It is rare that an MLB team can cast about for help and find someone as good as Cliff Lee. Sure, he's been traded twice in the past six months, but it bears repeating that he's really, really, really good.
Lee leads all major league pitchers in FIP, at 1.98. He leads the majors in WHIP, at 0.91. His K/BB rate is 19.00, more than three times the rate of his closest competitor, Roy Halladay (6.13). He's given up more than three earned runs in a start just once, thrown more than 35 balls in a start just once (all of his starts have gone at least six and a third innings), and accrued 3.7 Wins Above Replacement, best in the majors, despite having four fewer starts than both Ubaldo Jimenez and Roy Halladay, who, by the way, have no-hitters this season to their name. In short, Cliff Lee has been absurdly good at his job this season.
And for his troubles, he's probably going to get moved to his third team in less than a year.
This was always the gambit with Lee in Seattle—the Mariners brought him in for prospects with the hope that he would help boost them to playoff contention. But the M's also likely worried that they would, like the Phillies, fail to sign Lee to a long-term deal. At the intersection of their hopes being dashed (Seattle's 14 games back of the Rangers in the AL West and 13 games behind the Rays and Red Sox in the Wild Card chase despite just ripping off a six-game winning streak) and their fears being realized, the Mariners must be strongly considering moving him.
Letting Lee go as a free agent wouldn't be an awful idea, but he could probably fetch better, more, and/or more ready prospects in a trade than the two compensatory picks the M's would receive for Lee, a lock to be a Type A free agent after this year. So who wants Lee? And who could actually get him?
The Mariners don't need a lot of pitching help. Though Felix Hernandez hasn't been a Cy Young candidate this year, he's just 24, has the talent to be an ace for years to come, and is locked up through 2014. The superb defense the M's put behind every other pitcher at the already pitcher-friendly Safeco Field helps to make average talent into good pitchers. The problem is that Seattle can't hit: Chone Figgins' .230 batting average is one of four ugly, sub-.250 numbers put up in that category by Mariners with more than 200 plate appearances, and only three Mariners with more than 100 plate appearances have Weighted On Base Averages over .300.
So the Mariners will be trading Lee for prospects, especially hitters. And his suitors will be teams with playoff aspirations that need pitching. The Mets and Twins appear to be the front-runners. The Mets can offer a slew of prospects and can take on Lee's salary and write him off as a rental, even if a playoff berth don't happen, thanks to their enormous revenues. The Twins have a better catching prospect in Wilson Ramos—the Mariners are "interested" in adding a catching prospect—and can throw a back-end starter like Kevin Slowey or Scott Baker into the deal. (The Yankees, considered a favorite to end up with Lee after free agency, would be a dark horse to pick him up in a trade, but trading top catching prospect Jesus Montero for Lee has been called "ludicrous" and the Yanks don't really need another starter.)
But don't expect the Mariners to jump at anything but the best deal. GM Jack Zduriencik is still regarded as one of baseball's savviest, and he knows that the Mariners are essentially shopping three or four months of Lee and the two compensatory draft picks—in a reputedly stellar 2011 class. There's little chance the Mariners don't bring back a strong return for Lee; Dave Cameron thinks "one high quality prospect and a few fillers" sounds about right.
I'd tend to agree with that, and though I think the Mets would be a fun destination from a story standpoint—Lee returns to the NL East for a second tour of destruction and some revenge on the Phillies—the Twins have a more pressing need for starting pitching this season, and a clearer path to the playoffs. Besides, from a purist's point of view, Lee in Minnesota would be a victory for pitching in the "year of the pitcher": the only pitcher with a higher WAR than Francisco Liriano, of course, is Cliff Lee.
Pairing Lee and Liriano, if they can keep doing what they've done, gives the Twins a lethal combination at the top of their rotation. Minnesota can't quite match the Yankees-Rays-Red Sox troika for pitching or roster depth, and would probably be the underdog in a playoff series. But the playoffs aren't about which team would win more short series, only about which team can win one. And Lee and Liriano would give the Twins a great chance to win one.
And then the World Series.
They should pull the trigger.â†µ
This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.