August 26, 2014

Only Losers Live Here: Re-imagining What Might Have Been In The Cliff Lee Trade

It is a sore subject for Tribe fans as it should be.

Back on July 29th of 2009, the Indians sent Cy Young award winning starting pitcher Cliff Lee to Philadelphia. At the time, the Phillies were streaking towards the postseason while the Indians were in full regression mode. It was the second consecutive year in which the Tribe dealt their best assests to reload with prospects. Lee was their biggest chip and it was of the utmost importance that they cashed in on him big time.

The Phillies were flush with top tier prospects. In 2009, everyone knew their best guy was AA starting pitcher Kyle Drabek. Next on the list were a pair of outfielders, Domonic Brown and Michael Taylor. The Indians tried everything they could to hold out for Drabek, but the Phillies refused to include him. Brown and Taylor were intriguing, but at the time, the Tribe thought they were set long-term with Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo, and a soon to be ready Michael Brantley in the outfield. They wanted arms. So they settled for the next best options. 

In the deal, they received young starter Carlos Carrasco, who had spent enough time in AAA and was ready to hit the majors, along with the second best pitching prospect in the Phillies system at the time, a 19-year old Rookie ball pitcher named Jason Knapp. Also included in the deal were AAA SS Jason Donald and Catcher Lou Marson. Donald came over with a David Eckstein-type grinder reputation, but looked more like a utility player option for the Tribe. The book on Marson was that he was a terrific defensive catcher but may not ever be able to hit enough in the bigs to be an every day guy.

Everyone in our city freaked out. “They didn’t get nearly enough for a Cy Young winner with a year left on his deal” we all said. You know what, we were all correct. But looking deeper into that deal, had things turned out differently, we would probably be sitting here more than two years later with the exact same results.

What we currently have after the deal:

Carrasco – At times Carlos looked like a complete stud and the steal of the trade last season. Don’t forget, in the month of June, he ran off an incredible six start streak where he allowed just four earned runs in 37 innings and was dominant. He was just 24 years old at the time as well. As it turned out, his late July struggles came with a reason – a sore elbow. The elbow needed to be surgically repaired and Carrasco was shut down. He will be missing the entire 2012 season. If this hadn’t happened, Carrasco would be in the Tribe’s rotation and the Kevin Slowey acquisition may have never been made.

Knapp – The Indians took a big risk grabbing this flame-throwing 19 year old kid who had already had shoulder issues. As it turned out, the Phillies probably rooked them with Knapp. He needed shoulder surgery after just a handful of minor league starts in 2009. In 2010, still recovering from the shoulder, he made just nine starts. A season later, he was shut down again and went under the knife a second to take care of that same right shoulder. He never threw a pitch in a game. He is still just 21, but this spring still hasn’t been able to throw. My guess is we never see him in an Indians uniform.

Donald – I am a JD fan. He has turned himself into a very versatile option for Manager Manny Acta. He handles the bat well and can play anywhere on the infield. The Tribe has even given him a shot in center field to maximize his value. A keeper.

Marson – Lou is who he is, a stalwart defensive catcher with little pop in his bat. Nobody handles a pitching staff better and he hit left-handed pitching well last season (.297). However, righties owned him (.191). As I said before, he is who he is – a backup catcher.

But looking deeper into the deal, what has happened with the three guys the Indians didn’t get?

Drabek – In 2009 he was the hottest pitching prospect in the game. After the season, the Phillies decided to trade him to the Toronto Blue Jays as a part of the package to get Cy Young winner Roy Halladay. So they wouldn’t give him up for Lee, waited five months, and then sent him to the Blue Jays.

After a solid 2010 season in AA (14-9, 2,93 ERA), he was going to become an option for the Jays in their 2011 rotation. He didn’t make the club out of spring training and actually struggled for the first time in his career in AAA (15 starts, 5-4, 7,44 ERA). The Jays called up Drabek for the last two and a half months of the season. He made 14 starts and didn’t exactly set the world on fire. He was just 4-5 with an ERA of 6.06 and a WHIP of 1.80. He’s still just 24 years old, but it is not as if he burst onto the scene and was a stud from the get-go.

Brown – The left-handed hitting outfielder was a minor league hitting machine. He was a beast in two different levels in 2010, finishing with totals of .327/.391/.980/20 HR/68 RBI in just 93 games. The Phillies brought him up for a September look. By 2011 with the team letting Jayson Werth walk via free agency, it seemed as though Brown’s time to take over was there. The Phillies decided to go in another direction, giving most of the right field at-bats to Ben Francisco. Brown stayed in AAA to start the season. Halfway through, the Phillies gave him his shot and he had a rough go of it. In 56 games, he hit .245/.333/.725/5 HR/19 RBI.

Instead of sticking with their prospect, the Phillies dealt for All-Star Hunter Pence at the deadline and sent Brown back to AAA.  2012 is supposed to be his year. Instead yesterday, Brown was sent back to AAA and won’t be making the big club again, as the Phillies will most likely use John Mayberry Jr next to Pence and Shane Victorino.

Like Drabek, he’s 24 and will be heard from at some point, but its very surprising he hasn’t made his mark as of yet.

Taylor – Like Brown, he was a guy on a lot of teams radar screens. The former Stanford Cardinal hit .320/.395/.925/20 HR/84 RBI/20 steals in 2009 and would have been a perfect guy for the Tribe to add. The Phillies used him along with Drabek as bait to get Halladay that offseason. As part of that three-team deal, Taylor was spun off to the Oakland A’s.

Interestingly, the A’s kept Taylor in AAA for both the 2010 (.272/.348.740/6 HR/78 RBI) and the 2011 (.272/.360/.816/16 HR/64 RBI) seasons. He got a cup of coffee in Oakland in September, hitting .200 in 11 games. He’s now 26 years old and should be ready to be a regular at the big league level, except the A’s must not think that highly of him. They spent their offseason adding outfielders. They resigned Coco Crisp for two years and $14 million, then traded for Boston’s Josh Reddick, who is a guy the Indians had looked into this Winter. To top it all off, they gave a four-year, $36 million deal to Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes. They also added Seth Smith from the Rockies and stud prospect Colin Cowgill from Arizona. Taylor is on the outside looking in.

Its almost three years later, but we all know the Indians did the right thing at the time by trading Lee. He wasn’t staying here long term and the Indians were in a rebuilding mode. They found a team flush with prospects, but how many of those have worked out to become instant studs?

Judging by what you read, I’d say none of them.

  • Jeff Nomina

    This would be a lot of work – but it would be interesting to see what the prospects in the OTHER Cliff Lee deals are doing as well.  It seemed like no one made out with much in the Cliff Lee trades the last few years – I wonder if the market for dealing super stars is starting to dry up.  

  • Natedawg86

    For some reason, Soul Asylum – Misery popped into my head after reading this…

    Can this be the Cleveland theme song?

    “We could start a company And make misery, Frustrated Incorporated …”

  • Boomhauertjs

    In any Lee trade, the Tribe should’ve required the other team to take Hafner’s contact with him.

  • EyesAbove

    As much as I apologize for the Tribe front office, this trade was inexcusable. They didnt get nearly enough for Lee. Hopefully Carrasco can bounce back, otherwise they will have gotten nothing but a bunch of spare parts in this deal. I mean Marson and Donald are nice players, but obviously you’d like to get more than utility guys in exchange for a player of Lee’s caliber. 

  • mgbode

    the only one doing anything in any of the deals yet (some are still young) is Justin Smoak

  • erchoov

    It still would have been nice if the Dolan’s hadn’t broadcast the fact that we had to trade him, resulting in teams not giving us their best offer.

  • http://twitter.com/oribiasi oribiasi

    Factory of Sadness?

  • mgbode

    http://seamheads.com/2010/07/23/comparing-the-cliff-lee-hauls/

    Philly:  Lee&Francisco
    Cleveland: 
    pitcher Jason Knapp - lower level guy and injured.  has promise.
    pitcher Carlos Carrasco – up&down and now hurt
    infielder Jason Donald – decent overall utility type
    catcher Lou Marson – decent backup C type

    Seattle:  Lee
    Philly:
    outfielder Tyson Gillies – hurt and struggling in A+ ball
    pitcher J.C. Ramirez – struggling in AA
    pitcher Phillippe Aumont – gave up on him as a starter as he struggled at all levels.  he really has responded as a RP though and is showing promise (in AA and AAA).

    Texas:  Lee & Mark Lowe (injured RP)
    Seattle:
    second baseman Matt Lawson – now in the Indians system (AA)
    pitcher Blake Beaven –  struggling with AAA
    pitcher Josh Lueke – okay success as RP in AAA
    first baseman Justin Smoak – best player returned so far in any Lee deal by default.  terrible average, strikes out too much, doesn’t walk enough.  but he has good power and potential for much more.

  • mgbode

    wasn’t too bad.  about 10min on baseball-reference.com

  • MrCleaveland

    The key phrase here is, “So they settled . . . ”

    Why? Why did they settle for less than they wanted? There was no reason to settle. Obviously, Philadelphia wasn’t the only team that would have wanted Lee. And there was no rush at all to trade him.

    This is why losers stay losers.

  • Eli


    terrible average, strikes out too much, doesn’t walk enough.  but he has good power and potential for much more.” Justin Smoak or 2001 Russell Branyan? You decide!

  • mgbode

    I wasn’t going to mention it, but since you brought up player comparisons:

    similarity score for Smoak is to Matt LaPorta

  • mgbode

    or they realized that they would get less if they waited?   if Smoak busts (quite possible), then it still looks like we got the best haul.  noone was paying much for Lee in any of these trades.

  • kjn

    Nice article. Trading for prospects is always dangerous.

  • kjn

    Nice article. Trading for prospects is always dangerous.

  • typo

    I never buy that logic. Every year get a handful of big market teams in a playoff race, desperate for a starter. They won’t give up less because its the last year of a contract.

  • typo

    I never buy that logic. Every year get a handful of big market teams in a playoff race, desperate for a starter. They won’t give up less because its the last year of a contract.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    The Indians are always in a hurry to make trades when they hold the biggest and most proven pieces.  When they needed pitching in the ’90s they wouldn’t part with any minor league hitters.  Then in the ’00s when they had pitching they didn’t trade for any hitting.  It’s almost funny.

    How many organizations trade away a pair of left handed Cy Young pitchers and in less then five years have almost nothing to show for it?  Couple that with terrible I mean horrid drafting and here you are.  This more then $$$ is what the problem has been IMO.

  • mgbode

    see Cliff Lee trades above.

  • kjn

    Wait– first you say we didn’t trade our pitching in the 00′s and then you complain that we traded a pair of Cy Young pitchers. Not sure I follow.

    No doubt, both trades stunk. The Lee trade especially. Still, we couldn’t re-sign them and we couldn’t let them walk.

  • Tribefan1968

    I still believe the Lee and Martinez trades within one week in 2009 were quickly forced decisions by Dolan ownership to quickly save money. Unlike most Tribe decisions, this didn’t seem well thought out. Had they made the decisions to trade Victor and Cliff at the All-Star break, their prospect return would have been much better. Since they had to sell quick, they sold at a discount.

    Thanks for the article, though. Very interesting to see how it would have turned out if prospects received would have been different.

  • saggy

    Since we are getting all technical about all things Cliff-Lee-trade…what are Tim Drew and Lee Stevens doing now??

  • Steve

     Look at the trades for front line pitchers recently, not just Lee, but Sabathia (I know, that doesn’t help), Santana, Halladay, etc. There hasn’t been a whole lot of Colonesque returns. The trade wasn’t inexcusable simply because they couldn’t afford Lee, and he wasn’t going to be on the next Tribe contender. What we got for him is more than what we would have if we waited – nothing.

  • EyesAbove

    I disagree that we couldnt have gotten more, Lee wasnt in the last year of his contract. So it’s not like they had a gun to their heads. This one bothered me because it was nothing more than a salary dump. Were they really bleeding so much cash that they couldnt hold on to him until the end of the season? He still had a full year left on his contract. They could have waited until the offseason to trade him and gotten a lot more teams involved, could have shopped him around until they got the best offer. I normally defend the Dolans and the Tribe FO, but they fudged this one up, badly. 

    Is there a chance that an offseason trade would have netted the same or similar results? Absolutely, yes. But the way they rushed him out of town really bothered me and still does. Ive defended the CC and Victor trades to the death, but this was the one trade where it really was Cheap Ol’ Dolan being Cheap Ol’ Dolan.

  • Mark Novak

    Carrasco’s career with the Tribe will obviously make or break this trade.  He had a heck of a June and early July and if he can develop into a solid No. 2 behind Masterson for the next few years, we’ll have a heck of a staff with Gomez/Huff/McAllister/Barnes/McFarland/Adams/Slowey providing depth (not to mention Jimenez for at least 2013 and Tomlin if he can stick in the bigs).

    Of course, I was also at the Rock n’ Blast game last year when KC scored 8 runs off CarCar on three homers in 2+ innings.  After the last 3-run bomb, his response was to throw at Billy Butler’s head and he got ejected.  Guy’s got some growing up to do.  Hopefully, he can squeeze it into his TJ-rehab regime.

  • Steve

     Of course, it could never possibly be the case that the team is losing money, it’s just Dolan being cheap. And you keep saying that there’s some better offer out there, but he was traded 3 times, along with other front line pitchers. Where’s the proof?

  • EyesAbove

    Im not some Dolan hater crying because they didnt sign Willingham for 25 million bucks, dont get it twisted. I do believe they were losing money that year. But that doesnt mean I give them a free pass for giving away a player like Cliff Lee. And I also have a hard time believing that their financial situation was so grave that they HAD to trade him at the deadline. Waiting until the offseason could have gotten more teams involved and who knows, a better deal could have been had been made. Obviously, we’ll never know for sure what may have been.

    They had to move CC, the team was going nowhere and his contract was up. Victor had reached his peak value and we actually got value in return. We traded Lee before his contract year and got a bunch of spare parts in return, I didnt like how they handled the situation. I think they panicked and shipped him out of town too fast. Fair enough? 

  • Steve

     So, your reasoning is the magical “could have been”. Right, everything always could have been better. And before the trade, Carrasco was ranked #52, Marson #66 and Donald #69, and Knapp was ranked #64 the year after the trade. Fine, we didn’t get a top 50 prospect. We just got a few guys who were thatclose to being one.

  • EyesAbove

    My reasoning is “magical” and your reasoning is that the team was bleeding so much cash that they HAD to dump the rest of Lee’s salary then and there? You work for the team? Or do you have magical access to their financial records through telepathy? 
    His salary was only 6 million that year, with 2 months to go in the season how much did they owe him? 2, maybe 3 million? I honestly dont know, but the Dolans werent going to go bankrupt over whatever it was.

  • Wheel

    Imagine if we had ownership committed to winning. Imagine us signing Sabathia and Lee. Imagine us in the post season, the city going wild, and yes, imagine a possible world championship.  Imagine the profits the Dolans would be making through increased attendance, the postseason, merchadising and broadcast revenue.  It all could have happened.  But it never will with the Dolans at the helm, and the go-to boys Shapiro/Antonetti serving the Kool Aid. Instead of trying to improve the team, the Indians are in a never ending rebuild mode – filling slots rather than upgrading talent.  Please Mr. Dolan, sell this team to someone committed to winning. 

  • LocknLoad

    Cardinals knock off both Halladay and Lee i route to winning it all – on paper – the Phillies looked loaded, execution is still what separates the winners from the losers.

  • Steve

     I haven’t said they were going to go bankrupt if they kept him. You are the one speaking in absolutes here, all I’m doing is showing you how dumb it is to speak in absolutes.

    The trade wasn’t inexcusable, it wasn’t necessarily Dolan just being cheap, and there is no evidence that a better deal was out there.

    And go ahead and talk with 20-20 hindsight on where the upside was. But at the time of the Indians deal, there was a lot of upside.

    If you want to say “aw shucks, it didn’t work out that well for us” then fine, whatever, if posting that helps you sleep at night, go ahead.

  • Steve

     What owner signs Sabathia and Lee in this market? He doesn’t exist. Its the nature of the sport.

  • EyesAbove

    Nobody is speaking in absolutes, do you ever know what that word means? Tommy, Steve whatever your name is. You going to post some biblical references next to show me how wrong I am? 

    All we are arguing about is a bunch of what ifs, you have your take and I have mine. I suppose you have to be right and I have to be wrong, we cant just agree to disagree. Now go ahead and reply below so it will feel as if youve won the argument, that should make your day.Take care.