Ah, do you feel that? The trade wins are a blowin’. Fresh off a rehab start cut short by rain, Cliff Lee‘s name has begun to pop up in hypothetical trade scenarios. Lee’s value is clouded by all sorts of variables: is his elbow OK? How much money will the Phillies eat? He has been traded as an elite starting pitcher three times and all three returns were horrendous, what gives?
Ok, the last statement isn’t as much a variable as it is a matter of fact. Let’s acknowledge the elephants in the room: in hindsight, and even at the times of the trades, Lee was traded three times for below-average talent. The Phillies acquired Lee for what amounted to a reserve infielder, a fourth starter, a back-up catcher, and a fireballing starter that missed a few years of professional baseball and just returned to pro ball this year. Then, the Phils dealt Lee to Seattle for what amounted to a control-challenged reliever, a really bad reliever, and an outfielder whose on the field and off the field issues were just too much to handle. Finally, Seattle dealt Lee to Texas for what amounted to a below-average first baseman, a fifth starter, and someone I would prefer not to acknowledge based on his transgressions.
Lee commanded those hauls at a time when his value was much higher: in 2009, Lee was coming off a Cy Young win and then was traded twice after winning four postseason games for the Phillies, including a complete game in Game 1 of the World Series. Lee was a much younger man, traded twice at 30, once at 31, and had no (recent) arm issues. Oh, and he was a lot cheaper. A lot, lot cheaper. The Phillies got Lee for a pro-rated $6 million and then dealt Lee while he was making only $9 million. Lee is now 35 and makes $25 million per year through 2015 with a $27.5 million dollar vesting option/$12.5 buyout in 2016. Yikes.
When doing a historical comparison for trading Burnett yesterday, I was able to find some deals to compare a hypothetical to and the results weren’t pretty. At least I found them – a trade of a pitcher of Lee’s caliber at Lee’s price tag at Lee’s age would be borderline unprecedented. The closest historical result I could find was the Dodgers trading a 39-year old Kevin Brown to the Yankees in December 2003. At the time of the trade, Brown had two years at $15+ million left on his deal. At the time, it was the seventh-largest per-year salary in the NL; Lee currently has the second largest. Brown had had some injury concerns in 2002 but bounced back and became an unexpected All-Star in 2003.
Brown was dealt from the Dodgers to the Yankees for Brandon Weeden, yes, the professional quarterback was a solid A-ball pitcher and former second round pick, along with 28-year old reclamation project Yhency Brazoban, who would not reach the Major Leagues with the Yankees, and former top pitching prospect Jeff Weaver, who at age 26, was about to be bumped up to a $6+ million deal in arbitration. In the end, the Dodgers essentially cleared $9 million in payroll for 2004 and a virtual $6 million in 2005 due to Weaver’s arbitration raises. They received a well-regarded but underperforming young starter who was rapidly getting more expensive, a lottery ticket arm that did not pan out, and a reliever that never pitched for them.
The only other close comparison is the November 2003 deal that sent Curt Schilling to the Red Sox for Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon, and Jorge De La Rosa but even this trade is much different. Sure, Schilling is one of Lee’s top comparables through age 35 according to Baseball Reference but Schilling was making 33% less than Brown at a time when a $5 million difference was a lot and was certainly more durable. Fossum was already a fifth starter at age 26 when traded while Lyon showed some promise to be a closer of the future at a time when closers were overpriced. De La Rosa was traded two days later to Milwaukee where he became a fourth starter.
There have other comparable players traded, like when Mike Flanagan, a similar late bloomer to Lee, was dealt in 1987 for Jose Mesa but the similarities end at the player. Flanagan was making only $625 K, a fair salary but not among the Majors’ most expensive, when he was dealt for the then-starter Jose Mesa. Mesa showed exceptional promise in the minors but a large reason the Orioles netted Mesa in return was because Flanagan was affordable. Similarly, John Candelaria, at age 35 and of similar ilk to Lee in his career to that point, was dealt in 1989 for Mike Blowers in a pretty fair trade but the Candy Man was only making $800 K for 1989 and on a one-year pact. The next year, Candelaria was dealt again at an even more affordable $500 K and netted the Twins Nelson Liriano and Pedro Munoz who both became steady ballplayers.
Unfortunately for the Phillies, there are no historical comparisons that quite line up to what they have with Lee on their hands and Lee has already been dealt three times without landing any sort of huge return. All three teams went for quantity over quality at times when each team had better options available. Historically, no player of Lee’s cost, age, and injury history has been dealt but there have been instances where it has been close.
If I had to guess a hypothetical return for the Phillies, I would bet the Phillies would take on a bad contract in return plus they’d have to eat a large part of Lee’s contract. After that step was complete, they would likely have to settle for an A-ball, non-top 100 arm and some sort of fringe team top-10 prospect from their trade partner’s system. In a lot of ways, think of the return for Hunter Pence except amplify the money heading with Lee and think someone less well regarded than Tommy Joseph. At that point, is a trade even worth it?