It will be popular to suggest that Jon Daniels has just made the opposite of his 2007 trade of Mark Teixeira to Atlanta, buying now as he sold then, but I'm thinking of another trade that Friday's acquisition of Cliff Lee reminds me of, in a 180-degree sort of way.
Daniels had been on the job a little more than a month when, days before Thanksgiving 2005, Florida traded big leaguers Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, and Guillermo Mota for prospects Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Jesus Delgado, and Harvey Garcia. It was clear from a barrage of local and national media reports that, prior to the trade going down, Florida and Texas had been on the verge of closing a deal themselves, one that supposedly would have sent the same Marlins trio (though some reports omitted Mota) to Texas for Hank Blalock, John Danks, and possibly Joaquin Arias.
Because Daniels, the youngest General Manager in baseball, had no trading track record, there were columns written denouncing the 28-year-old for failing to pull the trigger on the opportunity to land Beckett (the groundwork having reportedly been proposed by Florida owner Jeffrey Loria to Rangers owner Tom Hicks). Daniels himself has admitted he might have been too deliberate in his efforts to solicit input from within the organization.
But there has also been the notion that the player Florida wanted all along was Ramirez, and that a key reason Loria approached Hicks at the Owners' Meetings was to get him fired up about the idea of bringing the budding young ace home to Texas - which, the Marlins hoped, would be the leverage they needed to get Boston to agree to part with Ramirez. As talks progressed, stories emerged that a deal between Texas and Florida was expected to be finalized at any moment.
In stepped Boston, and Texas was boxed out.
That's the deal I thought about yesterday when I read this comment from Tyler Kepner in the New York Times:
[N]obody likes to feel used, and privately, that was the Yankees' prevailing sentiment on Friday, when the Seattle Mariners traded the All-Star left-hander Cliff Lee to the Texas Rangers for a four-player package headlined by Justin Smoak, a switch-hitting first baseman they had coveted for weeks.
Cliff Lee, Josh Beckett.
Justin Smoak, Hanley Ramirez.
New York, Texas.
The Yankees, according to Kepner, felt "they were a pawn" as Seattle fielded offers for Lee, and nobody can accuse New York of being slow on any trigger. When the Rangers told Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik, evidently on Friday, that they'd put Smoak in the deal, he used the ankle injury to Yankees AA second baseman David Adams - unquestionably the secondary piece in the New York offer that was fronted by 20-year-old catcher Jesus Montero - as an excuse to back out of a deal that the entire national media had characterized as virtually done, one that apparently was agreed on pending the review of medicals. It took only two hours, according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, for Texas to pounce in and close a deal.
(Said Passan of the "livid" Yankees: "This is how it feels. This, New York, is what it's like to be a baseball fan anywhere else in the country.")
(An "angered" Yankees official to Joel Sherman and George A. King III of the New York Post, regarding the "double-dealing" Mariners: "The Yankees do not do business that way. When we say something is a deal, it is a deal. . . . This is frustrating and disappointing.")
When Zduriencik told reporters Friday afternoon, after the announcement of the trade that sent Lee, reliever Mark Lowe, and $2.25 million to Texas for Smoak, righthanders Blake Beavan and Josh Lueke, and second baseman-outfielder Matt Lawson, that Smoak was one of four or five players he and his staff had pinpointed around the league as key trade targets, it became clear that even if Montero was on that list, Smoak was higher on it.
He was their Hanley Ramirez.
More evidence that that's what was going on here? Seattle held the number one trade asset in the league in Lee. The conventional trade deadline doesn't arrive for another three weeks. So why didn't the Mariners sit tight, letting demand build and desperation mount as July 31 approached?
As of yesterday, they could get Montero but not shortstop Eduardo Nunez (who they reportedly asked for in place of Adams [who hasn't played in seven weeks], after the Yankees initially agreed to substitute righthander Adam Warren for Adams).
They evidently couldn't get Mets first baseman Ike Davis.
Or Dodgers righthander Chad Billingsley or first baseman James Loney.
Or Tampa Bay outfielder Desmond Jennings.
Or Twins catcher Wilson Ramos plus outfielder Aaron Hicks, rather than Ramos plus righthander Kevin Slowey.
But what if one of those teams reconsidered later this month? Why did Zduriencik jump on July 9?
Because he got his number one man. He wanted Smoak. Texas agreed to move Smoak. Ballgame.
(Not that it was a widely popular decision. Several national writers have weighed in over the last 24 hours, suggesting that Montero should have been the Mariners' choice. Said Joe Sheehan, for example: "You're not going to win a Cliff Lee trade because Blake Beavan or David Adams works out; you're going to win it because you got a player who anchors a future contender or champion. Justin Smoak may be that player, but Jesus Montero is that player.")
It obviously benefits Texas a ton to get Lee now rather than at the deadline. These three weeks that remain in July should mean four or five extra Cliff Lee starts that might have otherwise gone to Matt Harrison, or perhaps Rich Harden or Derek Holland coming off of injury. And not just any four or five starts. Though Texas could adjust the rotation differently after next week's All-Star Break, Lee could face Baltimore tonight, then Boston on the road, Detroit on the road, the Angels at home, and the Angels on the road, all this month.
Put another way, a bad team that Texas desperately needs to punish tonight after brutal collapses the last two nights (by a bullpen that desperately needs a starter to go deep), followed by four very good teams.
I could lay out Lee's numbers against those clubs the last couple years, but what's the point? He's been brilliant against almost everyone.
Including in the biggest games. In five post-season starts last year with Philadelphia, Lee went 4-0, 1.56 (including the Phillies' two World Series wins), holding the Rockies, Dodgers, and Yankees to a .186/.219/.241 slash and fanning 33 while issuing six walks in 40.1 innings.
That total of six bases on balls in 40.1 playoff innings is the same number of free passes that Lee has given up in 103.2 innings this season. Pair them with his 89 strikeouts and you've got a pitcher averaging 14.83 strikeouts per walk, a ratio that has never been matched over a full season. (In fact, no qualifying pitcher since 1900 has exceeded 11 strikeouts per walk.) The next best rate in the big leagues this season? Roy Halladay's 6.61.
Lee has almost as many complete games (an American League-leading five) as walks (six) in 2010.
Diamondbacks righthander Edwin Jackson issued more walks (eight) in his June 25 no-hitter than Lee has issued this season.
Among American Leaguers with at least 10 plate appearances, who has the best career batting average against Lee? Ian Kinsler (9 for 20, .450).
Who has the worst? Erick Aybar (0 for 10, .000).
While we're at it, the Angels collectively against Lee, since 2008, have a .136 batting average, including .114 against his fastball, .077 when behind in the count, and .067 with two strikes.
That second of two starts Lee could make this month against the Angels won't be the first time he'll wear a Rangers lid in Angel Stadium. He'll be there Tuesday, earning the second All-Star Game nod of his career.
Lee is 8-3, 2.34 in 13 starts this season. He leads the league in ERA, and it's not a product of Safeco Field. The lefthander actually has slightly better numbers this year on the road (2.24 ERA, .223/.239/.321 slash) than in Seattle (2.47 ERA, .240/.243/.344 slash).
I'm not going to get into the Lee vs. Roy Oswalt debate, one that I never understood, but for many reasons, this trade made so much more sense to me than any deal for Oswalt would have. While I suppose there might have been an argument as to whether Oswalt or Colby Lewis, at this stage, would be a Game One starter in the playoffs, there's no question in Lee's case. He makes Lewis a very solid number two.
Is it really a foregone conclusion that Lee, an Arkansas native who still lives in Little Rock with his wife and two kids, will leave to sign with the Yankees this winter (which would give Texas (1) an extra supplemental first-round pick and (2) either a late first or possibly a late second or third as compensation)? That's a discussion for another time.
Deciding whether to pursue a pitcher of Lee's caliber was the easy part. Determining how much to give up - particularly given the reality that the offer would need to be padded a bit to cover for the cash necessarily coming back - was trickier.
Let's dial back to the report I wrote on Monday that focused on what I figured it might take to get Lee. I listed six categories - centerpiece players, a second tier, and four more groups: upper-level and lower-level pitchers and upper-level and lower-level hitters - and presumed it would take one player from each of the first two groups and then two more minor leaguers to complete the trade.
Specifically, I speculated:
1. Smoak or Holland or Martin Perez or Tanner Scheppers
2. Plus Alexi Ogando or Tommy Hunter or Julio Borbon or Nelson Cruz or David Murphy
3. Plus two more players from a list that might have included Beavan, Lueke, Omar Beltre, Michael Kirkman, Pedro Strop, Wilmer Font, Robbie Erlin, Robbie Ross, Joe Wieland, Chris Davis, Engel Beltre, and Miguel Velazquez
I concluded that report by guessing that, after a number of exchanges, the final Seattle proposal might be Lee for Smoak and Holland. And that I'd say no.
That Texas landed baseball's best left-handed pitcher, a proven big game warrior on a short list of the league's best pitchers, period, without giving up Perez or Scheppers or Holland or Hunter or Ogando is sort of stunning. I understand that Seattle was targeting a young hitter. But I'm still having trouble getting my head wrapped around a deal for a pitcher like this where you part with a young blue-chip position player but don't have to dip into what is a very deep top tier of your pitching prospect stable - and that's without even considering that you had to have the Mariners put cash into the deal, something other teams wouldn't have insisted on.
According to one media estimate, Lee and Lowe will earn $4.07 million the rest of 2010. The Mariners' subsidy means they will pay $2.25 million of it, Texas $1.82 million.
You tell me I just got Cliff Lee, early in July rather than late, and that Seattle is paying more than I am for him to wear my uniform, and I would fully expect someone like Beavan to be in the deal.
As the third piece. Not the second.
When I wrote about the Bengie Molina trade with San Francisco on July 2, I commented: "If Michael Main is the cost of $2 million in salary relief to get a player like Molina, the price tag in prospects to get someone like Cliff Lee along with a cash subsidy is one I don't even need to see."
To me, it would have made sense for a player like Beavan to be the cost of Cliff Lee cash, if Main was the cost of Bengie Molina cash. And if viewed that way, does that mean this deal would have been Smoak and Lueke and Lawson for Lee and Lowe if there were no cash component?
I sure would have hammered that angle home, just a week after the Main move, if I were Zduriencik. I've got to have Beavan (a Rick Adair favorite), but I need an upgrade on Michael Main as an added piece to the deal. If Seattle said righthander Joe Wieland needed to be in the deal, too, would Daniels really have said no, and missed the chance to add Cliff Lee?
Clearly, Zduriencik didn't find out.
Another way to view the Molina trade: By including Main, Daniels bought himself $2 million to use in a bigger deal. By getting Seattle to put $2.25 million in yesterday's deal, he still has that payroll cushion to use for yet another piece. A right-handed hitter as protection at first base? More on that later.
The Rangers' apparent restraint in this year's July 2 international free agent market preserved cash as well, as one local beat writer points out.
Sherman made an interesting point regarding the Commissioner's Office's green light on this trade, suggesting the added payroll not only still fits within the club's budget but could also be offset by a boost in attendance on nights Lee pitches. We're about to see what that looks like tonight. I don't know if the club keeps records on walk-up ticket sales, but isn't there a chance that tonight's will be the biggest in franchise history?
This is not to dogpile on Zduriencik. In the span of seven months he turned the underwhelming package of Phillippe Aumont, J.C. Ramirez, and Tyson Gillies (plus Lowe) into Smoak, Beavan, Lueke, and Lawson, with three brilliant months of Cliff Lee added in. Viewed solely on its face, that's a fantastic upgrade. And trading within the division? What does Seattle care if Lee pitches well for Texas for three months? The dilemma, if one exists, belongs to Texas, who has to envision facing Smoak and Beavan for at least the next six years.
The point is that there's no reason Seattle should have been reluctant to trade Lee to the Rangers just because they're division bunkmates. Just the opposite - long term, the Mariners stripped Texas of a couple players that they're counting on to make core impacts.
Even if Smoak becomes Adrian Gonzalez, and even if Beavan becomes Brad Radke or Jeff Suppan, I can live with it. (Partly because in Smoak's case, Lee is not Adam Eaton.)
The idea of Holland or Perez or Scheppers (the latter two of whom are number 8 and number 25 on Baseball America's mid-season Top 25 Prospects list, published yesterday) pitching near the front of the Mariners rotation (or closing games) for years to come is what made me most nervous.
Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus wrote earlier this week: "The Rangers line up for a trade with Seattle extremely well if Texas has the ability to make a deal due to their financial considerations, and if the Mariners are willing to trade within their division. Corner infielder Chris Davis is hitting .349/.397/.542 at Triple-A Oklahoma, and while he's struggled in the big leagues twice, his bat could be the long-term solution to Seattle's first base issue. Seattle would almost certainly ask for Martin Perez, one of, if not the top, left-handed pitching prospect in the game, and Texas is a pitching-rich system that could also dangle top lower-level arms like righties Wilmer Font and Robbie Erlin to help sweeten the pot."
That's the kind of trade - Perez, Davis, Font, and Erlin - that I expected Seattle to be able to make, with some team, though I hoped not with Texas. It would have been too much to give up, but closer to what I thought Lee's market probably was.
Beavan had taken one of the two or three biggest steps forward in the Rangers system this year. He's an innings-eater and a relentless pounder of the zone - which describes Lee as well - but the key difference between the two is that Beavan doesn't miss enough bats to project as a top-of-rotation starter (though he's improved somewhat in that aspect this season). Without the makings of a legitimate out pitch, Beavan can still be an extremely valuable constant in a good rotation - think Radke or Suppan or Hunter - but he doesn't have the ceiling of a Perez or Scheppers or Holland. Beavan's sturdy 10-5, 2.78 encore in 17 Frisco starts resulted in a promotion to AAA earlier this week, but he hadn't yet appeared with Oklahoma City when the trade went down.
The 6'7" righthander will apparently report to AA for the Mariners. There's been some talk that he could get a look in Seattle before the season ends (there was talk about that in Texas as well), but it would kill a roster spot this winter since he doesn't need to be added to the 40-man roster until November 2011.
An interesting observation from Sheehan: "Beavan is actually a decent fit for the Mariners and Safeco Field, but exactly the wrong type of player for them to acquire. If the Mariners have shown us anything this year, it's that they can extract value for very little investment in their rotation. Doug Fister and Jason Vargas are middling guys who have put up good numbers thanks to a big park and a strong defense. The Mariners don't need to be wasting the trade value of a Cliff Lee on pitchers, because they can find pitchers. Beavan's place in this deal should have belonged to Engel Beltre or Jurickson Profar or some other high-upside offensive talent, because that's what they're struggling to develop. It's not that Beavan is bad, it's that they can make their own Beavan."
As for Lueke and Lawson, both have taken steps forward this year but were inventory in this system. Should the Rangers lose Lee this winter and recoup two first-round picks (or even a first and second or a first and third), well, put it this way: if draft picks were tradeable, Texas would certainly swap the 25-year-old Lueke (taken in the 16th round of the Beavan/Main/Borbon/Hunter draft) and the 24-year-old Lawson (14th round, same year) for the picks they stand to get for losing Lee.
Lueke, whose troublesome off-the-field story is one I don't feel like getting into, has been outstanding this year, posting a 2.11 relief ERA between Hickory and Frisco, fanning an eye-opening 62 batters and walking only 10 in 38.1 innings. He's a fastball-slider type who figures to factor in as a seventh-inning type if everything works out.
Lawson is an instinctive player and solid defender (primarily at second base, a little corner outfield) who has hit more and more as he's moved up the chain (.277/.371/.438 for Frisco this season). Ceiling? Maybe Joe Inglett. Tug Hulett. A role player.
As for Lowe, a 27-year-old with two years of club control after this season, he's a big righthander with a big arm who was effective last year (3.26 ERA in 75 relief appearances, 69 strikeouts and 29 walks in 80 innings, seven home runs) but whose 2010 season was cut short after a month due to a herniated disc in his lower back. He's recovering now from mid-June microdiscectomy surgery and is expected to miss the rest of the season, but there are suggestions that his rehabilitation is going well enough that he might be able to join the Rangers' bullpen in September.
It's key to note that this isn't an arm problem, and as hard as this relief corps has been worked, getting a fresh power arm down the stretch could be pretty useful. And Lowe (a UTA product) should figure in next year, perhaps to compete for the role that Chris Ray was brought in last winter to handle.
Though he may or may not pitch this year, Lowe's inclusion in the trade is sort of equivalent to Ron Mahay being tacked on in the Rangers' deal with Atlanta in 2007. That was the Mark Teixeira Trade, not the Teixeira/Mahay deal.
And this six-player deal, with all due respect to Blake Beavan, whose future I'd bet on more than Lowe's, is the Lee-for-Smoak trade.
Here's the thing about dealing Smoak, a player that I still believe in. Even if his career ends up looking more like Gonzalez's or Mark Teixeira's or Justin Morneau's than like Travis Lee's, it's massively easier to go find a first baseman than a frontline pitcher. Is Chris Davis that guy? Don't know. Mitch Moreland (.668 OPS in AAA in April, .824 in May, .880 in June, .885 so far in July)? Really don't know. (First things first: Will Moreland be moved back from right field to first base with Davis's promotion to Texas?)
But regardless of what happens with the ownership situation, at some point within the next year this club should be in a position to spend more on payroll, and there will be opportunities to go sign or trade for an everyday first baseman, if that becomes necessary.
Plugging holes in the rotation is a more complicated task, and Texas is in as good a position as any team in terms of developing young starters internally. The only place this trade really altered the Rangers' farm system depth was at first base. If I have to choose a position at which to suffer a setback in depth (and again, Davis and Moreland and perhaps Chad Tracy keep it from being an empty cupboard), I'll live with it at first base.
If Davis doesn't look in the next two weeks like he's figured things out, don't be surprised to see Texas grab a veteran before the trade deadline. Cubs first baseman-outfielder Xavier Nady's name has already been mentioned in a couple places.
For what it's worth, and for various reasons it may not be much, I do note that Davis was a more productive hitter in AA than Smoak (.319/.374/.644 for Davis vs. .328/.449/.481 for Smoak) and in AAA (.341/.407/.571 vs. .255/.386/.397), and has been in Texas as well (.253/.301/.474 vs. .209/.316/.353), though it must be pointed out that Davis's big league numbers have regressed each season since he arrived in 2008. If I had to bet on one's future, I'd probably still take Smoak, but his early work, particularly from the right side (not necessarily an advantage if you believe Davis's ability to hit AAA lefthanders has the chance to translate), suggests he's not the absolute lock for superstardom that most have predicted. His plate discipline and unusually low batting average on balls in play promise better things, but Seattle isn't hoping they got Lyle Overbay.
There's also the added benefit of getting Davis back in there defensively. Smoak made great strides with the glove the last two months, but he's not Davis's equal.
I'm pretty sure I'd take Montero ahead of either of them, even if he eventually has to move from catcher to first base. Given the choice between a 20-year-old whose ceiling might be Miguel Cabrera and a 23-year-old who could be Morneau, I'll take the younger guy, whether he's a catcher or not.
Opinions differ on Montero vs. Smoak. But we know where Seattle stands on that debate. And it wasn't just good fortune that had Texas in the position to do business with the Mariners yesterday.
I'm repeating myself, but drafting Smoak in 2008 set things up for a Matt LaPorta/C.C. Sabathia trade down the road. From the April 23 Newberg Report:
When Texas chose Smoak on June 5, 2008, Davis was less than two weeks into his AAA promotion, having hit his way out of the Texas League with a monstrous .333/.376/.618 two months. There was every reason not to pop the 21-year-old Smoak with the 22-year-old Davis barreling in toward the first base job that Ben Broussard and Chris Shelton were attempting to hold down. The Rangers could have taken the second player on their board, Georgia high school righthander Ethan Martin, and avoided the possible Davis-Smoak conundrum.
You never draft for need. You take the best player available. With ownership willing to spend what it would take to pay Smoak's expected signing bonus demands, Texas did take the best player available on Draft Day 2008.
And they had the best player available, at least in Seattle's eyes, again yesterday, enabling the execution of Step Five, for which It was Time.
As a result Texas now suits up the best big league pitcher available, the latest incredible development in what has been, and promises to continue to be, an extraordinary baseball season in Arlington.
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(c) Jamey Newberg