The Cliff Lee Trade: New York’s Perspective

It’s not official yet, but all indications point to the Yankees and the Mariners completing a deal for Cliff Lee before tonight’s game, in which Lee was scheduled to face his new team. As Dave explained, the Mariners did well to acquire a top-10 prospect and others. For the Yankees the deal is a bit more complicated.

The clear and obvious benefit is the addition of Cliff Lee to the rotation. With CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, Javier Vazquez, and Phil Hughes the Yankees already have a strong starting five, but the addition to Lee represents an upgrade over every one of them except maybe Sabathia. Even then, Lee has the second lowest FIP among starters during the last three years. Sabathia ranks fifth. They represent of one the best, if not the best, one-two punches in baseball. Adding any three of the other four behind them makes for the best rotation in baseball.

A pitcher like Cliff Lee, even if just a rental, doesn’t come cheap. The Yankees had to sacrifice their No. 1 prospect, Jesus Montero, in addition to one or two more prospects, to complete the deal. Marc Hulet ranked Montero his No. 4 AL prospect this season, Keith Law ranked him No. 10 in MLB, Baseball America ranked him No.4, as did Kevin Goldstein. He’s a world-class bat that will play at any position — which is a good thing for the Mariners, because nearly every prospect pundit claims that he will not stick at catcher. Is it worth the sacrifice of a consensus top bat to acquire three-plus months of a world-beating pitcher? Or, more to the point, why do the Yankees think that the exchange works for them?

Montero likely would have debuted for the Yankees some time in 2011, whether at catcher or as a DH. With Jorge Posada entering the last year of his contract age 40, the possibility of adding another heavy hitting catcher would certainly have been attractive. But Posada is still under contract, and if healthy he will continue to play as much as possible behind the plate. Once his contract expires after 2011, another Yankees’ top catching prospect, Austin Romine, could be ready for the majors. At AA this season Romine is hitting .281/.361/.432 and is headed to the Futures Game. He is widely considered a far superior defensive catcher, and it appears his bat is starting to catch up. His presence, along with another handful of catchers in the lower minors, might make the Yankees feel a bit better about dealing Montero.

What further complicates this deal is that the Yankees not only have to be comfortable trading Montero in the first place, but have to be comfortable trading him for an upgrade to an already strong starting rotation. Last year, when the Indians traded Lee to the Phillies, the Yankees actually had a rotation problem. With Chien-Ming Wang out for the season and the team unwilling to move Phil Hughes out of the bullpen, the Yankees could have used a starter. When the second half began they used Sergio Mitre as their fifth starter. In that case Lee would have represented a significant upgrade. The scenario is a bit different this year, with Vazquez representing the rotation’s weakest cog. After a poor start he has pitched as well as the Yankees could have expected. That makes the Montero-Lee swap seem a bit worse from the Yankees’ perspective.

The real reason I think they moved is because of concerns with the bottom of the rotation. Phil Hughes has an innings limit, 170 to 180 innings, and while he’s at a decent place heading into the break, around 100 after his start tonight, adding Lee gives them more flexibility in managing those innings. The Yankees have two days off all of August and skipping him could be tough. Adding another starter would help ease that process.

Then come Burnett and Vazquez, two pitchers who have been good if not inconsistent this season. Vazquez, again, has recovered after a poor start, but that doesn’t end concerns about him. His fastball velocity is down by about 2 mph, and his slider hasn’t been as effective a weapon this season. Burnett’s career has been marked by inconsistency, and he hasn’t done anything to buck that reputation this year. He started off strong, but posted a June to forget, allowing 29 runs in 23 innings during his five starts. He has since recovered, but like Vazquez this doesn’t erase concerns. His velocity, too, is a bit down, and his curveball hasn’t been nearly as effective. While he’s using a two-seamer to induce more ground balls, he is not striking out nearly as many hitters as in the past.

Adding Lee, then, helps alleviate those concerns. He gives them another dependable arm, someone they can count on every five days without worrying whether he’ll make it out of the fourth inning. The presence of another ace also takes the pressure off Hughes, whom the Yankees can now afford to skip and eventually move to the bullpen for the playoffs.

The Yankees also realize a number of side benefits from this deal. They were, and still are, the favorites to sign Lee once he becomes a free agent this winter. The difference is that if they re-sign him as their own player they won’t sacrifice their first round pick in the strong 2011 draft. The move also prevents Lee from landing with the Twins, Rays, or Rangers, teams the Yankees might have to face in the playoffs. The swing of having Lee pitch for them and not against them is enormous. Neither of these reasons can be a primary motivator in a trade, but they’re certainly worthy consolations.

The final side benefit is that they can now trade Vazquez for a bat. This is not a necessity, and the Yankees might choose to use their pitching advantage to its fullest. But the allure of acquiring another bat is one that will be difficult to ignore. The team has already lost Nick Johnson, and a recent injury setback could mark the end of his season. While Posada has taken reps at DH, he is still more valuable to the Yankees at catcher. Adding a DH/OF type player would only benefit a lineup that already ranks second in the AL in runs per game. Plenty of contenders could use an arm like Vazquez, so the Yankees shouldn’t have much difficulty finding a match if they’re so inclined.

If the Yankees stand to benefit from this type of move, then why haven’t they done anything like this before. At the deadline last year they declined to trade for Lee, and during the off-season they didn’t get in heavily on either the Lee or the Roy Halladay deals. GM Brian Cashman has said many times that he prefers to avoid paying for a player in prospects and then again with a big-money extension. He declined to do it in 2008, when the Twins traded Johan Santana. So why now? Joel Sherman provides the insight:

Yankee officials simply feel that their farm system is in a different place today than it was back then. For example, they have the catching and second base depth organizationally to move Montero and Adams. Also, for Santana, the Yanks would have had to include Phil Hughes and Melky Cabrera. They felt they had no other prospect nearly as good as Hughes, and his loss would be devastating. And Cabrera was the starting center fielder and the Yanks felt they would have had to go outside the organization to add a center fielder through free agency or yet another trade.

Now they don’t have to touch the major league roster to get Lee.

Losing a prospect is never easy, especially now when fans can follow these players with a close eye. When that prospect is a consensus top-10 and is playing in AAA as a 20-year-old, the loss becomes even more painful. But for a team in the Yankees position that prospect sometimes becomes a necessary sacrifice. They have a number of aging players on the roster, including Posada, Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and even Alex Rodriguez. Adding Cliff Lee brings them closer to another championship before the windows for these players close. That, I think, is the primary motivation behind this trade.

The move hurts the Yankees in the long run, in that they’re giving up one of the best prospects in baseball for three-plus months of a pitcher that they stood a good chance to sign after the season. Had they waited they could have had Montero and Lee. But there is still plenty to be won and lost in those three-plus months. The Yankees obviously think that the heightened chance to win this season is worth trading someone of Montero’s caliber. If nothing else, it shows the value they place on another World Series Championship.




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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

60 Responses to “The Cliff Lee Trade: New York’s Perspective”

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  1. lee d says:

    i really think having two aces (and the fact that lee owned the yanks last yr) in the rotation is the prmie motive for this.

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    • Zack says:

      4/16: 6 IP, 7 H, 1 ER, 3BB, 4 SO
      5/11: 6 IP, 9 H, 3 ER, 2BB, 5 SO
      10/28: 9 IP, 6 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 10 SO
      11/2: 7 IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 3 BB, 3 SO

      I wouldnt exactly say he “owned” them.

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  2. Dan Lewis says:

    At the end of the day, let’s say the Yankees end up with Lee and Werth, two players they’d sign as free agents anyway (if they could), by flipping Vazquez to Philly. That’d save them two draft picks and give them Lee and Werth in 2010. Hard to argue w/that.

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    • hank says:

      Yeah but for Vazquez they would have got a 1st rounder (probably higher then the one they’d be giving up for Lee) and a sandwich pick so it’s a net negative. If they signed Werth and Lee as FA’s they’d be sacrificing their first and 2nd rd picks.

      Assuming Vazquez is a Type A, the Yankees end up worse in terms of draft picks (unless someone in the Top 15 picked up Vazquez in which case it’d be roughly even) in the Lee/Werth scenario

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      • king j says:

        They would only get that if they offered Vazquez arbitration which they wont ala damon last year (i think

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      • Brian says:

        I think the Yanks would offer Vasquez arbitration because pitchers have a tendency to make more money in free agency than aging position players, but the Yanks could also get draft picks by not signing Werth. They upgrade their DH position by grabbing Werth and moving Swisher there and also can grab the draft picks Vasquez would’ve netted them by letting Werth go.

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  3. lee d says:

    if they could trade for werth (even just as a rental), i would do a cartwheel

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  4. kiluckzle says:

    The only way the Phils trade away Werth is if they fall out of contention and they aren’t going to be taking Javier Vazquez if they do. Phils fall out of contention, they trade Werth for prospects.

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    • lee d says:

      im not saying it will happen, but there’s some rumors pointing to it. and i will still do a cartwheel if it happens

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      • Brian says:

        Joe Blanton, Jamie Moyer, and Kyle Kendrick won’t get the Phillies to the playoffs though. The Phillies have to do something so the Yanks should at least make the offer.

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      • That’s probably something the Phils should’ve known this off season before they traded Cliff Lee.

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    • Kevin S. says:

      Vazquez and Dominic Brown probably is better for the Phillies than Werth and Kendrick. Also, what mattymatty2000 said can’t be emphasized enough.

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  5. sebastian says:

    Why do the rich always get richer? The Yankees already have a stacked rotation and currently possess the best record in the league. Locking in back to back World Series wins does not bode well for the game. The economics of the game gives small market teams, like the Twins and Reds, no chance to ever see a guy like Lee if the Yankees can trade for him and then pay him in the offseason as a free agent.

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    • Jon says:

      And yet, it makes no difference, as we see multiple teams make it and win.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Yeah, it makes no difference. How many teams have basically made the playoffs every year for the past decade? Oh yeah … one.

        Let’s not put all the weight on the randomness of a short series to mask the overlying situation.

        Baseball is unlike other sports in that even when the best and worst teams play 10 games against each other, the worst will still win 2 or 3 of those games.

        So, in a shorter series anything can happen. That’s the only saving grace as to why the NYY haven’t won 1.5 to 2 times as many titles as they have.

        Multiple teams make it and win it due to [1] the number of playoff teams was doubled with divisional realignment & the wild card, and [2] the randomness of baseball (short series).

        Let’s look at [1] how many division titles they have won in the last decade, and [2] the number of playoff appearances. Both of those reflect team strength over 162 games, which is a better measure of team quality. Not so much parity.

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    • bc2208 says:

      Lee was an Indian for 7 1/2 years and he’s a Mariner right now. Are those large market teams?

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  6. chongo says:

    The Yanks have a good rotation to make it to the playoffs- but they do NOT have a good rotation to get them through the playoffs against good teams. The back three pitchers are nothing to hang your hat on in the postseason. Lee, with CC and Pettite would give them that “Iron Three” that could each pitch twice in most series. I really think Pettite will be gassed by that point as well.

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    • lee d says:

      exactly how i see it

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      I don;t think the NYY are counting on their rotation to carry them through the playoffs, as say, StL was doing with Wainwright and Carpenter.

      I hear the NYY have some pretty good hitters up and down their lineup, so they probably aren’t expecting their starters to hold their opponents to a run or 2.

      It’s like poker, having a bunch of face cards doesn’t gurantee you having a winning hand, but it sure does swing the odds in your favor in a big way.

      Whern you acquire 2 or so of the top free agents every year, that puts you in a unique situation. As I said previously, I don;t see how they haven’t won more titles than they have.

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    • pounded clown says:

      This is just bar talk meaning take with a grain of salt as passing conversation between two baseball fans. When you think Yankees where does your mind go. The Bronx Bombers not the Small Balling Spitfires. Not to say they haven’t had great pitchers but for the most part they have beaten teams into submission with a stacked line-up. That said Evil AJ seems to be toeing the rubber these days so another starter might be necessary, however a solid number 2 would suffice.

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  7. Phantom Stranger says:

    By trading for Cliff Lee now, they also guarantee they do not have to face him from another contender in this year’s playoffs. Adding Cliff Lee now increases their probability to make it to the World Series this year.

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  8. Tom says:

    What’s really terrifying about this is that Cashman finally realized that it didn’t make sense to not use the Yankees greatest strength — their ability to carry a way higher payroll than any other team. It never really made sense for the Yankees to hang on to prospects when they could instead just sign the best free agent available. Why bother hanging on to Phil Hughes when you could have Johan Santana and if Hughes turns out to be good they could just sign him when he became a free agent. In effect, they could make the rest of the majors their own farm system.

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    • kiluckzle says:

      They’ve been doing that for a while. Obviously, not a bad strategy when there is no payroll worries.

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      • Tom says:

        Actually they haven’t been doing it. They had to the chance to trade for Johan Santana and didn’t do it because they didn’t want to surrender Phil Hughes. Not did they attempt to trade for Miguel Cabrera after the 2007 season. Cashman finally got smart the last offseason and signed the best two free agents (Teixeira and Sabathia) but also wasted money on Burnett (who they wouldn’t have needed if they traded for Santana).

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      • Brian says:

        I thought they had cleared enough cap space for LeBron, DWADE, and Bosh as well since salary caps are so important.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      That started when the bought Babe Rith so another owner could stay in business.

      That’s old hat for the NYY, and it really thrived in the Golden era, when the only way other teams could compete was to sign talent out of the negro leagues.

      NYY is in a very unique situation. While I complain about it, it certainly would be stupid for the to self-impose limits that would hurt their application of their biggest advantage (20M people in a wealthy area with great baseball tradition).

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    • Briks says:

      You realize Hughes is better than Santana and makes about 1/20 the money? That would have been a terrible trade.

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      • Tom says:

        Hughes is better than Santana? When exactly? Certainly not in 2008 or 2009 and not this year either. And who cares that his salary is $20m less than Santana’s? Certainly not the Yankees given that they would have been the odds on favorite to win the WS in 2008.

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      • Kevin S. says:

        Hughes has a superior xFIP, tERA, K/9, an equivalent FIP and BB/9, and plays in the big boys league. Johan has a better ERA which appears to be primarily driven by a HR/FB rate barely half his career rate. Johan pitches in spacious Citi, Hughes pitches in NYS. So how, exactly, is Johan better than Phil? Because he plays in a big ballpark against lesser hitters?

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  9. Pat N says:

    I hate to lose Montero, but with Texeira and Arod locked up forever, there’s really no place for him on the roster. I guess even the Yankees don’t see him sticking at catcher.

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    • Brian says:

      I think the Yanks see a chance to grab a front line starter and it doesn’t really mean anything about Montero abilities to play catcher as they are playing the worst defensive catcher in baseball not named Victor Martinez right now (Jorge Posada). The Yanks can improve their rotation and have 3 catching prospects behind Montero (Romine, Murphy, and Sanchez) while they allow Cervelli to caddy for Posada for 1 more year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Romine added to the club next year at some point. 3 yrs ago the yanks couldn’t do this deal because as the article eluded to the Yanks didn’t have depth in their system but now they do so they can make these moves regardless of how the scouts see some 20 yr old’s defensive ability.

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  10. Mike HC says:

    Nice write up Joe. Agree completely.

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  11. STRATOBILL says:

    I find it amusing that anyone would suggest that this might not be a good
    deal for the Yankees. Montero could be the next Manny Ramirez, but he
    could also be the next Ben Petrick or Alex Gordon. In other words, he may be great or he may be a player who never rises above ordinary.

    Cliff Lee is without a doubt one of the top 5 pitchers in baseball over the past 3
    seasons. He is at the top of his game. The Yankees starting rotation would be
    absolutely awesome if the get Lee. They may not have a current weakness in their rotation but what if one or more of their current starters goes down between now and October? Acquiring Lee would make the Yankees prohibitive favorites to win the world series.

    For any other team maybe there might be a legitimate concern about trading away a top prospect for 3 monthes of Cliff Lee. But not for the Yankees. With
    all their money, they will be able to buy a bat equivilant to Montero to add to their lineup in 2011 or 2012 if they need to. Their concern right now is fighting off the Rays and Red Sox and Lee would be a great weapon to add to their arsenal.

    I believe the Mariners hold the upper hand here and should hold out for more.

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    • Captain says:

      but what more are the Mariners going to get? the Yankees arent giving up more. and what other team with a need for Lee is offering a top 10 prospect in baseball? Dave’s entry on this was spot on. the Mariners are coming out ahead compared to what they gave up for Lee.

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      • Mike HC says:

        Agreed, Dave’s entry was also on target. For a team that is in desperate need of cheap power from anywhere on the field or even DH, this was an excellent deal for them.

        But as Dave mentioned, the fact that Seattle is getting more for Lee than they gave up is an indictment of the Phillies, and not the Yanks.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      I agree comepletely.

      [1] We evaluate the NYY the same we do every other team, even though they are their own situation. If we used the same WAR/$ system that we use for other teams, we’d conclude that every contract the NYY give is “over-paid” … well, no duh. They don’t care.

      [2] If I were SEA I would do everything I could to get MIN, TEX, BOS, TBR, involved in the sweepstakes and see if the price can be driven up. That’s tought to do when the NYY come out swinging with a prospect no other team can (or will) match. The NYY are taking the fun out of acquiring the rare talent. At least with Teixeira they let BOS think they were going to sign him until the sniped him at the end. Now, they aren;t even playing around.

      I also agree with whoever else said the NYY shouldn;t evn mess around with playing prospects. Vier the rest of MLB as your farm system. You can sign them back once they have went from prospect to All-Star. Yeah, it costs you a whole bunch more money, but there’s also less risks, and you likely won a couple of titles during the 5 years they were “developing” anyway.

      The situations that cause other organizations to worry and hesitate don’t apply to NYY. They are a completely diofferent and seperate entity.

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      • Mike HC says:

        I don’t agree 100% with the idea that the Yanks can completely ignore their farm system.

        The only reason we were able to make this trade for Lee, was because of the commitment we have had to the farm for the last five years. Stockpiling catching talent throughout all levels of our minor league system, gave us the depth necessary to get rid of our top guy.

        And don’t forget that Jeter, Mo, Jorge, Cano, Pettitte, Bernie, Gardner etc … were all Yankee prospects that we did not trade. And worked out quite well.

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    • Brian says:

      Anytime your trading prospects your risking quite a bit. The Yanks will need a catcher within the next year so trading your top prospect now when he is close to MLB ready is risky. As you have probably seen in the Granderson trade it doesn’t always work out that the veteran player is better than the prospect, but in this case with Romine, Murphy, and Sanchez behind Montero the Yanks can get limit the risk and improve their rotation.

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      • Mike HC says:

        The majority of people don’t think Montero is even a passable Major League Catcher. Are the Yanks really go to have the patience to play a horrible young catcher every single day, while also trying to improve his offense?

        The Yanks most likely saw him as a DH.

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      • Brian says:

        They have enough patience to play a terrible and idiotic catcher in Jorge Posada for 10+ yrs so yeah they would put up with Montero back there if he hits the way he is projected to hit.

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      • Mike HC says:

        I think the general thinking is that Montero is not even close to as good as Jorge.

        Plus, the Yanks have taken more of a run prevention stance recently, and I believe they want their catcher of the future to be a good defender, not a project.

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      • Captain says:

        i dont think anyone saw Montero in the majors next year as a catcher or otherwise. so yes Montero is close but close for the Yankees doesnt always cut it. the Yankees possibly just dont see a position for Montero in the majors and are maximizing the return for him now

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    • Anon21 says:

      Eh, I’m not sure it’s possible to be the prohibitive favorite to win the World Series before the postseason even begins. Obviously, they’ll make it, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised (or a bit sorry) to see the Yanks exit in the Division Series. Not because I see some hidden weakness that everyone else is missing, but just because in a best-of-five series it’s very easy for a bit of bad luck to determine the outcome.

      But clearly, having a rock-solid No. 1 starter makes you far less likely to fall victim to that sort of bad luck. So congrats to the Yankees, and to all the people who came to the casino to root for the house.

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  12. Steven says:

    One other benefit to the Yankees: by trading for Cliff Lee today, they don’t have to play against him tonight. This greatly improves their odds of winning tonight’s game against the Mariners, which could mean another win in the standings. In a tight AL East race, every win counts.

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    • Anon21 says:

      If this seriously entered into Cashman’s consideration in a more than fleeting way, he’s a fool. Yes, every win counts, but come on…giving up any part of a Top 10 prospect for a marginally improved chance to win a single game in July?

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  13. BX says:

    What if this doesn’t happen?

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  14. Kevin says:

    The Yankees swooned throughout the 2000s because they had traded so many of their prospects and relied upon big money free agents. Their resurgence has come because they have developed their farm system, and allowed players to go through it and make it with the big club. Having the biggest checkbook is without a doubt their biggest strength, but that doesn’t mean they can let the farm system rot. As a Yankee fan, I don’t know how to feel about this trade if it goes down like this, but as long as Lee resigns next year, which they must plan to do to be making this trade now, I think I will be happy with it long term.

    If the Yankees have decided Montero is not going to stick as a catcher, trading him makes more sense to me, since that is what makes him most valuable, his bat at that premium position- certainly his bat is going to be epic, but there’s no room for him as a corner infielder for awhile, and a slugging corner outfielder or DH is far easier to find than a slugging catcher. If we label Montero a DH prospect, is he still a top ten prospect? Perhaps, but I think he has to lose some luster…

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Swooned throught he 2000′s? They made the playoffs essentially every year. BOS finally decided to spend like them, and that (combined with playoff randomness) were the reasons for their “drought”.

      The swooned through the mid 80s to the mod 90s because they didn;t outspend everyone to a large degree.

      I agree that their resurgence was due, in part, to their homegrown talent (but they also have overpaid to retain that homegrown talent … i.e., no other team would pay Rivera, Jeter, etc the salary they make with NYY). But, it’s not a necessity for them, like it is with other teams. It’s great if they can have their prospects pan out and be on their roster, but it’s not a requirements. If they want, they CAN sign the best free agents each and every year. The only drawback is their payroll is 20-40M higher than it could be, but that’s not a big obstacle for them.

      In short, the NYY don;t HAVE to play their prospects due to budget constraints. For example, they wouldn’t HAVE to play Freese at 3rd or any other example like that.

      It is “smart baseball” to develop prospects, but for the NYY it’s not the same requirement that it is for other teams.

      The worst thing for the other teams, would be for the NYY to start hoarding prospects and being smart with their money. But, they don;t have to and there’s no real reason for them to, as no prospect is going to provide the value that Cliff Lee is.

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      • Raf says:

        It helped to sign guys like Wade Boggs, Jimmy Key, etc. They were just as active on the FA market, and they were able to take on the salary of guys like David Cone, Cecil Fielder, John Wetteland, etc.

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  15. BobCVA says:

    “Not good for baseball”? How so? Having the best team in the biggest market makes more money for all those teams who fleeced their taxpayers to build new stadiums that no one goes to. Not to mention the millions that the NYY send to those teams in ‘luxury’ taxes. Tampa Bay, with some of the best, most exciting young players in the game, can’t fill the joint unless the Yankees or Red Sox are in town. Sorry, but spare me the violin concerto.

    Trading an unproven talent for a left handed pitcher at the top of his game can only be good for the Yankees. The Hughes innings issue, Burnett’s inconsistency, and Pettitte’s age are all potential problems come late August/September, and Lee solves nearly all of them. And Vasquez is an arm that can get them another bat, or some sorely needed bullpen help. If Cashman can get Lee for Montero and Adams, he’d be insane not to pull the trigger.

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    • Anon21 says:

      When he says “not good for baseball,” I doubt he’s thinking of the owners. It’s not good for the fans who watch those small-market teams when the Yankees steamroll everyone. The payroll disparity is really cutting into the competitiveness of the sport. Obviously, this is not a new phenomenon, but it’s trades like this that remind us that the business of baseball rigs the sport of baseball.

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  16. Mike Green says:

    Montero is a great prospect obviously, but he has taken a small step backward this year. I suspect that most evaluators would have him a little lower in the rankings.

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  17. Eric Cioe says:

    This article looks totally useless now.

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    • joser says:

      Not really. The analysis is still solid, and the background on the Yankees prospects still worth reading. Not to mention it puts the ultimate package surrendered for Lee in context. When big deals happen you rarely hear much about the other offers that were turned down.

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  18. ms says:

    Man, I don’t see how the Cliff Lee trade makes the Yankees better or worse really…

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  19. Steve S. says:

    Terrific stuff, Joe. Really enjoyed it.

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