Now that free agency is in full swing, we’ve seen some insane contracts (*cough*Jayson Werth*cough*) and some public posturing (Derek Jeter, anyone?). But, there’s probably not a more coveted free agent this off-season than pitcher and former Indian Cliff Lee. There’s a rumor that the drunken sailors running the Washington Nationals are pushing hard for Lee in the neighborhood of seven years and $140 million. It’s important to note—to me, at least—that had Lee not been part of the Colon trade, he’d have been in the Nationals organization from the jump.
And, that got me to thinking: remember when Mark Shapiro traded Bartolo Colon for three guys most of us had never heard of before? Looking back, can you ever remember another baseball trade so talent-laden—and potentially lop-sided—in hindsight? I know, I know… two of the three players we got went on to success in other cities, though with Lee we at least got a taste of what he was capable of, 2007 notwithstanding. But, I want to make it clear: I’m not arguing this is the most lopsided trade in favor of the Indians. I’m only talking about pure talent and performance going both ways. Why? I don’t know. Why not?
What We Gave Up
The traded in 2002 centered around then-Tribe-ace Bartolo Colon going to Montreal as they were in the midst of a potential playoff run. Also involved was then-farmhand pitcher Tim Drew.
Colon was money in 2002, going 10-4 with a 2.55 ERA and 75 Ks in 16 starts for the Tribe before being dealt. He finished strong with Montreal, making 17 starts, going an identical 10-4 with a slightly worse ERA of 3.31 and 74 Ks. But, Montreal (and by extension, Washington) got the total short-end of this deal, as they turned around and dealt him AGAIN in the ‘02-‘03 off-season with Jorge Nunez (I don’t know, either) to the Chicago White Sox for Rocky Biddle, Orlando Hernandez, Jeff Liefer and cash. So, if you’re scoring at home, Montreal got 17 starts out of Bartolo Colon, Tim Drew (see below), Rocky Biddle, Orlando Hernandez (who they had for one year before he became a free agent and went back to the Yankees), and Jeff Liefer in exchange for Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips.
Colon had three more good years from 2003 (Chicago Sox) through 2005 (two years with the Angels), in which he went 54-33 in 101 starts with a 4.09 ERA and 488 Ks. He won the Cy Young in 2005 with the Angels after posting a 21-8 record with a 3.48 ERA and 157 strikeouts. From there, it went downhill for Colon, as injuries and ineffectiveness limited him to only 48 starts and a 14-21 record from 2006-2009. He did not pitch in 2010.
Tribe’s Bottom Line: They missed out on a few good years from Colon, but in hindsight they’d have never signed him for 2004 and 2005 when the Angels gave him big money, so really we’re talking about 2002 and 2003. As we all remember, 2002 and 2003 were pretty bad years for the Tribe.
The Tribe’s first-round pick in 1997, it was hoped that Drew would help bolster the rotation throughout the 2000’s. However, he never really made it to the Majors for the Tribe, making just nine starts combined in 2000 and 2001 for Cleveland. He was 1-2 with a 8.39 ERA. Drew didn’t fare much better after the trade, going an identical 1-2 in two seasons with Montreal (‘02 and ‘03) in which he worked primarily out of the bullpen (13 appearances, just two starts) and a 6.20 ERA. He had one more cup of coffee in The Show in 2004 with the Braves in which he worked only out of the pen, and was uninspiring in 11 appearances with no record and a 4.50 ERA.
Tribe’s Bottom Line: He wasn’t missed by the Tribe after the trade. He was a career minor leaguer, and not an impressive one at that: 72-65 with a 4.61 ERA in 11 seasons in the minors.
What We Got
Other than Lee Stevens, who was the MLB equivalent of an NBA expiring contract to help balance salary, this trade centered around Brandon Phillips. Considered to be secondary players in the deal were Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore.
Oh damn. Brandon Phillips. He was originally the centerpiece of this deal, as prior to the 2002 season he was Baseball America’s #22 rated prospect. Prior to 2003 (with the Tribe!) he was ranked #7. Of course, his Tribe tenure will be remembered for two things: 1) being rushed to the majors in 2003 and struggling on a bad team, and 2) being sent packing in lieu of Ramon [Bleep]ing Vazquez in 2006 by Eric Wedge. Let’s look at Phillips’ career, though.
Other than 2003, Phillips really didn’t spend a lot of time in the Majors for Cleveland. In 2002, 2004, and 2005 combined, he played just 23 total games and hit .194 with no homers, five doubles, and a triple with just five RBI. Ugh. In 2003, when he was given the second base job almost by default, he played 112 games and didn’t fare much better. He hit .208, had six homers, 18 doubles, a triple, and 33 RBI. In his defense, the rest of the team around him was putrid.
So it was in the spring of 2006 when it came down to a decision to keep Phillips—who was out of options—as a utility player vs. Ramon Vazquez. Wedge notoriously chose Vazquez, and Phillips was shipped to Cincinnati in exchange for a PTBNL, which turned into Jeff Stevens. Stevens made it as high as AAA Buffalo in 2008 for the Tribe, but left the organization as part of the trade to bring Mark DeRosa to Cleveland in the off-season that year. So, that wasn’t all bad, as DeRosa turned into Jess Todd and Chris Perez for Cleveland.
Back to Phillips: he went to Cincinnati in 2006, and has been a starter for the Reds ever since. He never hit for average like some projected he would, but he’s been a mainstay for the Reds at second base for the last five seasons. He’s played in 756 games for the Reds, and has hit a combined .275 with 106 home runs (21 per year), 404 RBI (81 per year), and 121 stolen bases (24 per year). He’s won two Gold Gloves, and was an All Star in 2010.
Tribe’s Bottom Line: When you look at what the Tribe has trotted out at second base—save when Asdrubal Cabrera caught lightning in a bottle there in late 2007—the decision to let him walk was clearly a mistake.
Ahh, Franchizemore. He was the last throw-in in this trade, as he was in the lowest level of the the minors when the trade went down. He finally made the Majors in 2004, playing 43 games later in the year as the Tribe was again at the bottom of the standings; he hit .246 in 43 games. But, it was Juan Gonzalez’s hamstring in 2005 that unleashed Grady’s Golden Age on the AL. Sizemore wasn’t expected to play in 2005 because of Juan Gone, but after Juan’s ONE AT BAT for the Indians ended with his supposedly-healed hamstring snapping halfway down the first base line in Minnesota, Grady got his shot. And he didn’t look back. He played 158 games in 2005, and then played in all 162 each of the next two seasons, and 157 in 2008. Over those four years, he was an All Star three times (‘06-‘08), won two Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger (2008), hit .281, had a .363 OBP, 107 homers, 163 doubles (including a league-leading 53 in 2006), 32 triples, and 325 RBI. He also stole 115 bases, and was a 30-30 man in 2008 when he hit 33 homers and stole 38 bases. Injuries rendered him ineffective in 2009 and 2010, when he played in only 139 combined games and struggled at the plate. It remains to be seen what 2011 will look like for Grady.
Tribe’s Bottom Line: They got four excellent years of production from Grady from 2005-2008, and he was a large part of their almost-playoff-run in 2005 and their actual playoff run in 2007. Sizemore still has the potential to be an impact player if he can show he’s over the injuries. The Tribe has him locked up on the cheap for 2012 if they exercise his option after next season.
At last, we come to it. Cliff Lee didn’t really make it to Cleveland until 2004 (3-4 in 11 starts in ‘02 and ‘03), but when he did he paid immediate dividends. From 2004 through 2006, Lee made 98 starts for Cleveland, and went 46-24 with a 4.50 ERA and 433 Ks. Probably the biggest let-down for Tribe fans was 2007, when Lee suffered through an abdominal injury in spring training, and struggled out of the gate once he came back. He spent time in the minors, and went 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA in 20 appearances (16 starts). He was left off the post-season roster, and many wondered if he had just been the benefactor of good offense and luck throughout the previous three years when he had such a good record.
The pain of hindsight came in 2008, as reigning Cy Young winner CC Sabathia was traded due to the team struggling. Fausto Carmona regressed. Why the hindsight anger? Because Lee came back in 2008 completely unrecognizable, on his way to a Cy Young season of his own:
Lee led the AL in wins (22) and ERA (2.54), and his winning percentage (22-3, .880) was the fifth-best since 1900 for pitchers with at least 20 decisions in a season. Lee also finished second in three other major categories (IP, 223.1 – WHIP, 1.11 – CG, 4) and was ninth in the league in strikeouts with 170. He became the first Indians pitcher to win 20+ games since Gaylord Perry all the way back in 1974.
The Cy Young trophy will go nicely on Cliff’s “2008 Shelf” next to the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award, his Players’ Choice Awards for both AL Comeback Player of the Year and Outstanding AL Pitcher of the Year, and his Sporting News Awards for both AL Comeback Player of the Year and Outstanding AL Pitcher of the Year.
How great would it have been to have had that guy in the rotation in 2007? CC Sabathia, Good Fausto, and that Cliff Lee, with a 3-1 series lead over Boston and Colorado waiting? That was it, folks. That was our World Series title.
Lee was OK for Cleveland in 2009, no thanks to his run support, with a 7-9 record in 22 starts and a 3.14 ERA. He was then traded to Philadelphia which would then begin his run of “I’m Sandy Koufax!” in the playoffs with Philly in 2009 and Texas in 2010.
Tribe’s Bottom Line: Lee was a valuable member of the team for four seasons (2004-2006, 2008), but was persona non grata for the one year they really, REALLY needed him: 2007. It remains to be seen whether or not the guys that came over in the trade will impact the Tribe for years to come, though we may start to see what Carlos Carrasco can do longer term beginning in 2011. Lou Marson is a back-up catcher at best, Jason Donald looks like a utility player at best, and who knows what Jason Knapp can do with his shoulder issues?
So, there’s not really a larger, over-reaching point I’m trying to make, other than maybe I’ll be super honked off if Lee ends up in New York along side Sabathia. But, I’ve made my peace with that; it’s the nature of the game. More than anything, it’s interesting to look back on this trade from the standpoint of how much talent was trading hands in both directions (Cy Young winners of the future going both ways combined with two additional All Stars). Have we seen a trade with that much talent changing hands since then?
Finally, I would find it terribly ironic if Lee signs in Washington, as the Nationals (Expos) were the organization that originally drafted and produced him. Considering their time in the wilderness since this trade went down, it’s certainly interesting to wonder where they’d have been with not only Lee, but all three of these guys as compared to the 17 starts of Bartolo Colon. The Tribe was certainly better off because of the trade.