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July 10, 2010

Transaction Analysis

Surrendering Lee

by Christina Kahrl and Kevin Goldstein

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

SEATTLE MARINERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired 1B-S Justin Smoak, RHPs Blake Beavan and Josh Lueke, and 2B/OF-R Matthew Lawson from the Rangers for LHP Cliff Lee, RHP Mark Lowe, and $2.25 million; recalled LHP Luke French from Tacoma (Triple-A). [7/9]

CK: On the major-league level, for the Mariners this is an interesting move in that it's a double kiss of death—to their bold gamble to win now, and to Casey Kotchman's future. The latter was a big problem for the former, so that's just as well. But there's still the matter of resolving the question of whether or not the Mariners' ongoing process of rapacious agglomeration, outright mutation, and transmogrification, their move from Bavasi superfund site to inspired contender, is actually heading in that general direction. Adding talent, retaining their biggest big-name star in re-upping King Felix, it seems like they're heading the right way, even when it comes to adding Lee for talent and then flipping Lee for talent. But motion and action is not necessarily direction, let alone achievement.

Smoak is an obvious improvement on the worst first-base regular in baseball, but his track record as a hitting prospect has been something less than excellent, making him more of a deep purple than a true-blue prospect. Still, with his reputation as a plus glove, and the Mariners' love of leather, you knew they had to get a whiff of that, to stay in character to add some Smoak on the water. But will that love of leather just leave them where it has gotten them so far, as occasionally trendy pretenders?

Smoak's progress as a hitter has been less than perfect, although he has had to deal with an accelerated rise through the system. That was what was expected, but that doesn't necessarily make it easier for him. Consider his performance in his career so far:

Year
Place
PA
AVG
OBP
SLG
TAv
UBB%
K%
ISO
2009 Double-A 227 .328 .448 .481 .289 16% 16% .153
2009 Triple-A 237 .244 .363 .360 .243 15% 19% .116
2010 Triple-A 66 .300 .470 .540 .312 24% 12% .240
2010 MLB 275 .209 .316 .353 .241 13% 21% .144

For a 2008 first-rounder with a subsequently limited pro track record, that's a pretty straightforward snapshot of success and promotion, struggle and adaptation. He hasn't gotten a big benefit from hitting in Texas, but given that he's still in OTJ training territory as far as facing big-league pitching in his age-23 season, that's not really surprising. He's also showing a huge platoon split, consistent with his abbreviated track record in the minors: .244/.367/.397 against right-handers, against an unemployable .139/.207/.266 against lefties. Unemployable on a contender, perhaps, but on a Mariners also-ran, it's just another something that he'll have to work on before the team should really give up on him and apply that SHINO tag to him for good.

His production this season hasn't been notably better than Kotchman—the disastrous winter selection was contributing a .240 TAv to Smoak's non-smoking .241. But the age differential is the key here, as well as that development curve suggested by Smoak's brief resumé. It wasn't enough to impress PECOTA this winter, but that's what makes this so interesting: It's very definitely a scouting-informed pickup, a bet that the upside growth potential that people saw in Smoak before he'd been picked, and have still seen at times since, is going to kick his baseline projections into a much higher trajectory.

If it works, Jack Zduriencik will reap kudos for years after the fact, what with the money saved, a potential franchise first baseman secured, and the hoped-for success that follows. Those kind of compliments are as easy as they are obvious, however. If it flops, it's a move you have to evaluate in terms of whether or not the draft choices Lee would have brought via an arbitration offer he'd obviously spurn to pursue free agency's big payday would be a better selection than Smoak. That seems unlikely—Smoak was an 11th choice overall in a good crop, while Lee would likely sign with a contender, meaning you're getting into a late-round pick and something supplemental. Getting Smoak plus the balance of this package has been deemed a better grade of swag than riding Lee to the inevitably bitter end plus picks, and I agree with that logic.

The question is less that than whether or not this was the best possible deal for Lee, and there, I'm less supportive. There's the matter of the player they didn't get, in the much-reported, much-anticipated, never-consummated Yankees/Mariners package deal: Jesus Montero. I know that I'd rather have him than Smoak, so seeing this transpire in its place leaves me a bit disappointed from Seattle's perspective. Whatever the virtues of the supporting players in the package from Texas, so much stuff ends up not adding up, while Montero's 2010 season is a disappointment, so too has Smoak's campaign been, and Smoak's 2009 didn't exactly live up to his billing as a blue-chip prospect either. The difference—between a 20-year-old prospect who might be the best young hitter in the minors, and a 23-year-old who isn't—puts a ton of pressure for the remainder of this package to live up to Zduriencik's confidence in them, and that's where I'd have to defer to Kevin's judgment.

The other interesting thing is that this trails their decision to pick up Russell Branyan, who has been DHing instead of playing first base of late. That was less of a reprieve for Kotchman and more a matter of Milton Bradley's bad wheels. That said, adding Smoak isn't just going to put Kotchman out of Seattle's misery, it also crowds the left field/DH proposition, because Branyan and Bradley can't both DH. Whatever the state of the space between his ears, Bradley isn't hitting enough to make a sensible swap-in for prospect Michael Saunders, and sitting Saunders would also beg the question of what it is that the Mariners are trying to do. They're on the hook for Bradley's $13 million-plus salary for 2011, and have Branyan's $5 million option ($500,000 buyout) for that same season to ponder. Bradley's value in trade is close to nil at this point, so while they could let matters ride and keep everybody through October, a subsequent move between now and the end of August, either in the form of flipping Branyan or learning to love Crispy Cash Bearnaise by eating Bradley's deal, wouldn't be the least bit surprising.

KG: The top minor leaguer heading to Seattle in the deal is Blake Beavan, a first-round pick in 2007 who has undergone a unique transformation since being taken with the 17th overall pick three years ago. When he was drafted, he was a classic big righty from a Dallas-area high school who stood 6-foot-7 and consistently got into the mid-90s with a dominating fastball. Mechanically, he was a mess, and when the Rangers tried to fix his mechanics to avoid what most felt was certain injury, he lost the zip on his fastball, usually sitting in the upper 80s during his first full-season at Low-A Clinton. Still, as a guy who threw downhill, pounded the strike zone, and has over the years developed a good changeup, he found a different kind of success, and he's been at his best this year at Double-A Frisco, with a 2.78 ERA in 17 starts and just 12 walks over 110 innings. He throws a bit harder now, sitting in the low 90s, but he still lacks that one true big-league out pitch, as evidenced by just 68 strikeouts in that time. His ceiling is as a No. 4 starter, but if I was to wager on which prospect in baseball would throw the most innings from 2012-16, one of the first names I'd think of would be Beavan's.

A 16th-round pick in 2007 out of a small college in Kentucky, Lueke has dominated as a closer at both Low- and Double-A this season, as the 6-foot-5 righty has whiffed a whopping 62 over just 38 1/3 innings while showcasing a plus fastball/slider combination, and could fit into a big-league bullpen as early as next year. It's a bit of a comeback year for Lueke, who has a disturbing past, as he pitched in just four games last season before being charged with rape and spending 40 days in prison before pleading no contest to a lesser charge of false imprisonment with violence.

Another 2007 draftee (14th round), second baseman Matt Lawson is clearly the third of three here, but he has a chance of turning into a decent bench player. For more of a grinder than someone with impressive tools, Lawson has gap power out of a big swing that leads to a high strikeout rate, but he works the count well, is a good runner, and has played some outfield this year in an attempt to improve his positional flexibility. It's doubtful that he'll ever turn into a big-league starter, but for a throw-in, one could do much worse.

 

TEXAS RANGERS
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Acquired LHP Cliff Lee, RHP Mark Lowe, and $2.25 million from the Mariners for 1B-S Justin Smoak, RHPs Blake Beavan and Josh Lueke, and 2B/OF-R Matthew Lawson; recalled 1B/3B-L Chris Davis from Oklahoma City (Triple-A). [7/9]

CK: Make no mistake about it, I love this deal for Texas. Yes, it's merely a multi-month rental of one of the game's few true aces. Yes, it's a roll of the dice by present management and present ownership, Yes, it cost them Smoak and Beavan. And yes, Lowe's basically a sop to leave the Rangers with something to show (once he comes back from the DL) after Lee defects as a free agent this winter.

And I love this trade just the same. Take the economic aspect: There weren't many guys of Lee's caliber the Rangers could afford. Indeed, Lee might have been the only starter of this caliber they could afford. Not only is Lee's salary cheap relative to what he's delivering, with whatever fraction of his $9 million still due, that was without the Mariners paying a significant chunk of the freight by kicking in Stacks O'Cash to help pay for Lee to be the Rangers' ace. That's an unusual circumstance as is; add in that Lee has been the best starter in the American League, and it becomes a unique circumstance.

Which is that much more impressive because the trade reflects something even more basic: The Rangers understand what's at stake come October. Not for them the annual Charge of the Light Brigade, making a run at the beasts of the East, getting valiantly squashed, and subsequently spoken kindly of. Jon Daniels isn't going to settle the way that, say, Terry Ryan invariably did with the Twins. The Rangers recognize they didn't have a shut-down starter, someone who can take CC Sabathia's best ballgame and match him, surrendering nothing to lead off a post-season series.

Of course, there's still the question of whether Colby Lewis (.580 SNWP) or C.J. Wilson (.554 SNWP) can win the second or third games, but with Lee (.663) in the picture, that's better than worrying about how they'd have done bumping both up a peg. Lewis has already lived up to management's expectation that his most favorable interpretations of Japanese leagues performance would have led you to believe, and Lewis has just as handily delivered on the initially dicey proposition that he'd be able to make the jump. These risks taken have already redeemed the one that hasn't worked out as well, leaving the Rangers with the happier prospect of picking between Rich Harden or Scott Feldman or even Tommy Hunter for the fourth and last playoff assignment in October's shorter rotations. Indeed, they might find that dealing someone like Feldman—moderately useful, and already signed to a multi-year extension that provides the kind of cost certainty some teams crave—could help them secure a fall-back option at first base in case Chris Davis doesn't deliver.

Admittedly, I've gotten ahead of myself: There's still a division to be won in the meantime, and the Angels aren't chopped liver. But this deal cuts both ways: It doesn't simply make the Rangers a much more dangerous matchup in October, it gives them three months' worth of ballgames to not just secure their lead, but build on it. Add in their own, less touted moves to improve their defense—trusting Elvis Andrus last season, working to improve Ian Kinsler's glove work at second, and now Julio Borbon in center—and you've got a team nobody should want to face, for whatever stakes.

KG: The obvious change at first base has Davis re-assuming the role as the everyday player there, and with Smoak gone, there's a sudden surprising bit of job security as well. While Davis has been given big-league jobs and later demoted to Triple-A twice, it's hard to call this year's decision, which took place after just 53 plate appearances, anything but rash. Davis did all of the right things at Triple-A, as he hit immediately without the common sulk period, and kept hitting, to the tune of .354/.403/.555 in 67 games. That said, some of his core ratios saw little to no change, as he actually has a higher strikeout rate this year than his 44 Pacific Coast League games in 2009. When one is a career .314 hitter in the minors while striking out once every 3.8 at-bats, something has to break, and usually the strikeouts win out. This is not to say Davis isn't going to be a good big leaguer as much as it's to say he's simply not a .300 hitter. There's plenty of raw power, but he's never developed the kind of patience that lets him take advantage of it. Smoak obviously had his share of troubles during his first exposure to big-league pitching, and while we have big numbers on Davis, it doesn't necessarily point to him having learned the lessons of his big-league time either.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

73 comments have been left for this article.

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