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.


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