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July 7, 2010

Future Shock

Making a Match for Cliff Lee

by Kevin Goldstein

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The main prize of the July 31 trading deadline may be Cliff Lee of the Seattle Mariners—as we saw last year with the Philadelphia Phillies, the left-hander can dramatically alter a pennant race. So, where's he going to end up? That we don't know (yet), but we can look at the best fits—and which organizations have the minor-league talent to entice the Mariners into a deal.

The New York Yankees might line up best as a trade partner, but would they pull the trigger and include catcher Jesus Montero? With Joe Mauer signed long-term, the Minnesota Twins have a front-line catching prospect available.

Let's look at the potential bidders in alphabetical order and what they could offer to the Mariners—as well as Seattle's most pressing needs.

What the Mariners need
Power Bats: With only 53 home runs as a team going into Tuesday's action, the Mariners are dead last in home runs, and it's not even close. Further complicating matters is a lack of power down on the farm. The Mariners are looking for mashers, and preferably ones that are close to the big leagues.
Starting Pitching: Lee's departure will create an opening in the rotation, possibly for fast-rising power arm Michael Pineda, who has been nothing short of outstanding in three Triple-A starts. After him, the prospect crop among pitching is thin.
High-Ceiling Prospects: Any time a team has the best player on the market, they're looking for a top prospect back in the package, regardless of position.
Catching: Rob Johnson and Adam Moore are not the answer, nor is anyone down on the farm.

Suitor No. 1: Cincinnati Reds
The Reds thought they would have the boppers going into the year, but first baseman Yonder Alonso and third baseman (at least in name) Juan Francisco have both flamed out a bit at Triple-A, and they just haven't done enough to headline a deal for Lee. The team is rich in pitching, and Lee would create a surplus of starters that might allow the Reds to send over a big league-ready arm in return. They lack high-ceiling players, but suddenly could be a player on the catcher front thanks to the breakout season of Devin Mesoraco. The 2007 first-round pick had been a massive disappointment until this year, when he reached Double-A while slugging nearly .600 with 17 home runs in 281 at-bats. The Reds took Yasmani Grandal in the draft, so they have a catcher of the future; if Seattle believes in Mesoraco's first half, he could help the cause by making up for other match-up weaknesses.

Suitor No. 2: Detroit Tigers
The Tigers are considered a long shot for Lee in the first place, and the state of their system won't make things any easier. Most of their power sources at the upper levels, like Jeff Larish and Ryan Strieby, are more up-and-down players than anything else, although Wilkin Ramirez and his 18 home runs could be interesting for a team that still believes in the tools. Ramirez would not be nearly enough to get a Lee deal done, though. Because the system is so weak, almost any blockbuster deal would likely need to include 2009 first-round pick Jacob Turner, whose value is down a bit due to a year that has included injuries and inconsistency. He's the only super-high ceiling prospect in the system, As for catching? Forget about it.

Suitor No. 3: New York Mets
The Mets are considered very real players in the Lee market, but to get a deal done would require creativity. They don't have power prospects, although Fernando Martinez could still have trade value if he ever stays healthy. Outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis is having a semi-breakout year (.286/.331/.505) at Double-A Binghamton, and could have value—but he ultimately would just be an extra player in a Lee deal. The Mets will almost be forced to include their top hitting prospect, Wilmer Flores, in a big deal, and with a number of arms having poor seasons, Jenrry Mejia might need to be in the mix as well. Josh Thole is a big league-ready catcher. Even with a low ceiling, he would still be an upgrade for Seattle.

Suitor No. 4: Minnesota Twins
They might be a slight favorite to land Lee. They might be willing to part with 2008 first-round pick Aaron Hicks, a center fielder with raw power, plenty of speed and one of the best arms around. He's scuffled a bit offensively, but his approach is sound, and his athleticism is jaw-dropping. With Mauer signed long-term, Triple-A catcher Wilson Ramos is an outstanding trade chip and a perfect fit for the Mariners—while solid but unspectacular arms like Jeff Manship or Liam Hendriks could help put the Twins over the top.

Suitor No. 5: New York Yankees
The Yankees might be the best aligned with the Mariners, but the question remains as to whether they're willing to pull the trigger. Montero is a perfect fit for Seattle—and has no fit in New York right now or for the foreseeable future—but numerous reports indicate that the Yankees still see him as untouchable. Beyond Montero, the Yankees are loaded with pitching prospects who are about to get blocked, with a resurgent Andrew Brackman joining finesse arm deluxe Hector Noesi at Double-A, and righty Graham Stoneburner getting a lot of attention from scouts during the first half of the season. If you can stomach the risk, the Yankees have a number of low-level, yet high-ceiling, players who have yet to max out their trade value, and while Austin Romine is a top-flight catching prospect, the Yankees are also going to be leery about dealing him, considering the age of Jorge Posada. If the Yankees were a more desperate team, a deal could get done easily, but the team as it exists now is more than good enough to reach October.

Suitor No. 6: Philadelphia Phillies
Could the Phillies really end up re-acquiring Lee after trading him away last winter for a three-prospect package that has offered more injuries and disappointment than anything else in 2010? Untouchable outfielder Domonic Brown is arguably the only player of note at the upper levels, but the Phillies' talent-rich teams in A-ball could provide a quality-over-quantity package. Currently sidelined with arm problems, power righty Jared Cosart could still generate interest, while his Low-A battery mate Sebastian Valle is the rare catching prospect with offensive upside. Beyond that pair, burning center fielder Anthony Gose could interest Seattle, although the Mariners would likely ask for the biggest breakout player in the Phillies system this year in 18-year-old first baseman Jonathan Singleton, who has been the talk of the South Atlantic League with a line of .347/.435/.613.

Suitor No. 7: Tampa Bay Rays
While the rumors revolving around a Rays deal involving B.J. Upton are understandable, as he's flashed superstar potential that's rarely been seen for the last two years, his effort (or lack thereof) has been an issue. The Rays would like to make room for their top position prospect in Triple-A outfielder Desmond Jennings, but acquiring Lee further blocks one of the top pitching prospects in the game in righty Jeremy Hellickson. Hellickson could be the majority of what Seattle is looking for in return for Lee, and Tampa Bay could think about dealing big-leaguer Wade Davis as well due to their surplus of pitching. They don't have much in the system when it comes to power hitters, but they have more high-upside arms at the lower levels that could intrigue Seattle, including lefty Matt Moore and right-hander Alex Colome.

Suitor No. 8: Texas Rangers
The Rangers line up for a trade with Seattle extremely well if Texas has the ability to make a deal due to their financial considerations, and if the Mariners are willing to trade within their division. Corner infielder Chris Davis is hitting .349/.397/.542 at Triple-A Oklahoma, and while he's struggled in the big leagues twice, his bat could be the long-term solution to Seattle's first base issue. Seattle would almost certainly ask for Martin Perez, one of, if not the top, left-handed pitching prospect in the game, and Texas is a pitching-rich system that could also dangle top lower-level arms like righties Wilmer Font and Robbie Erlin to help sweeten the pot.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

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