Cliff Lee’s Trade Value

Over the next six weeks, most of the General Managers of contending teams will ask themselves the same question – what am I willing to give up to get Cliff Lee? Lee is the big fish in the upcoming trade season, as he is arguably the best left-handed pitcher in baseball right now, and is just a year removed from one of the most impressive post-season performances we’ve ever seen.

Each team will come to a different conclusion about what to offer based on their own team’s circumstances and how they value different players, but let’s try to offer a helping hand by quantifying Lee’s trade value as of today.

If a team traded for him tomorrow, they’d likely be able to extract 20 starts from Lee the rest of the season, as most teams have about 100 games left on their schedule. No one is going to be able to put together a deal that quickly, however, so we’ll estimate 18 starts in order to give them enough time to make a trade.

Over the last three years, Lee has made 74 starts and has been worth +16.8 wins over a replacement level starter, or about .23 wins per outing. Multiply that rate out over 18 starts and you come up with just over +4 wins for the rest of 2010. His performance has been so good the last few years that you don’t have to regress the projection that much. To account for the chance of injury or some kind of unexpected performance drop, you probably knock it down to +3.5 wins, or something in that range.

The marginal value of a win last winter was about $4 million. Using that figure, we’d estimate that the remainder of Lee’s 2010 regular season to be worth about $14 million. But teams are now operating with more information than they had over the winter.

Contenders and pretenders have been sorted out to a degree, and teams that actually have a chance to play in October have a better likelihood of seeing that come to pass than they did before the season began. Thus, while teams do factor post-season performance into their off-season pricing, it becomes more valuable at the trade deadline, as teams adjust their rosters for the playoffs. In reality, the marginal value of a win in July is almost certainly higher than it is in December, due to the increased certainty with which GMs can project their playoff chances.

I would estimate the marginal value of a win in July to be closer to $5 million than $4 million, which would put Lee’s value at $18 million instead of $14, but it’s in the same general range. A team that trades for Lee doesn’t just get his 2010 season, however, but also is basically guaranteed two draft picks when he leaves via free agency (or they get to re-sign him, which is a value in and of itself), since he’s a lock for Type A free agency.

If we use the numbers that Victor Wang concluded, the value of the compensation picks is about $6 million, a significant figure. Given that 2011 is projected as an exceptionally strong draft class, it might even be a little bit higher, but we’ll stick with that value for now.

That would make the asset that is Cliff Lee worth between $20 and $26 million. He’s due about $5 million left of his 2010 salary, so we’ll subtract that amount from the overall total, and get $15 to $21 million in surplus value.

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.

If you’re a GM shopping for Cliff Lee this summer, that looks to be the price – $15 to $20 million worth of value, which translates into one high quality prospect and a few fillers.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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13 years ago

Would Lance Lynn, Daryl Jones, and Shelby Miller be enough for him to come to STL?

13 years ago
Reply to  gnomez

Probably, though I dunno if Jones has much value anymore. That’s probably about equal to the deal they gave up for Holliday last year – I’d say Miller is marginally less valuable than Wallace was, but Lynn is probably a slightly better low-ceiling high-minors arm than Mortensen, and Jones and Peterson are arguably about equivalent, with Jones maybe just shading it.

Not sure the Cardinals can really afford to give up what few prospects they have left, though, with a huge pay day coming for Pujols, a fairly poor farm system (at least pre-draft this year), and a need to produce a number of home-grown regulars over the next four years.

13 years ago
Reply to  gnomez

The cardinals aren’t giving up miller though, he’s the only prospect the team has with an ace ceiling. I believe this package would be enough but the cardinals wouldn’t make this trade though. In my opinion the cardinals need a quality innings eater not an ace.