Better Without Cliff Lee?

Right this second, Cliff Lee is the best pitcher in baseball.  His numbers are ridiculous, and beyond the numbers, he’s dominant in a way that has to be seen to be understood.  We often joke that Ichiro can hit the ball exactly where he wants to at any time.   I think Cliff Lee’s at the point where he can do anything he wants on the mound.  Wednesday night, he gave up two doubles in a row with no outs and didn’t give up a run in the inning.  Granted, one of the doubles was a bloop where the Mariners forgot to cover second, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this was the first time in history where a team had two consecutive doubles, without someone being thrown out on the bases, yet couldn’t score in the inning.  He’s ridiculous.  Need a strikeout?  Not a problem.  Want a pop-up for fun?  Here you go, Wilson Brothers!

I would be very happy if the Mariners signed Lee to a 5 year $125 million contract tomorrow.  They could go to $150 mil. and I’d be happy.  Unfortunately, the chances of that happening are extremely small.  In all likelihood, he’ll be traded in the next couple of weeks.  If we’re lucky as fans, he’ll be in Seattle long enough to start the all-star game in a Mariners hat, but even that’s doubtful.

We’ll have a goodbye post when he’s actually gone, though.  The point of this post is to examine if it’s possible for the Mariners to get better by trading Lee.  I’m not talking about in future years, either.  A trade has to make them better in 2011 and beyond or else it’s a bust.  Which isn’t out of the realm of possibility.  What I’m wondering is if the Mariners can become a better baseball team in 2010 with whatever they get back in a Cliff Lee trade.

Trading the best pitcher in baseball is generally not a good way to improve your team, but the Mariners’ problem since the beginning of the season has been scoring runs.  Even during this past 6-game win streak, they only scored 19 runs, with 13 of those coming in two games.  Right now, they’re averaging 3.43 runs per game, which is abysmal.  To be a contender, I’d say they need to be at 4.25 at the very least, and that would still be extremely tough.  Joe Posnanski had a great post recently about the value of scoring 5 runs a game, and the gist of it is that teams that score 5 runs or more a game are usually the successful ones.  The Braves right now are something like 31-0 when they score 5 runs or more.  The Braves are in first place.

Me telling you the Mariners need offense is not exactly profound though, so let’s look at some trade scenarios.  In any situation, They’ll be losing Cliff Lee from the rotation.  Hopefully Erik Bedard will be back around the same time and will ease the strain, but even Bedard isn’t at Lee’s current level.  And even if Bedard is in the rotation, that means that RRS or Luke French or someone is also in the rotation.  If Bedard isn’t back, two of those guys are starting every fifth day.  With Bedard, it’s a hit.  Without Bedard, it’s a huge hit.

Looking at what they might get back, I see several distinct possibilities:

  • The dream return, in which the Mariners get a young impact bat that everyone is currently saying isn’t a possibility.  A guy like Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Joey Votto.  Justin Smoak is close to this group, but I think he’s a tiny bit more realistic.  Still, I’d say the chance of this type of player in return is miniscule to non-existent.
  • The almost-ready mega-prospect.  Smoak would be the ultimate in this group.  The next step down would be a guy like the Yankees’ Jesus Montero or the Reds’ Yonder Alonso.  They could fill a need and probably step in now, but might not contribute a ton until next season (or later).  I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up with one of these types of guys, but a lot of other people would be surprised, and I wouldn’t bet on it myself.
  • A good prospect who fills a need.  Wilson Flores, the Twins’ oft-discussed Triple-A catcher, is a good example here.  With the bat, he’s projected to hit something like .260 with homers in the 20s at his peak.  Good, but not incredible.  The problem in his case is that he’s struggling right now and wouldn’t really be ready until next year at the earliest.  That’s going to be the case with anyone from this group: they’d be an upgrade, but not a huge impact bat, and even if they’re ready to play this year, they probably won’t contribute significantly.
  • A young, slightly above-average major leaguer.  I haven’t heard many examples here, other than Angel Pagan of the Mets.  This would be a nice piece to have, but not necessarily someone to build the team around.  Although, Franklin or Mike Cameron would have fit this category when their trades were made, so you never know.
  • Pitching.  Whether it be a Kevin Slowey type major leaguer or a top prospect from the minors, a return centering on pitching is a distinct possibility.

The only clear chance I see for the Mariners to improve their 2010 team is with the first type of return, an impact bat already proven in the majors.  Not surprisingly, this is also the least likely return.  Even if the Mariners got, say, Justin Smoak or Colby Rasmus, there’s no guarantee they’d improve.  They’d lose Lee, there would likely be a mental let-down from the club, and this team has too many holes to fill. 

Now, say the Mariners pull a big package from the Mets.  Maybe Jon Niese, Pagan, and a younger guy like Wilson Flores, a single-A shortstop.  This would be a pretty big and unlikely return, so don’t plan on it.  I’m just throwing out examples here.  Flores would be in the minors for a couple more years, but he’d be one of our top prospects right away.  For this year, Pagan would probably be a step up in left, but not a huge one, and Niese would move into the rotation as a very solid starter.  Would the team be better right now?  Probably not, but I’m not sure they’d be a ton worse, either.

The actual return the Mariners get will likely be vastly different from any names I’ve thrown out here.  These big trades are almost always different from what everyone’s expecting.  Whatever they get though, it’s clearly going to have more positive impact on 2011 and beyond than it will on this year’s team.  But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Getting multiple players who can help now, which is what they would need to be better, would probably mean those players have less potential, and in this case I’d rather have the potential all-stars.  But given that the Mariners would only be subtracting one pitcher, as good as he is, there’s a pretty good chance they’re not decidedly worse after the trade, either.*

-Matthew

*You would think I could have come up with a more exciting conclusion after 1200 words, so here it is: hope Justin Smoak is a Mariner soon.

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