As the July 1st trade deadline grows near the St. Louis Cardinals suddenly find themselves in second place, one game behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for the first time in a long time. While the first half of 2013 has largely been a success with 49-31 record, some cracks in the foundation have emerged over the last ten games. The biggest crack appears to be the starting rotation, as the team’s younger starting pitchers have struggled recently. With that in mind, the trade rumors have been flying around even more frequently than normal at this time of the year. At the top of the list is Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee, who may or may not be available depending on whether one believes the statements of Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr.
We will not be able to put Amaro Jr. through polygraph anytime soon, so it is really pointless to try and figure out whether Lee is on the market or not. Other GM’s in the same position have made similar statements in the past hoping to give a jolt to their struggling team only to deal off players who were once untradeable a month later. Lee himself has expressed openness to a trade to a contending, which suggests the truth may lie somewhere between Amaro’s absolute no and a fire sale. With that in mind, here is the case for an against a trade acquisition of Cliff Lee by the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Case for Lee
First, Lee is left-handed which would lend some balance to the current rotation which only has righthanders. Some of the best hitters the Cardinals will face late in the regular season and potentially in the post-season are left-handed hitters (see Freddie Freeman, Joey Votto, Miguel Montero, Carlos Gonzalez as just a few examples). Lee may or may not dominate these hitters, but he would certainly face a better chance against them than Jake Westbrook, good as Westbrook has been this year.
Second, Lee is dependable, throwing over 200 innings over each of the last five years. Lance Lynn began hot last year only to collapse at the end of the year as large innings load got to him. Shelby Miller is already showing early strain, and there is no guarantee that Michael Wacha or Carlos Martinez will fare any better. Lee could eat up innings, and therefore ease the burden on the bullpen and put less pressure on players like Miller down the stretch.
Third, Lee is obviously a quality pitcher who could make the difference between winning the division and the wild card for the Cardinals. Like a fine wine, Lee appears to be getting better with age. This year Lee is 9-2 with a 2.59 ERA over 125 innings pitched with 115 strikeouts and just 21 walks. Those are Wainwright-like numbers from the left side. The Pirates appear better positioned to make a strong run this year than last year, and if that is true the Cardinals may need someone of Lee’s caliber to win the division and avoid the one-game playoff wild card scenario.
Fourth, Lee would undoubtedly make the Cardinals more dangerous in the postseason. A postseason rotation of Wainwright, Lee, and Miller and/or Lynn would likely be the best in all baseball. Lee has a career 2.42 ERA in 82 innings pitched in the postseason. Lee has pitched in two World Series. The Cardinals do not know what to expect from Miller or Lynn in the pressure of postseason. Lee is much more of a proven commodity.
The Case Against lee
First, Lee is owed $25,000,000 over each the next two years, with a potential $27 million owed in 2016 depending on how many innings he pitches in 2014-2015. That is a significant commitment to one player for a mid-market team like the Cardinals. If Lee stays healthy he will give production at or near his salary, but if he gets hurt like Jaime Garcia his contract will be an anchor on the team.
Secondly, the Phillies have not given any signal that they are looking to trade Lee. On the contrary, as mentioned earlier, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro has said they would like to keep Lee given the shortage of quality starting pitchers in Major Leagues. Now Amaro could have been just attempting to increase any return he would get for Lee, but the point is similar statements are not being made by other general managers, i.e. Cubs GM Jed Hoyer, who have starting pitching to be dealt. Lee is the crown jewel of potential starting pitching acquisitions, and if he is to be acquired it will come at a high price.
Which brings us to reason number three which is intimately connected to reason number two – namely the sacrifice a Lee acquisition would require. In order to obtain Lee the Cardinals will likely have to part with at least one top-level prospect like Kolten Wong or Carlos Martinez. Added on to that would undoubtedly be other mid-level prospects like Joe Kelly, Seth Maness, and/or Stephen Piscotty. The Cardinals may reap the benefits of Lee for a year or two, but they may have to watch the Phillies enjoy the fruits of players like Wong or Martinez for over a decade.
Fourth and final, the acquisition of Lee may serve as a “block” to the development of young arms. The Cardinals have at least three young arms in Martinez, Wacha, and Kelly who would be in the starting rotation for most teams. This is not even counting John Gast, Tyler Lyons, and recent draft pick Marco Gonzalez who is seen as a likely fast riser like Wacha. They may not be such a thing as too much starting pitching, but one has to question the wisdom of paying $25,000,000 for a starting pitcher when a team has three starters willing and able to fill that spot at a tiny fraction of the cost.
Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak is faced with a difficult proposition if Lee really available via trade. The acquisition of Lee undoubtedly makes sense for the now, and the Cardinals could find themselves outside of the playoffs altogether without the kind of help Lee would provide – bigger second half collapses have been known to occur. At the same time, a Lee acquisition would carry tremendous risks over the long-term, the kind of risks the team deftly avoided by not signing Albert Pujols to a ten-year contract. Whether Mozeliak plays for the future, the present, or something in between will reveal itself over the next 30 days.