With rumors swirling that Cliff Lee is about to be traded again, I’m sure the discussion of that trade, in comparison to the trade the Phillies made with the Mariners in December, will find its way into every discussion on this site. So I’m going to cut that off at the pass right here. I’ve already discussed the trade here before, in great detail, but it seems there are still a number of misconceptions about the deal, and a lot of yelling and shouting that seems, to me at least, to be very misguided. Find out why I feel that way below.
I’m going to make this as concise as possible, and use bullet points for clarity. Hopefully this helps to crystallize a number of the issues that people still seem to have with this deal.
* The Phillies believed, rightly or wrongly, that there was no way for them to keep Cliff Lee beyond 2010. Both sides in any discussion, whether it be over Cliff Lee or any other player, have a motive to make themselves look right. Ruben Amaro indicated that the feedback he got from Lee’s camp indicated that he wanted to test the open market, and on the open market he would have gotten 4, 5 and 6 year offers, whereas the Phillies will only give out 3 year deals (plus options) to pitchers. Lee’s camp said there was never much discussion and they didn’t feel like there was zero chance of him re-signing in Philly. No one knows which side is right. That’s true of almost every single trade/signing rumor. You believe what you want to believe. If you’re a regular here, you know I’ve been critical of some of the decisions Amaro has made (the Ibanez signing, the Polanco signing, lack of spending in the draft), but its tough to be critical of something where you don’t have complete information. On the Lee negotiations (or lack thereof), we don’t have complete information, just rumor being spread by people with an agenda on both sides.
* Once the Phillies determined they couldn’t afford Lee in the long term, they decided that it would be better to sign Blanton to a multi year deal, because he would sign for less money and be controlled for a longer period. Blanton’s 2009 was one of his best pro seasons, and was the work of a solid #3 starter, which is what he was asked to be. He was very durable, and he was striking out more players. Had he replicated his 2009 season in 2010, he’d outperform his contract. Of course Blanton got hurt, missed the first part of 2010, and has had a very fluky HR to Flyball ratio this year, and he’s also been somewhat mismanaged by Charlie Manuel and allowed to stay in games when his stuff has diminished. But Blanton at 3/24M is far more manageable than giving Cliff Lee a 6 year deal, especially when you consider that Blanton and Lee had very similar xFIP’s last year. xFIP, for those who don’t know, evaluates a pitcher based on his peripherals and produces an “expected ERA”, in essence. You can look up their numbers at fangraphs.
* So the Phillies then decided that it would be prudent to trade Cliff Lee for prospects, because they were going to trade 3 very good prospects to Toronto for Roy Halladay, a pitcher they knew they could sign for 3 years at a dollar value they felt comfortable with. Now, if you are Ruben Amaro, in the abstract you want to get the best possible return for a player when you trade him. However, you want to avoid trading the player to a team you will be directly competing with, ie, the Braves, Mets, Dodgers, Rockies, Reds, Cardinals, or Padres. By eliminating the 15 other NL teams, you eliminate half of your suitors. If one of those teams were to blow you away, then you listen, but really, what would the reaction have been had Amaro traded Lee to the Braves, or to the Mets? People would have been absolutely furious. On the other side, what if Amaro had traded Lee to the Yankees, just 6 weeks after the Yankees beat the Phillies in the World Series? Rube says that he doesn’t listen to the press and the fans when making a move, but he seemed to be listening in this case.
* The only other plausible explanation is that the Phillies ownership/Dave Montgomery told Amaro he had to trade Lee as soon as he acquired Halladay, because he didn’t want fans thinking that both guys would be on the same pitching staff. If this happened, then Amaro wouldn’t have been able to shop Lee around on the open market, because again it would have created negative fanbase reactions. So, presumably the Phillies went to a team they were deeply familiar with, the Mariners, and gave them a list of guys they really liked. The Phillies have Seattle connections in the front office, and with Pat Gillick, so obviously there was a familiarity there. And this again comes back to the rumors. We have no idea what other teams were offering for a one year rental of Cliff Lee. We have no idea if Rube talked to the Rangers, the Red Sox, the Rays, the Twins, or anyone else. And anything you hear otherwise is just rumor mongering, as I doubt anyone will go on record. There is a rumor that the Yankees inquired, and were willing to trade Jesus Montero plus other prospects for Lee in December, but again, the fan backlash would have been immense, and it would have taken real balls to do that deal at the time, even if your mantra is to “maximize value”.
* So now you have the three players acquired for Cliff Lee, in Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, and JC Ramirez. All three of these guys were immediately shackled with unfair expectations before even taking the field. Lots of scouts and people dissecting the trade felt Aumont was the centerpiece, noting his big arm strength. I was more enamored with Tyson Gillies (and still am), and Keith Law ranked JC Ramirez as the #2 prospect in the Phillies system. Lots of different media outlets liked the players in the deal with different degrees of enthusiasm. Some immediately said the return wasn’t enough, before the players even got a chance to contribute. Then, of course, all three guys get off to fairly quiet starts. Aumont struggles and is demoted, Gillies has missed a large chunk of the season through injury, and Ramirez has simply been average at A+, and then below average after his promotion to AA. Meanwhile, Lee has a predictably good 2 months with the Mariners, and is now getting traded again. Which brings me to…
* The most important point. You have to stop judging things like this in real time, and with incomplete information. We have no idea what was offered to the Phillies for Cliff Lee in December. We have no idea what other real offers were on the table for Lee now. I don’t really love Jesus Montero the way places like Baseball America do. I see him as a 1B who will hit for average and show average power. He doesn’t scream superstar to me. The rumored offer of Aaron Hicks and Wilson Ramos, the Twins two top prospects, has been denied. The Justin Smoak from Texas thing sounds like just a wild rumor. The reality is, teams weren’t going to mortgage their future for a 3 month rental now, and with the thoughts that Lee was always destined for the Yankees anyway, I don’t think teams were going to pay through the nose for him last winter.
* In reality, you can’t even evaluate the Lee to Seattle deal for another 3-5 years, and even then it may be premature. Lee might end up being “worth” $20M this year, maybe more, but he would not have impacted the Phillies bottom line for the 162 game regular season. The only place he could have impacted the bottom line would have been helping to win extra playoff games, and the playoffs are not a guarantee, even if he had re-signed. But the 3 players the Phillies got back could provide a lot more than $20M of future value in their 18 pre-free agency years. Maybe all 3 will flame out and it will end up being a bad deal. But you don’t know that now, and the bashing of all 3 of them is really over the top and ill informed, to be completely honest. All 3 players are/were young for their 2010 opening day assignments, and all three have decently high ceilings. If Aumont and Ramirez become just above average relief pitchers, they will provide $20M in value, combined, over their 12 pre-free agency years. If Gillies becomes at least an average every day CF in the majors, he’ll provide over $20M in value alone. At the same time, you can’t say that the Phillies “won” the original Cliff Lee deal with Cleveland by concluding those prospects are worthless and are busts. All 4 of those guys might come good, or all 4 might wash out. You have to wait. Just like you have to wait to determine the worth of the 3 guys we received from Seattle.
* But really, what it comes down to is simple; you just need to move on. Baseball is a funny game, and no matter how much you think you know, or have things figured out, something always surprises you. Without the Joe Blanton trade 2 years ago, there’s a good chance we don’t win the World Series. Without the pickup of Tad Iguchi in 2007 when Utley got hurt, there’s a great chance we never catch the Mets and break our playoff drought. There will be moves made by lots of teams that will sway their chances of making the playoffs, either this year or setting up their team for years down the road. If you make a snap judgment, the return on the Lee deal with Seattle doesn’t look good, or doesn’t look as good as what they might get from the Yankees. But evaluating trades in that manner misses the big picture, and is often done in a sloppy, half hearted manner. I think we need to wait and see what happens, and more importantly, just focus on the players we have, not deals that were made 6 months ago. Who cares about Cliff Lee? Its not like he was Philly born and bred and then run out of town. He was a mercenary brought in to help us win the World Series. It didn’t work, he moved on, and now he’s been traded again, like a true mercenary. I don’t wish him any harm, and I’m glad for what he provided the team last year. But the 2010 team has their own problems, and there is no guarantee that Lee would be the cure for what ails this team now. So just move on, be done with it, support the guys we have, and don’t worry about trying to dissect rumors filled with conjecture and incomplete information.