Lee’s Trade Value

In the last four months, I’ve written two posts with a similar point – a team traded Cliff Lee and got a mediocre return at best in terms of prospects. First, Cleveland’s Mark Shapiro made the decision to trade Lee to Philadelphia at the deadline for an uninspiring package of players, a decision that looked even more questionable given how well Lee pitched for the Phillies. But now, Ruben Amaro has followed in his footsteps, trading Lee away for a trio of okay-but-not-great prospects.

So, I have to wonder what is going on here? It’s impossible to believe that both Shapiro and Amaro failed to do their homework, trading Lee away without surveying the market and weighing available offers. They obviously are both interested in making the best deals they can, and with a player of Lee’s stature, I have to believe they did significant due diligence before pulling the trigger.

So, our options here are believe that two General Managers are lazy/incompetent and failed to extract the best return possible for their team when trading him, or that the market for Cliff Lee is just not very good. Let’s just agree to reject option A out of hand, as neither Shapiro or Amaro are lazy or stupid. That leaves the second option – that this really was the best both teams could do.

What, then, is wrong with Cliff Lee in the eyes of major league GMs? Over the last two years, he’s third in baseball in innings pitched, sixith in ERA, third in complete games, has issued the third fewest walks, and allowed the sixth fewest home runs. His 2.96 FIP is third best in baseball since the beginning of 2008, better than Roy Halladay’s 3.02. Even his 3.62 xFIP, which adjusts for his low HR/FB rate, is 3.62 – the equal of Felix Hernandez.

He’s spent most of the last two years pitching in the American League, so there’s not a worry about the adjustment coming over to tougher competition. He destroyed the post-season, pitching one of the best games in World Series history against a great Yankee line-up. He’s left-handed and has three good pitches, including a devastating change-up that is among the best in the game.

I don’t get it. The Brewers gave up more for two months of CC Sabathia than the Phillies gave up for 1 1/2 years of Lee or that the Mariners gave up for 1 year of Lee. Lee is Sabathia’s equal, or really close to it. Yet twice, he’s been put up for trade and the response has been fairly blah.

You can’t argue that this is what pitchers of this quality go for. The difference in prospects that it required to acquire Lee and Halladay is staggering, and is not all explained by the $6 million in cash Toronto sent to Philly or the extension that Halladay agreed to. The Angels were reportedly willing to give up the moon for Halladay, but apparently had no interest in making a similar offer for Lee, letting him go to a division competitor while surrendering nothing that would help them in 2010.

The only thing that makes sense to me is that teams are still a bit skeptical of Lee’s rapid rise to greatness. And while we’re the first ones to point out that you want to make decisions on large samples, Lee’s thrown 450 innings over the last two years and racked up +13.8 wins in that time. You can’t fluke your way into that kind of performance.

It will be interesting to see what happens when Lee hits free agency next year. He is clearly expecting to get paid like a top tier starting pitcher, but major league GMs apparently do not see him as one. They should. He is.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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12 years ago

Dave, here’s my question: What if the dynamics of trading for star pitchers has simply changed? CC Sabathia might be the exception rather than the rule. The Twins haul for Santana? Mostly junk. The initial Lee trade? Mostly junk. Toronto didn’t move Halladay before because the packages were not what they wanted. Lee again, mostly average/above average. I just have to wonder if the relative value assigned to high-end prospects vs high-end established players has changed, perhaps permanently. This would mean the Brewers didn’t get the memo on Sabathia, and everyone else has essentially shifted their trading patterns.

Larry Grasso
12 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

I don’t think the Phillies saw themselves getting Halladay for just one year . The reports I heard were that they were confident Halladay would sign an extension for three years at a very reasonable salary (characterized in the papers I read as “below market”) with options ofr a fourth and fifth year. Depending on the options (player/team and at what cost) they could be getting Halladay for four years (current plus the 3 year extension). They don’t have the five year commitment at Sabbathia type money, they can get out one year earlier if injury issues crop up, and if they don’t they may be in line for another two years at a cost below that of premier pitching on the free-agent market. Halladay’s willingness to forgo testing the free agent market to go to a proven winner convenient to his home and family is what made him much more valuable, and that may have been in effect a parting gift to Toronto. The real issue is why the Phillies didn’t simply hang onto Lee as well for one more year? His 2010 salary is modest and they’d have a dominating one-two punch.

12 years ago
Reply to  tekhna

Santana’s record-breaking extension requirement brought down his trade value.

Haren and Bedard led to big hauls not too long ago, but of course those also came with more years of team control.

12 years ago
Reply to  Victor

Well, the Bedard trade did kinda stand out as one of the bigger heists of recent baseball history. If we were scientists, we’d be throwing it out as an outlying data point, along with most of Bavasi’s tenure in Seattle.