Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | July 11, 2010

Cliff Lee to Texas

On Friday the Texas Rangers landed the largest trading chip on the 2010 trading market when they acquired Left-Handed Pitcher Cliff Lee from the Seattle Mariners along with reliever Mark Lowe (RHP) in exchange for a large package of prospects. The biggest of these prospects was Rangers First Baseman Justin Smoak, who had played 70 games with the Rangers already this season. The other players were Starter Blake Beaven (RHP), Reliever Josh Leuke (RHP), and Second Baseman Matthew Lawson.

This trade followed a rather strange and surprising path and for those of us whose “day jobs” are actually night jobs, the way that this trade went down was particularly shocking. In the morning the deal was being reported everywhere as being almost completely done with Lee going to the New York Yankees. By the evening, it was reported as official that Lee was a Texas Ranger.

The Rangers eventual willingness to trade Smoak, who was rated as their #2 prospect by Baseball America in the pre-season (the Rangers as a team were ranked as having the second best farm system and Smoak was rated as the #12 overall prospect in the Majors) is what got the deal done for them. It is almost universally agreed that Seattle got more for Lee than they traded to acquire him and the Rangers now have a dominant pitcher to anchor their rotation as they attempt to win their first division title since 1999. In short, it appears that the trade will work out great for both sides.

The Rangers got the big prize in Lee, whose time in Seattle seemed to be leading to the most grand of all in a series of outstanding seasons for the Lefty. Three months and 113 innings into the season and Lee has yet to reach double digits in walks for the season, amazingly having surrendered more home runs (8) than walks (6) this year. Carrying the second best K/9 of his career (7.3) and the best WHIP (0.95), Lee had been the best pitcher in the American League in 2010 for a hapless Mariners team and will now bring his talents to Texas. His first start didn’t go so smoothly as he gave up six runs in a complete game effort, including three of the eight home runs he has given up on the season. However, this move is a huge one for Texas and shows clear dedication to gearing up for the second half of the season.

In addition to Lee, the Rangers received Relief Pitcher Mark Lowe. Lowe is out for the year with back trouble but will not be a free agent until after the 2012 season and had a productive 2009 season for the Mariners. A high strikeout pitcher who will be 28 next season, Lowe is a solid secondary piece to acquire in the deal. His health will determine whether or not he works out for the Rangers, but he could prove to be a useful player in the future.

The Mariners for their part in this received Justin Smoak, an extremely highly regarded first base prospect who has drawn comparisons to Mark Teixiera (also a former Rangers farm hand). To date Smoak has been more hype than production, having never shown that plus-plus power potential he is believed to have for any extended period as a professional. The Rangers first round pick (11th overall) in the 2008 draft, Smoak has only 17 home runs in 135 minor league games (599 PAs) and a decent-but-not-eye-popping .461 career slugging percentage (.168 ISO). After posting a 300/470/540 line in 66 plate appearances at AAA this season he was promoted to Texas where he struggled mightily in 70 games, posting a 209/316/353 line with 8 home runs. His debut in Seattle was even more disappointing than Lee’s debut in Texas, as he struck out three times in an 0-for-4 effort. Smoak is still only 23 years old and by no means should be written off at this point. He is a big time prospect and should have every opportunity to live up to the hype over the next two seasons. To date however, he has struggled to be much more than “good” as a pro, and he hasn’t yet shown the ability to be a dominant hitter for power.

The next biggest name acquired in the deal for the Mariners is Blake Beaven, a 21 year old who was the Rangers first round pick (17th overall) out of high school in 2007. As a prospect, Beaven has had a “case of the missing fastball” — He threw harder as a high schooler than he has thus far as a professional — But he still has managed to perform well and some of that lost velocity has returned in the years that have passed since. Beaven debuted at low-A Clinton as a 19 year old in 2008 and had a very strong season showing good control, walking only 1.5 per nine innings en route to posting a 2.37 ERA. He’s kept his walk rate low throughout his pro career and in 2010 has a very Cliff Lee-like one walk per nine innings (12 walks in 110 innings). In spite of his size (6’7, 250), Beaven has not shown himself to be a high strikeout pitcher as a professional, instead performing the part of highly successful control pitcher. He is currently doing very well in AA and could soon find himself in the Mariners rotation. While he is currently seen as someone who would be a mid to back-of-the-rotation guy, his performance record is strong enough for there to be hope that he could be more of a 2/3 type and less of a 3/4/5 type. “Control” minor league pitchers don’t necessarily jump to the Majors as well as power minor leaguers, but until Beaven fails, it seems safe to assume he can succeed. Even if he “only” reaches his current projection, an innings eating mid-rotation player has significant value, especially since Seattle will have him under team control for six full seasons and through almost all of his 20s. Beaven has walked 61 batters in 395 minor league innings while posting a 3.22 ERA. He has also only given up 28 home runs during this time span.

The other two prospects included in the deal are of considerably lower pedigree but have intriguing performance records. Lueke is a relief pitcher who just made it to AA this season. He has been a dominant strikeout artist, posting an 11.4 K/9 in 153 minor league innings while limiting his walks. One of the things to watch out for with Lueke is that he is currently 25 years old and just now has made it to AA. Often old for his league, his strong performance to date could be a mirage. At his age and performance level, he ought to be knocking on the door to a big league job soon to determine if his outcomes to date have been a mirage or indicative of a future piece to a good major league bullpen. Lawson is 24 and has seen the entirety of his time at AA this year. He has moved up the organizational ladder steadily each year to get to that point, having had his best full season to date last year when he posted a 293/350/418 triple slash, which is fairly productive for a middle infielder. In 2010 to date he appears poised to top that, currently holding a 277/371/438 line with 28 extra base hits in 76 games. I’m not sure of the scouting perception of Lawson, but his performance record indicates that he too could have a future, and he is currently doing it at AA.

Of the four prospects that the Mariners received for Lee, one is extremely highly regarded, a second is fairly well regarded, and the others are fringy prospects but have both contributed well and without a hitch at AA, which is generally the dividing skill class between prospects and non-prospects. In fact, all four of the players that the Mariners received either are currently at AA or have played there (Smoak). By contrast, of the three players they unloaded to acquire Lee, only one is currently in AA and only one (a different one) had played as high as AA at the time of the trade. None are doing particularly well right now. Except for Smoak, all of the players that the Mariners received (and they received more of them in terms of quantity) are doing well and doing so at a higher level. Considering that Lee was acquired for the sole purpose of leading Seattle to a division title, once it became abundantly clear that the plan was going awry they did the next best thing and got more for Lee than they gave up to get him. The Mariners definitely came away winners in this trade and in the entire Lee scenario, save for their inability to win the division this year — Something that had very little to do with Lee.

Texas is also a winner in this deal, as they acquired a huge boost to their rotation at no cost to their current roster save for Smoak (more on this in a moment). They dealt from the strength of their deep farm system to acquire him, and if they don’t re-sign him in the off-season or extend him (and it is unlikely they will be able to do either) they could still offer him arbitration and acquire two first round picks for him when he leaves as a free agent, thus helping them replenish some of the lost prospects from their system. Another facet of this deal that seems to have gone unnoticed is that in unloading Smoak the Rangers do in fact have a ready replacement for him at First Base. Chris Davis was the incumbent starter at the position coming into the 2010 season and had a decent sized prospect star himself at one point in time. After three consecutive seasons of .340+ OBP and .190+ ISO to begin his pro career Davis was brought to the Rangers in 2008 and put up a very impressive rookie campaign at age 22, hitting 285/331/549 with 17 home runs in 317 plate appearances. His performance tailed off considerably in 2009 and he got off to an atrocious start in 2010, hitting 170/237/264 before being demoted to make room for “the future” in Smoak. Since his demotion, Davis has hit 354/403/555 in AAA and will now return to reclaim his starting First Base job. Davis is only 24 and is still under team control for five more seasons. It is possible that there is still room for him to grow and show that he was the player he was in 2008 (and in the minor league seasons leading up to it) and not the player he has been at the Major League level in 2010. At any rate, while Smoak was considered the future and a can’t-miss prospect, he hadn’t been playing well this year and if Davis has improved even slightly from his time at AAA he should be able to pull his numbers up to the point where he will out-produce what Smoak was doing for the 2010 Rangers, thus becoming a boon to the lineup for the second half of the season.

This trade, with all of its pieces and the consequences of moving them, appears at the moment to be one of those deals where both sides benefit equally and fill their respective needs. Time will tell how it shakes out — Whether or not the guys Seattle acquire reach their potential, and whether or not Lee can lead Texas to a deep playoff run — But as of this moment it appears that both teams were able to more than adequately meet their needs in this first blockbuster deal of the 2010 season.

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Responses

  1. Lee goes from a great pitcher’s park to a great hitter’s park. Smoak, of course, does the same, to each of their detriment. However, I do expect both of them to ultimately be successful in the long run (assuming the Rangers can sign Lee to a long-term contract.) Lee will benefit from much better run support, even if he does give up more runs. And Seattle is so desperate for an impact hitter with upside that they had to make this deal. I agree with you. It’s a win-win for both teams.
    Nice post, Bill


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