Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Steep Cliff

It's no secret that the Twins are interested in Cliff Lee. They have been connected to the left-handed starting pitcher -- widely considered to be the biggest prize of this year's deadline derby -- by various media outlets for over a month now. One report that emerged a couple weeks ago stated that a deal was done in principle that would have included Wilson Ramos and Brian Duensing as the key pieces from the Twins' side, but fell through due to an injury suffered by Ramos. Another report emerged on Monday from a Detroit radio station that a deal between Seattle and Minnesota was done. Around that same time, Jeff Fletcher of AOL Fanhouse posted a tweet indicating that he'd heard from an MLB source that the Twins had offered Ramos and outfield prospect Aaron Hicks for Lee.

The reports created some brief excitement around Twins Territory, but up to this point none have panned out into anything substantive.

Lots of premature reports. Lots of static. It's all par for the course as the trade deadline approaches. But it's not hard to believe that the Twins have a very legitimate interest in acquiring Lee before the non-waiver deadline on July 31. Their inconsistent starting pitching has left a clear need for another frontline starter and they've got a pool of expendable prospects to deal from, with Ramos leading that group (and unsurprisingly attached to almost every rumored trade).

From a historical standpoint, it would be very uncharacteristic for the Twins to trade away valuable future assets for a half-season rental, which Lee would almost surely be. But in the past it would have also been uncharacteristic for the Twins to run up a $100 million payroll and dole out one of the largest contracts in major-league history, as they did this spring. This isn't business as usual. With a new stadium, a team that is on the brink of greatness and fan interest at a feverish high, the Twins are in a unique position this year. Make no mistake, they will not hesitate to make a significant splash at the deadline if the right deal materializes.

Is that a good thing? I think so, certainly. This organization has never been anxious to sacrifice long-term success for short-term gain, which is why they've generally passed on trading prospects for stars and why they've almost always skipped top free agents whose signing would cost them a draft pick. That approach has been understandable, given that the team's finances have been extremely limited in past years and they've often been forced to build from within.

There comes a time, though, when a team has to put the chips on the table and go for it. This seems like an appropriate time to do so. Lee would improve their odds of making the postseason considerably -- by as much as 20 percent, according to some estimations -- and he'd certainly make them a far more dangerous contender once they get there. I'd be extremely hesitant to move Hicks, who I think has more upside than any player in the organization (outside of perhaps teenager Miguel Sano) and is one of the team's only prospects I would label "untouchable." My guess is that Bill Smith shares this sentiment, which is why I'm highly skeptical of the report that both Hicks and Ramos were formally offered for Lee.

That doesn't mean I wouldn't be willing to move multiple top prospects to acquire Lee, even if it's just for a couple months. Ramos is essentially a given in any deal, which is fine because his main value to the organization at this point is as a trade chit and you can hardly trade for a better player than Lee. Another guy I'd strongly consider including is Ben Revere, who is putting together yet another strong season in New Britain this year.

Revere is a good player, with a .331 career average in the minors to go along with a nearly even strikeout-to-walk ratio and a whopping 164 stolen bases in 318 games. While not without his flaws (he has almost no power and his production is highly dependent on his batting average), Revere has the look of a top-of-the-lineup threat in the mold of a young Juan Pierre. He also could make an impact in the relatively near future, as he's already handling himself well in Double-A despite being only 22 years old.

That's just the type of player the Mariners could use. While Ichiro continues to be effective as their leadoff hitter, the M's have gotten a .600 OPS from the second spot in the order this year after getting a .673 OPS there last year. They thought they'd be getting their answer when they signed Chone Figgins during the offseason, but Figgins is hitting just .238/.336/.279 and isn't getting any younger at 32.

Revere would be tough to lose, especially when considering that the Twins have had their own share of troubles getting production from that No. 2 spot over the years, but with Denard Span, Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel all under control through at least next year, there's no room for Revere in the immediate future. Further down the line, he's behind Hicks and perhaps even Joe Benson in the outfield prospect pecking order. Simply put, Revere's expendable in the right deal, and adding a legitimate ace who can anchor the rotation over the next two-plus months strikes me as the right deal.

If the Mariners are truly pushing for Hicks, or for someone like Kevin Slowey who would produce a sizable gap in the 2011 rotation, the decision becomes a little more tough. It is important to keep in mind, though, that while there's almost no chance that Lee re-signs with the Twins, his departure would be compensated by two high draft picks that can help replenish whatever the Twins lose from their farm system. Their increased payroll also enables them to better find reinforcements on the free agent market and restock their minor-league ranks with high-profile international players.

A package that includes Ramos, Revere and perhaps one more mid-level pitcher seems like fair compensation for two months of Lee. It's certainly a price that the Twins could afford to absorb. We'll have to wait and see whether something like that gets it done, because the Mariners are sure to bide their time and weigh their options before they move this most valuable asset. That fact alone should stop you from believing the next premature early-July report you read about Lee switching teams. Unless an offer truly blows them away, the Mariners are likely to remain patient.

So should we.


Jim H said...

I am not a big believer in trading top prospects for rentals, especially short term rentals. I also wonder where that 20% estimate comes from. Unless the trade is made immediately, you are probably looking at 10 to 12 starts from Lee. Whoever he replaces will likely you give you a good chance to win in half his starts. If Lee gives you a good chance to win in 80% of his starts he will be lights out. Getting a couple of more wins because of Lee is pretty much best case senario.

Now that would be great, but guarantees very little. It might make a big difference in getting to the postseason but, likely won't.

Giving up even one top prospect for a couple of more late season wins and perhaps a better chance in the postseason, seems like an awfully lot to me. I wouldn't mind seeing Lee on the Twins but either the price comes down, or the Twins sign him to a couple of years as part of the deal, which likely won't happen.

Ed Bast said...

In their recent history the Twins have been reluctant to part with prospects because they had to; with their payrolls in the 2000s they couldn't afford to sign/retain free agents, so they had to build their club from within. Twins fans were promised that with a new taxpayer-funded stadium, things would be different. And they have been. Things are different. They are no longer a small market team. They have signed their key players to long term deals. They are no longer the "little engine that could" but the (supposed) division favorites who rely on a deep lineup of (supposed) power hitters.

The future is now for this club. Now as in, 2010 and maybe the next couple years too. This is what they've been building for. They SHOULD be (but presently aren't) contending not for a division title but a World Series.

Go get Cliff Lee. Yes, he's a rental. Yes, he will cost some decent prospects. But I'll say he's the only hope the Twins have of advancing in the playoffs (if they get there). If the Mariners are insistent on Hicks and Ramos, pull the trigger. Hicks is years away, and hasn't shown that he's a future all star by any means.

But it boils down to this (for me): the Twins need to stop stockpiling for some vague future and try to win now. There's a window for this club, I don't know how long it will be open but you have to say there are enough pieces this year (provided they all start performing at some point) to make a run. Why not?

Please, Bill Smith: Go get Cliff Lee.

Peter said...

Major Lee. It's not just 10 to 12 AL starts, it's also 2-6 PS starts when he will show what kind of NYY money he's worth over 2011-2015.

Travis said...

The 20% estimate comes from the Accuscore system that ESPN uses. Yes, best case scenario Lee adds 2-3 wins. In a division race where there are 3 teams seperated by one game at this point in the season, 3 wins could mean everything.

If you include postseason performance, this Lee trade needs to happen and the sooner the better.

Matt said...

Cliff Lee's value as a stopper should not be overlooked, either. If we've lost a couple straight, a good stopper can get you the win, but can also energize the club for the next night.
As much as I'd hate to see Hicks leave the organization, there isn't a much better way to energize both your team and the very loyal fan base than to aquire a top flight guy like Lee. And, who knows, maybe they can even sign him long term (yes, I know, wishful thinking, but based on the crowds I've seen at Target field, there would seem to be plenty of money around)...

Jewscott said...

"A package that includes Ramos, Revere and perhaps one more mid-level pitcher seems like fair compensation for two months of Lee."

IMO, it's overpaying a bit. I wouldn't consider any player in the minors untouchable, but giving up two of your top five prospects for Lee is a bit excessive.

My two cents is that the Hicks and Ramos rumor probably came from Seattle, while the Twins probably offered Ramos and change. The right offer is one player from the Hicks/Revere/Ramos/Gibson group (Sano couldn't really be traded until the end of September and even Gibson would have to be a PTBNL at this point), one from the group of second tier prospects (Benson, Morales, Gutierrez, Guerra, Valencia, etc.) and whatever extras they find the most interesting (Plouffe, Hughes, Slama to a degree, etc.) Or as David Cameron put it, one top prospect, one secondary prospect and change.

Anonymous said...

Bottom line is that nobody has a clue as to what the Twins are going to do. No way on God's green earth would the twins deal ramos and hicks. It's preposterous on its face. It would be one thing if that was the only missing piece but its not. Starting pitching hasn't been a big problem in the playoffs.

Most likely on august 1st all you will hear is the twins saying there were no deals they were comfortable with and that some of the best moves they've ever made came through waivers after the deadline. Until they do something different, their past history should be the most telling barometer.

Henry Wade

neckrolls said...

Nick, you've assessed the value of these players perfectly. Sure, Revere is the Twins' #3 or #4 prospect, but does he really have a future here? He's as blocked by Span as Ramos is by Mauer. Don't think of those guys as blue chip prospects - think of them as a backup catcher and 4th outfielder. Isn't a pennant chase with Cliff Lee worth a couple of bench guys and a AA pitcher?

This is the beauty of the Twins' position: what other team in pursuit of Lee could afford to be without its top 2 upper-level prospects in 2011 and beyond? Throw in Gutierrez or David Bromberg or Kyle Waldrop and it's hard to fathom another organization being able to top that.

I'm going to be really disappointed if the Twins don't get Lee because they were unwilling to part with a couple of redundant prospects.