Texas Rangers Win the Cliff Lee Derby

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Texas Rangers Win the Cliff Lee Derby
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

It’s now official: Left-handed ace Cliff Lee, along with injured right-handed reliever Mark Lowe and $2.5 million to pay much of Lee’s remaining 2010 salary, are headed to the Rangers, while the Mariners will receive first baseman Justin Smoak and three minor league prospects (Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke and Matt Lawson) in return.

On balance, I think it was the right move for the Rangers at the right time. The Rangers haven’t made the play-offs since 1999, but 85 games into the 2010 season they find themselves 5.5 games ahead of the second place Angels, and 9.5 games ahead of the third place A’s. The AL West is a weak division, but making the play-offs is making the play-offs, and the Rangers have certainly improved their chances of doing so.

This move is going to give the team a big boast, both on the field and also in terms of the pending sale. Cliff Lee is originally from Arkansas, so you’d have to figure he’s excited about playing in Arlington, where it’s only about a five or six hour drive for his family and friends in Benton to see him pitch in person.

With a 5.5 game lead already, the Rangers didn’t necessarily have to make this move to win the division, but they’re a young team, and the Angels are probably a better team than they’ve shown in the first half.  When you haven’t made the post-season in a more than a decade, you have to pull out all of the stops and give yourself the best chance to do it.

Did the Mariners get as much as they could for Lee?  I’m not convinced they did.

Clearly, they wanted Justin Smoak, so much so that they were willing to accept less than A-grade prospects (except maybe 21 year old RHP Blake Beavan) as far as the other players going to the M’s are concerned.

Smoak is certainly a legitimate A-grade prospect, but I have this nagging feeling that the idea of receiving Justin Smoak in this deal is better than the reality of receiving Smoak.  Everyone knows who Smoak is and that he’s a highly regarded prospect.  He was the 11th player selected in the 2008 Draft, and he’s already playing regularly in the major leagues.

The thing is, Smoak really hasn’t played well above AA ball. After 275 major league plate appearances, he’s hitting all of .209 with a .670 OPS, and that’s in one of MLB’s best hitters’ parks.  Last year, after hitting .328 with a .930 OPS in 227 AA plate appearances, he hit only .244 with a .723 OPS in 237 AAA plate appearances in the hit-happy Pacific Coast League.

Sure, Smoak hasn’t been in pro baseball very long, and it could just be growing pains.  However, at age 23, it’s not too early to expect him to prove that he’s a major league hitter really and for true.

As for the other players the M’s received, 21 year old RHP Blake Beavan is clearly the best.  He was the 17th player selected overall in the 2007 Draft.  He currently has a fine 10-5 record with a 2.78 ERA at AA Frisco in the Texas League and a line of 110 IP, 100 hits, six HRs and 12 walks allowed and 68 Ks.  He was recently promoted to AAA by the Rangers but hasn’t made a start there yet.

The biggest concern about Beavan is that his strikeout rates aren’t impressive for a young pitcher.  He has struck out 5.15 hitters per nine innings in his minor league career to date, and that’s without having pitched an inning at the AAA level.  However, his control is outstanding, with a career minor K/BB ratio of 3.7/1.

Beavan already has the command to be a major league pitcher.  Whether he has the stuff to be a major league starter remains to be seen.

Josh Lueke is a 24 year old right-handed reliever who is having a fine year roughly split between A+ and AA ball.  His combined stats for the year are a 2.11 ERA, 32 appearances, 38.1 IP, 30 hits, two HRs and ten walks allowed and 62 Ks.

However, Lueke missed almost the entire 2009 season after being arrested in Bakersfield on charges that he raped an unconscious woman.  He ultimately accepted a plea deal , pleading no contest to a charge of false imprisonment with violence.  Here are the details of the original allegations from a reputable news source.  They aren’t pretty.

Matt Lawson is a 24 year old second baseman, currently having a strong season with AA Frisco.  He’s hitting .277 with an excellent .371 on-base percentage and an .809 OPS.  However, he’s getting old be a prospect at this level, and he’s having his best minor league season this year, which suggests that he may be playing above his true level of ability.

The right-handed reliever the Rangers received, Mark Lowe, went on the disabled list in early May with lower back disk inflammation that required surgery and will keep him out of action for the rest of 2010.  He had a fine year in 2009 for the M’s (3.26 ERA in 75 relief appearances with good ratios), but back injuries requiring surgery tend to be recurring.

Perhaps Lowe will be able to help the Rangers in future seasons, but at the moment he looks a bit like a throw-in to provide cover for the Rangers agreeing to give up a fourth prospect in return for Lee.

In the short term, this deal doesn’t weaken the Rangers at all.  24 year old Chris Davis, who has a .961 OPS at AAA Oklahoma City, will be called up to replace Smoak on the Rangers’ roster, and whoever the Rangers play at first this year will hit as well as Smoak did in the first half.

In the long-term, the Rangers may regret giving up Smoak one day, but they are trading from a position of depth, and they didn’t have to give up more of their best young pitchers, including any of Tommy Hunter, Tanner Scheppers, Michael Kirkland or Neftali Perez.

I’m surprised how quickly the deal came together considering how long the Mariners had until the trade deadline to move Lee.  A couple of days ago, the Twins appeared to be the favorite to nab Lee.

This morning the Yankees jumped in front with a reported offer of 20 year old catcher Jesus Montero, 23 year old 2Bman David Adams and possibly 22 year old RHP Zach McAllister.  That deal didn’t go through because the Mariners reportedly had concerns about Adams’ health (he badly sprained his ankle and hasn’t played since May 22nd).

The M’s may have done the Yankees a huge favor in not accepting a package containing Jesus Montero.  Barring injury, Montero looks like a sure bet to be in the majors for good before the end of the 2011 season.  There aren’t many 20 year old catchers you can say that about.


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