What's A Fair Deal For Cliff Lee?

Described as everything from "front-runners" to "contenders" to "inquiring," the Mets clearly have some level of interest in trading for Mariners' lefty Cliff Lee before the July 31st trade deadline. The Mets have the payroll space to absorb Lee's small $5 million dollar prorated salary, the need for him with Takahashi an uncertain quantity, and the motivation, both in desire to return to the playoffs and interest in signing Lee this offseason.

For his part, Lee has been arguably the best pitcher in baseball, behind maybe only Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum, since miraculously turning his career around in 2008 with the Indians. This season has been his best yet, with a 1.97 FIP, and a winning record despite playing for what may go down as the worst offensive team since the Deadball Era. Despite missing the first month of the season, he has the fourth highest pitcher-WAR in baseball. He has walked 5 batters in 12 games. Which brings us to our big question: is he any good?

Lee's Value to the Mariners/Other Teams

Since the Mariners are bad Lee's value to them is two compensatory draft picks. Leading 6orgoligist, Dave Cameron, made a nice estimate of his total trade value in the abstract, which includes the 2 compensatory picks and the estimated 3.5 wins he'll give his new team down the stretch.  3.5x5=~18 plus an estimated $3 million in value per compensatory pick equals $20-$26 million. Minus his salary, we get Cameron's estimate of $15-20 million dollars on the open market.

Lee's Value to the Mets

Using Cameron's estimate as the starting point, Cliff Lee is likely more valuable to the Mets than other contenders. For one thing, the move to the National League and Citi Field probably allows us to estimate his rest-of-season worth closer to 4-4.5 wins.

The Mets are also arguably facing the most pressure in the majors to make the playoffs.  Of the teams with a significant  chance of the making the playoffs that aren't locks (~30%-70% playoff odds), the Mets seemingly have the least secure management situation and definitely have the highest payroll. 

Think a 3-5 win improvement is inconsequential? (I know you don't, you're a Mets fan). According to the Baseball Prospectus postseason odds report, the Mets have a 43% chance to making the playoffs currently. The Phillies could be screwed, which would help some, but the Mets are still no better than a 50-50 chance of making the playoffs at this point. Also according to those BP reports, the most likely outcome for the season is thus:

NO LEE W L GB
Braves 92 70 -
Mets 89 73 3

 

I'm not going to run any simulations with Lee in the rotation, but to drive home the importance of 3 wins anyway, a possible world with Lee:

OH WOW LEE W L GB
Mets 92 70 -
Braves 91 71 1

 

The Mets Need For Lee

Ostensibly, the Mets rotation corrected itself with Perez and Maine gone, but Takahashi's recent outings are disconcerting. I'm all for moving him back to the bullpen and letting Dickey play fifth starter/swing man.

In a related note, someone seriously needs to inform Jerry Manuel that he can't break Dickey's arm, as he has no relevant ligaments in his pitching elbow, which barely even moves in his delivery anyway. Not only can Jerry leave him in past the fifth inning, but he can pitch the next day, if someone gets hurt! 

Lee solves problems in the front-end of the rotation, too. Pelfrey and Santana have been pretty lucky so far, and it's better not to gamble on that luck continuing. While good pitchers may be able to keep their ERA's lower than the peripherals would suggest, Santana needs to start striking out more batters or hope we bring back Endy to catch the homeruns he's soon to give up. Pelfrey, on the other hand, is not doing anything differently this season, other than striking out a few more batters. Cliff Lee gives the Mets an ace in a rotation of #2-#3-type starters. 

He helps the bullpen too! Lee has pitched 5 complete games in 12 starts so far. He's also gone 8 innings three times and has pitched no less than 6.1 innings in a start this season. If Jerry let's Dickey pitch, the Mets could be dealing consecutive complete games regularly down the stretch, a nice respit for Fernando Nieve, who, turns out, really sucks.

A Potential Package

The following players do not make sense to trade for Cliff Lee:

  • Angel Pagan--He's a starter on this team and any other and has more future value than Cliff Lee.
  • Jenrry Mejia--He throws that Mo-cutter. He's the best prospect we've had in a long while, he's not getting traded for a rental.
  • Jon Niese--A good pitcher already in the rotation, trading Niese for Lee would negate much of the present value Lee provides, while being a huge loss of future value. 

Cameron estimated $15-$20 million, which equals, in his words:

What does that look like in terms of prospects? According to the values Wang came up with, that's a hitting prospect in the 25-75 range or a top 10 pitching prospect, plus maybe another lesser piece or two in order to win the bidding. Historically, that is basically what we see. The Indians obtained Matt LaPorta and change for CC Sabathia two years ago. The A's got Brett Wallace and change for Matt Holliday last year. That is basically the established return for a rent-a-star.

The only hitting prospects the Mets had in the 25-75 range before the season were Fernando Martinez, Ike Davis and sometimes Wilmer Flores. Wilmer can probably be upgraded to "definitely" in that range, as he's finally hitting and earning promotions. Ike obviously can't be traded, as is. Reese Havens might also qualify now, but he's got the same injury-prone tag as Fernando. All considered, the Mets have 3 very good hitting prospects, but for various reasons, none of a LaPorta/Wallace caliber.

To mitigate the lack of a truly great hitting prospect, a fair trade would likely be one player from pool A, one from pool B, and one from pool C, below:

Pool A

  • Wilmer Flores
  • Fernando Martinez
  • Reese Havens

Pool B

Pool C

Because the Mariners have an organizational need for an offense-first catcher, a package of Thole and any player in pool A might be enough. And obviously, the players in each pool don't have exactly the same value, but hopefully this exercise gives a general idea.

My Sane Proposal Idea

Martinez, Thole, Evans, and Niesen for Lee

My Insane Proposal Idea

Mets send: Ike Davis, Wilmer Flores, Jeurys Familia, Josh Thole, Brad Holt

Mets receive: Prince Fielder, Cliff Lee

Brewers send: Prince Fielder, Mat Gamel, Zach Braddock

Brewers receive: Ike Davis, Jeurys Familia, Brad Holt, Wilmer Flores

Mariners send: Cliff Lee

Mariners receive: Josh Thole, Mat Gamel, Zach Braddock

My Rooting Interest

I strongly hope the Mets trade for Cliff Lee without trading Havens or Mejia. I understand the neurotic need to hoard prospects in the Wins Above Replacement, Evan Longoria contract-era, but Havens and Mejia seem like the only two prospects with significant futures on this team. Fernando Martinez is made expendable both by Pagan's breakout and his continued fragility. Thole is nice, but he's not the next Mike Piazza, and the Mets can easily go year-to-year with Barajas-type veterans without losing much value. Besides, young catchers with offensive ability are often given up on and freely available, like George Kottaras and Kelly Shoppach this past offseason. 

Ultimately, prospects are meant to be traded. Every year the Mets miss the playoffs, with Reyes and Wright in their prime, is a wasted year. However good you think your two favorite prospects are, they're likely never going to be as good as Reyes and Wright are now. For that reason, I wouldn't really be that mad with Havens going for Lee either. 

Cliff Lee could be as important to the Mets this season as any deadline pick up ever, including that jabroni Rick Sutcliffe. Losing the division to the Braves because we didn't have the guts to do what they did all those years they beat up on us would be pretty sickening. Most importantly, all Phillies fans will be able to think of is "what could have been...".

The Future

I wouldn't mind signing Cliff Lee to Johan's contract. If the Mets plan to sign him this offseason anyway, they should demand a negotiating window. He's worth the money. We can worry about next season this offseason, though. He's worth it either way.

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