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What We Learned From the Cliff Lee Deal

Much of the discussion around Federal Baseball continues to be about whether or not the Nats should be sellers as we approach the non-waiver deadline.  It's been made clear with one of my recent posts that there certainly isn't a consensus on whether the club should sell or stand pat, particularly regarding big #44.  My stance is known, and it is (of course) that the Nats absolutely have to see what they could get in return for Adam Dunn to make them a more competitive team heading into 2011 and hopefully contend by 2012.

As of the All Star Break, there has really only been one such deal around the league that illustrates what some of the contenders might be willing to give up to take a run at postseason glory this year.  There are very few similarities between Cliff Lee and Adam Dunn, but there are certainly a few that we'll have to take a look at.

  • Both Lee and Dunn have contracts that will expire at year's end. 
  • Both Lee and Dunn figure to be Type A Free Agents that have earned enough of a raise so that they'll reject arbitration.
  • Given the surprising Padres' place in the standings, both figure to be the best players who could become available at their position and among players with their particular skill set. *

* Dunn certainly isn't the caliber of an Adrian Gonzalez (whose team remains in first place) or a Prince Fielder (who the Brewers don't appear to be willing to move) in terms of trade value.  Neither are on the market.

No.... I'm not completely crazy.  Cliff Lee clearly had more value on the open market than Dunn does, despite the fact that he'll take the ball just once every five days for the Rangers.  He's having a Cy Young caliber season to this point, and a historical one at that.  Lee (a former Expos farmhand, mind you) has amassed an unthinkable 91:6 strikeout to walk ratio in 112+ innings.  That's a 15.16:1 strikeout to walk ratio.  The all-time single season record belongs to Brett Saberhagen (11:1 in 1994), and only two players in the history of the league have had a season with a ratio of better than 10:1 (Jim Whitney in 1884, if you're keeping track at home!).  Even a skeptic would probably have to consider Lee one of the top five pitchers on the planet right now.  As much as I like Dunn, the same can not be said of him at first base.  He is, however, probably the top power bat who is available. 

Still, while the return wouldn't likely be as good as what the Mariners got for Lee, it's a good blueprint to start from...

Lee was dealt along with reliever Mark Lowe and cash to the Texas Rangers for the following:

Justin Smoak - The 11th overall pick in the 2008 draft (you remember... the Nats took Aaron Crow two picks earlier), Smoak signed early enough that season so that he was able to put a few weeks in at A ball.  A college first baseman, he progressed quickly through Texas' system, essentially getting a full season's worth of playing time between the A, AA, and AAA levels (combined).  He hasn't lit the world on fire as a rookie (.206/.311/.346 with 10 doubles and 8 HR in 243 AB), for sure.  Still, I've yet to find a publication that had Smoak outside of their Top 25 prospects overall, rating him between 9th and 23rd for the most part.  Smoak was your basic A- level prospect.  Smoak alone makes the deal worthwhile to the Mariners, as they now have club control over him for the next six seasons.

Blake Beavan - Beavan was not among the Rangers' top five starting pitching prospects.  That's less an indictment upon his talent than you would think, though, as the Rangers' farm system is exceptionally deep.  John Sickels gave him a C+ grade to begin the season, ranking him sixteenth among Ranger farmhands.  His stuff is far from off the charts, but he throws strikes, and he's walked an almost Lee-like 12 batters in 100 AA innings this season.  He is repeating the level (at 21), but the former first rounder has shown significant progress.  Beavan is currently sporting a 2.78 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP in AA.  More likely than not, he's a back-end starter, but sometimes those guys pan out to be a bit more.

Josh Lueke - Lueke is a right-handed reliever who throws extremely hard, and strikes a ton of hitters out.  Given that he's 25 and hovering in AA, you have to think that the long-term prospects of him developing into a leverage reliever are shaky.  However, he's broken out a bit in 2010, adding a couple of ticks to his fastball and some sharpness on his slider.  There's some room for growth, but the Mariners have probably found themselves a decent middle reliever here, if nothing else.

Matthew Lawson - The Mariners probably aren't expecting much, but he's had a nice season down in AA so far in his own right.  Though he's got a fine glove at second base, his bat indicates that his most likely future is that of a utility man. 

Of the four players, only Smoak has reached the majors at this point.  Given that Smoak spent the first three weeks of the season in the minors, he'll be under the Mariners' control for the next six seasons (though the likelihood is that he'll hit arbitration a year early via Super II status).  Basically, for Lee (and bullpen depth), the Mariners got a top first base prospect, a guy who figures to be a back-end starter (with middle of the rotation upside), a reliever who will have a shot at breaking camp with them next year, and a probable utility man. 

Again, Dunn isn't Cliff Lee.  There are some comparisons, as mentioned above, but he's not Cliff Lee.  Going from the blueprint established by the Lee deal...

  • Dunn is likely worth one B+ level prospect as the primary return
  • He could probably net the Nats another C+ level prospect and maybe an organizational depth type as well

The deal also tells us that the Angels are suddenly the team most likely to overpay to keep up with their divisional rivals.  The current standings in the AL West show the Rangers leading the division by 4.5 games at 50-38.  That same record would currently place them four games out of the wildcard spot.  In short, while teams like Tampa Bay and the White Sox could certainly use Dunn's services, Lee getting dealt to Texas is unlikely to change those particular teams' motivation.  Neither the Rays nor the White Sox figure to be competing directly with the Rangers.  Of course, as both of those teams' leads in their respective races are tenuous (Tampa leads Boston by 3 games for the wildcard, while the White Sox lead the Tigers by .5 games in the AL Central), you'd have to think that they'd each have some interest in adding a bat like Dunn's. 

Per Buster Olney, rumors are circulating that Dunn is losing interest in re-signing with the Nats because there's been a lack of urgency to get a long-term deal signed.  The longer the Nats continue to sit on their hands with the situation (be it signing him long-term or trading him), the less perceived value he'll have to them.  Should the deadline come with no contract and no trade, teams will likely be willing to give far less for his services.  The iron's hot.  The market has been set.  Dunn's recent play has suggested that he's certainly going to be worth the gamble for a team trying to acquire him. 

If the Nats want to re-sign him, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.  However, locking him up to that deal is something that they need to be urgently pursuing.  If they're not going to re-sign Dunn, his trade value is probably never going to be higher at any point than it is within the next week.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again.  While they hit the jackpot with their gamble to hold Alfonso Soriano and take the draft picks when he signed elsewhere (they used one of those picks to draft Jordan Zimmermann), the chances of doing the same with the Adam Dunn scenario are slightly better than the chances of getting hit by lightning twice in the same spot.