Caught Looking: Why the Cliff Lee Trade Isn't as Bad as It Seems for Cleveland

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Caught Looking: Why the Cliff Lee Trade Isn't as Bad as It Seems for Cleveland
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Immediate reactions are never good.

I've never been a fan of my immediate reactions and probably never will be.

As I sat at work and found out about the trade, I immediately jumped to the nearest computer to find out the return for the Indians' reigning Cy Young award winner.

Pitcher Carlos Carrasco—I can dig.

Younger pitcher Jason Knapp—okay, that's more pitching that I like.

Catcher Lou Marson—what is going on here?

Shortstop Jason Donald—wait a second now.

Combined thought: Oh my dear lord, we just traded our biggest chip for two pitchers and two position players at positions we don't even need, present or future.

That's the clean version and also the real version. Had I been in my car or in a secluded area of the earth, I'd have used a lot more violent and vulgar words.

Immediate reactions suck, and they are based off firsthand knowledge, which is never very deep when you deal with prospects. The best opinions happen when you've been educated and can evaluate something for more than 10 minutes.

Which is why I'm glad this reaction is being written a day after the trade for Cliff Lee and not 10 minutes.

Here's my best attempt at organizing my thoughts on the deal in the best way I can.

 

The Circumstances: What's the motivation?

The motivation for this is sketchy and was even sketchier before the Lee trade came through.

But now Mark Shapiro has addressed the trade in full and has given us all more of a concrete idea to sink our teeth into.

When it comes down to it, Shapiro was faced with a grim realization after talking with the Dolan ownership.

They weren't giving him extra cash to go out and improve the team through free agency or even increase payroll with trades.

In fact, payroll might even have to be cut.

With that in mind, Shapiro went to work on trading his ace, and his idea was a rather different one.

I've seen Billy Beane trade for Matt Holliday with the hopes of putting together a run this year and then end up trading him to St. Louis when that run inevitably fell through.

That plan was pretty sound because he knew that even if Holliday wasn't having a spectacular year, and he wasn't, he could still flip him to a team that wants a big bat and still get good talent in return.

His plan, at least in my opinion, worked. It was crazy, but he didn't fail in his idea. It was rather innovative.

Mark Shapiro's plan is innovative, and definitely crazy, but I'm not sure if it's going to work.

So what is the plan here?

The Indians acquired four players in this deal, three of which are at the Triple-A level and bordering on major league impact.

Shapiro is trying to kill two birds with one stone. He wants to compete in 2010, but he knows he has to add pieces by also cutting payroll.

In logic, this is a fantastic idea and even better execution. He's just acquired three near major league-ready pieces for one, he cut payroll, and if those pieces pan out, he could have his team in contention for the division.

Maybe Shapiro will trade Victor Martinez and a package of the remaining luxury pieces like Carl Pavano, Jamey Carroll, and Kelly Shoppach for one or two more major league-ready pieces.

But not even the most optimistic fan can get behind the idea of a Florida Marlin-like run.

Florida Marlin-like runs are usually unexpected, so you can't really expect them.

Shapiro mentioned that specifically, ending any thought of that.

But that's his motivation. Be it his actual opinion or just his cover story to get fans to keep the faith, we'll never fully know.

 

The Returns: A Penny For the Future

There are four players in this deal, three of whom I just mentioned above as being close to major league-ready.

One of them is not.

His name is Jason Knapp; he's a pitcher, and probably the most prized piece of talent in this entire deal other than Cliff Lee himself.

A fireballer who can reportedly reach as high as 96 to 99 mph on the radar gun, Knapp is very young and very raw.

When you make a deal of this magnitude, trading a pitcher like a Cliff Lee, you always must grab a player or two that is in the lower levels with very high upside. A pitcher is even more of a must when you trade a pitcher, and grabbing Knapp in the deal was the right choice for Shapiro.

Hopefully the injury issues recently aren't going to be a problem for Knapp, because he's a very important piece to this deal.

 

The Returns: A Replacement for the Now

A must for me in a deal like this not only is a young player with high potential, but also a player that can maybe replace the one you are trading away in a quick fashion.

Carlos Carrasco is no Cliff Lee, and he won't replace him, but if you are giving up a pitcher that was occupying a spot in your rotation, you better get one that could at least fill that spot, next year at the latest.

Carrasco can do that. He's spent his entire 2009 in Triple-A Lehigh Valley for the Phillies, and while the numbers aren't flattering, he's a strikeout machine that used to be the best the Phillies had to offer, as recently as this year.

Before the Kyle Drabek mania, it was Carrasco who was a rumored target when CC Sabathia was being shopped by the Indians last year. The Phillies would not budge on the inclusion of Carrasco in the deal.

Coming into 2009, Baseball America rated Carrasco as the best pitcher the Phillies had and the second overall prospect in their system. One bad half-year has changed all that?

Now his makeup is one that suggests something like this coming, as the words soft are often used to describe his pitching style when things get tight; he can let the bad things snowball.

Those are things that are fixable though. If the Indians have acquired a guy with legit stuff, as many seem to agree Carrasco has, then they can do what they need to do to have him tap into it.

The description of the 22-year-old righty in BA's handbook reads a lot like a young Cliff Lee before he went to Triple-A and refined himself in the offseason.

I believe though, that if this deal is going to be a success, Carrasco is an even bigger key than Knapp is. He must be able to come in and take a rotation spot and contribute.

In order for Mark Shapiro's plan to be a success, Carrasco's performance, next year especially, is very important.

 

The Returns: Unexpected and Unusual Fits

The two strange pieces of this deal to me are the inclusion of catcher Lou Marson and shortstop Jason Donald, as I outlined in the opening lines.

I'm good with acquiring pitching, regardless of the names. I'm not going to rage at Shapiro for not getting Drabek over Carrasco or Knapp.

What I'm not good with is getting Lou Marson out of the blue with Victor Martinez on the team and Carlos Santana in Double-A.

I'm also hesitant of Jason Donald, a shortstop with ability to play second and maybe third, with Asdrubal Cabrera on the team and the long-term answer.

It's already settled though; Donald is competing with Luis Valbuena next year for the second base job.

Which is okay, but you acquired this kid to compete with another youngster, and the loser of that position is basically going to be your infield utility player?

I don't really look at a No. 4 prospect in an organization and think utility player. I think that this guy is going to be a major league starter for the long term, not what some say is a player who is capable of having a long major league career with success.

For me, there is no doubt that a utility player can have long-term success. I just don't think that should be the fourth prospect in a deep system.

What's even more baffling is Marson being added, with five—yes, five—catchers on the 40-man roster, and all five being in Double-A or higher.

Now unless Marson, and even Donald, are just parts of another deal that is in the works, I don't see the point of adding them.

Or unless, of course, one more of the catchers the Indians have on the 40-man is on his way out.

Be it Victor Martinez or someone else, adding Marson can't just be the only move. Martinez would let Marson bridge the very small window that the Indians will have open until Santana is ready, but then you are still paying Kelly Shoppach to be a backup.

If I'm Mark Shapiro, as much as Martinez would net me big returns, I'd much rather trade Shoppach and use Marson as a low-cost backup.

Or even just make him my starter with Martinez at first full-time, sharing backup duties with the other catcher that is on the active roster, Chris Gimenez, who is a jack of all trades.

When it boils down to it all, Marson is the most puzzling part of this deal, which means there must be something else in mind to make it actually make sense. For now, I'll refrain from an opinion for that reason.

But I will say that I like Marson as a player with his skill set. He is the anti-Kelly Shoppach with his bat, as a catcher who focuses on making contact and being a disciplined hitter rather than swinging with all his might and either hitting a long ball or striking out.

 

The Follow-Up: Make It Make Sense

As I said, in order for the Marson part of the deal to make sense, something else has to give.

Shoppach stands to make more money than the Indians should be willing to pay a backup catcher that strikes out to much, which could mean he is the next one to go.

Or the Indians could just trade Martinez to the first team willing to give them a stud pitcher that they desire, on the level of a Clay Buchholz.

Not much has been said, though, about the outgoing parts of this deal from Cleveland, and we might as well start with Ben Francisco.

His inclusion is very random, but perhaps much needed on the Phillies' part; they can afford to go after a luxury like Francisco, who is just depth for a team with three All-Star outfielders.

In Cleveland, since the trade of Mark DeRosa, Francisco has been playing every day and pretty much has done what we know he is capable of. He's a streaky hitter that can get hot and be very dangerous for chunks of time.

But he's only serviceable with the bat. He can play all three outfield spots, provide a good strong arm, and some nice speed on the base paths. All of that only amounts to a fourth outfielder though, especially on a team like Philadelphia. But with all the young talent the Indians have in the system, on their team, he equals out to that as well.

However, with Trevor Crowe, one would believe that the Indians have someone who can be a fourth outfielder. Crowe was indeed called up to take Francisco's spot, both on the roster and most likely in the lineup. But Francisco's inclusion in the deal opened up my eyes in a different area.

The immediate thought for me was Matt LaPorta's time had come.

Of course, that isn't the case, at least not right now, which is very disappointing. You would figure Francisco's hot play was the only thing keeping LaPorta down. With the Ryan Garko trade and the promotion of Andy Marte, that was one less spot as well that LaPorta was dealing with.

I believe that it should be LaPorta's time, but it looks as if the Indians brass does not agree.

The other part of this deal is of course lefty Cliff Lee, whose addition to Philadelphia is thought to give them the bona fide ace they need to return to the World Series and repeat.

None of what I'm about to say really has anything to do with the deal or the current state of the team or anything like that.

Lee is one hell of a story, period.

Look at where he came from at one state in his career and what he's done to get to this point.

The Indians almost traded him to Arizona for Carlos Quentin. This really, in hindsight, would have been a pretty big win-win all round given the impact Quentin had in 2008.

But we're still talking about a starting pitcher that won the Cy Young, so I'd have to say the Indians would have felt really stupid.

Lee had to fight just to win a rotation spot in spring training, and he didn't even win it convincingly over two young pitchers, Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers. Now he's being traded for a large haul of prospects after winning a Cy Young award.

Did anyone think all of that was possible?

I certainly didn't, and all of that has given me the mind to never doubt Cliff Lee ever again.

That is what I'll miss most about Lee and his tenure with Cleveland—these past few years and the joyride he took us on as a pitcher who went from trash heap to top of the heap.

Emotionally, losing Cliff Lee hurts. But in the grand scheme of things, I now understand the position Shapiro is taking.

However, I don't have to like or agree with it, and I don't for the most part. I support it though, because this is the plan Shapiro has decided to take. He wanted to trade Lee in hopes of being able to contend in 2010 and beyond, and also cut payroll.

If we went off first thoughts and emotions, nothing would ever make sense—which is why the reaction to Lee is almost laughable a day after. Some of the thoughts that the Indians received garbage players in return that won't ever help the team is absolute hilarious.

These pieces aren't the Phillies' unwanted trash; they were legit prospects in their minor league system.

Is it the best package Shapiro could have received? I don't know, and frankly, I don't think anyone ever will. But the point of the matter is Shapiro has a plan in the works here. You may not agree with it—I don't to some extent—but you have to at least give it a chance.

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