a whole lot of things about this ballclub. Our focus right now is to fight our way back into this thing and see what happens.”

Now, that quote clearly allows for a future trade of Lee, and the truth is, at 13 games back, Seattle is all but out of the AL West race. If Seattle is going to entertain offers at any time, then the next two weeks aren't going to change that. But even if Zduriencik is shopping him now, he won't say so, because denying it only strengthens his position.

Secondly, there's been nothing coming out of 1 Twins Way that would tell us that they're actively pursuing Lee. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was quoted just last week by 1500ESPN.com as saying:

”We like our arms. We like the way they go about it. For the most part, they've all given us opportunities to win games, and that's all you can ask.”

Granted, there's a lot of “manager having his pitchers backs in the media” in that quote. But even while doing that there are ways that a manager can drop hints about being open to bringing in a pitcher via trade if that's what he wants. Gardy chose not to do that.

Should he have? That leads to my next question...

Should the Twins be interested in a Cliff Lee trade?

The answer to this might not be as obvious as you think.

Yes, Lee is a legitimate ace. The numbers speak for themselves. And if there's one clear thing keeping the Twins from being considered a true World Series contender, it's the lack of a clear ace on their starting pitching staff.

Francisco Liriano has ace-like stuff, but he hasn't been the consistent stopper you'd like your ace to be. Scott Baker has the most experience on the staff, and would probably start Game 1 of a playoff series assuming the staff remains as-is. But nobody who's watched his “Moonshot Scott” routine would classify him as a true ace.

Meanwhile, Lee's not only put up more than respectable numbers this season - 5-3, 2.55 ERA, 0.901 WHIP (which leads the AL) - but we've seen him be clutch in the playoffs. In three playoff series last season, Lee went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA and an eye-popping 0.818 WHIP. Included in those numbers are three complete games, one of which was a shut-out. Plus, in his five post-season starts, Lee never pitched less than seven full innings. Those numbers, more than anything else, define him as a legit ace.

So he clearly fits the bill of the kind of pitcher the Twins would covet as they try to make a playoff run. Why, then, am I saying the answer's not obvious?

Because it's not just a matter of going out and getting a guy. In order to get a player like Lee, the Twins will have to pick up a pro-rated portion of his salary, and send a package of players to the Mariners in return. And even if the Twins are willing to part with some prospects, that doesn't mean Seattle will be reasonable with their requests. Remember, Roy Halladay likely would've been moved to the Phillies at last year's trading deadline had Toronto been more reasonable in their demands. But they weren't and it took til this off-season to get the deal done. Seattle doesn't have the same kind of cushion - Lee's a free agent at the end of this season - but that doesn't mean they have to be reasonable with what they ask for.

And that plays into my final question...

Do I think the Twins will ultimately pull the trigger on a deal for Lee?

Sadly, no I don't.

I say “sadly” because I'd love to see them make a bold move like that for once. The Twins have a long history of holding on to prospects like a drowning man holds on to a piece of flotsam. And to a degree, that's understandable.

When you're a mid-market team trying to remain competitive year-in and year-out, the only way to do that is to build a strong farm system that consistently feeds young talent up to the big club. You can add free agents here and there, and make the occasional trade to bolster your roster, but the core of your talent has to be built from within. And of course, the last thing you want to do is trade a minor leaguer away, only to see him blossom as a superstar on another big league club.

Plus, there's no guarantee that making a bold move like that gets you into the World Series. Remember 2008, when Milwaukee surprised the baseball world and traded for CC Sabathia? They gave up four prospects including one of their best, 1B/OF Matt LaPorta, to get CC, and still couldn't get out of the Divisional round. CC left following that season as a free agent for New York, and the Brewers haven't been back to the playoffs since.

But those are reasons for caution, not refusal. Just because you hold on to a prospect, doesn't mean they'll develop into a major league talent. Does the name Adam Johnson ring a bell with anybody? There was a time where teams were sniffing around trying to land him in a trade, but the Twins held on to him to their regret. Similarly, refusing to make a move like that, doesn't guarantee that you'll remain competitive with your young talent. Does anybody think that LaPorta would be helping Milwaukee right now? He can barely crack the roster in Cleveland!

Personally, I'd love to see the Twins take a shot here. $9 million isn't a ridiculous amount of salary to take on, considering their current payroll is in the mid-$90 million range and they're playing 81 games in a ballpark that's a virtual ATM for the club. And there's no doubt in my mind that Lee would be a boon to a starting staff that's had a few rough patches so far this season.

The only question is what they'd have to give up to get him. The name you hear most often is minor league OF Ben Revere. Revere was the Twins 2007 first-round draft pick, and has had a nice run at AA-New Britain. The Twins have depth in the outfield both at the major and minor league level (copyright Bert Blyleven), so they can afford to let Revere go.

The other name you hear mentioned is C Wilson Ramos. Ramos made a brief appearance with the Twins earlier this season, and showed flashes of his enormous potential. Seattle is definitely looking for catching, so that seems like a natural match. Plus with Joe Mauer locked up for the long term, there's not a clear spot for Ramos on the big league roster.

The third element rumored to be part of the discussions is a current big league starter - Kevin Slowey's name comes up a lot. If the Twins were to get Lee, they'd have more starters than they could use, so it makes a certain amount of sense to include a starter in the deal.

But here's the rub: is a guy who'll likely leave as a free agent after the season worth giving up a package like that? Ramos is rated as the Twins number one prospect on many lists, and Revere isn't too far behind. Can the Twins really justify giving up two top prospects and a big league starter to rent a player for three (or hopefully four) months?

That's the trick. As a fan, I'm certainly tempted to encourage them to go for it, but given the team's history, it won't surprise me a bit if they don't.

So what do you think? Should they go for it? Do you think they will? Add a comment by clicking the envelope comment and let everybody know what you think!


That's going to wrap things up for today. I'm off to Milwaukee tomorrow and back with a Twins/Brewers RGC for you on Monday!

Until then, thanks for reading!

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