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Orbiting Cleveland: The case to acquire Cliff Lee

As the trade deadline approaches, the Indians should explore landing Cliff Lee

Orbiting Cleveland: The case to acquire Cliff Lee
June 21, 2013
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When it comes to Major League Baseball, there may be no better period than the one ahead.

That's right, we are now more than halfway through the month of June, which means July is right around the corner. Of course, that also means that the trade deadline is almost just a month away.

For MLB teams, the stakes are high, and there is no more enjoyable time for fans. There's winners. There's losers. There's Buyers. There's Sellers.

This then of course leads us to the Cleveland Indians and their status heading into this pivotal time period. With their record at 36-35, it's been difficult to get a read on this Indians team.

At times, it has appeared as if this team would be complete buyers. Of course, that seems to be a logical conclusion about any team that manages to go 18-4 across a 22-game stretch.

However, for every yin, there is a yang, and this same Indians team that managed to go 18-4 followed that streak up with a nasty 4-16 run. So, that does beg the question: What is this year's Indians team? Buyers or sellers?

While it's hard to be too encouraged about team that's just one game over .500, the Indians are a bit different. Fortunately, the Tribe has the benefit of playing in the American League Central Division, which seems to have a growing reputation as one of the poorest divisions in all of baseball.

Even with their record at just 36-35, the Indians only trail the division-leading Detroit Tigers by four games. If the team is able to maintain that pace through the end of the month, it would appear as if there's only one way to go — buy, buy, buy.

So, with that in mind, what exactly should the Indians be seeking come the trade deadline?

While this year's team is much improved from the previous seasons, it's still not without its needs. Left-handed relief has been a consistent problem for the team all season, and that will probably be an area that the Indians look to address.

However, if the Indians are to legitimately compete, and by compete I mean pursue a World Series title, there is arguably still an even more pertinent need on this team — an ace.

No one can understate how impressive the Indians' rotation has been this year. It was initially thought to be a major weakness, but it's now looking as if it could be a strength.

With that being said though, the fact remains that the team is still without an ace.

Yes, Justin Masterson is nice, but he still does throw basically only three pitches and can still be a bit wild at times. AKA, he's not an ace.

Zach McAllister has made great strides and seems to be settling in as a quality Major League starter, but his overall stuff and makeup just is not at the level of what you would expect from a No. 1 guy.

Carlos Carrasco may very well have the stuff to be an ace, but as we all know, physical tools are just one component of what makes up an ace. For all his pitching prowess, it appears as if he must make significant mental strides before he could ever be considered an ace.

Ubaldo Jimenez has also taken steps in his development, but remember that it's 2013 and not 2010. In other words, he also is no longer an ace.

While all of the aforementioned pitchers are talented and have certainly had their moments this season, none of them are exactly the type of arm that a Major League team would want to send out for game one of a playoff series. In those scenarios, a team needs a legitimate Major League stopper, and it just so happens that it appears as if one of those types could be available at the deadline.

In fact, he's actually a guy that many Indians fans are actually quite familiar with — Clifton Phifer Lee.

Remember him?

He was that guy who resurrected himself with the Indians in 2008 en route to a 22-3 season with a 2.54 ERA, which ultimately ended with Lee claiming the AL Cy Young Award.

Since that point, Lee has spent parts of five seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers and Phillies again. He has remained as productive as ever as he currently boasts a 9-2 record with a 2.53 ERA in 15 starts for the Phillies.

Clearly, if the Indians truly want to secure a legitimate No. 1 guy at the deadline, then Cliff Lee is the guy for them to go after. The left-hander is poised, gutty, racks up strikeouts and has the postseason experience that all teams covet. In other words, he is the epitome of an ace.

Though a player like that does not come cheap — both literally and figuratively.

Lee is currently in the third year of a 5-year, $120-million dollar contract. There's also a vested option for $27.5 million in 2016 that becomes guaranteed if Lee pitches 200 innings in 2015 or 400 innings between 2014 and 2015. Given Lee's track record, it seems as if there's a pretty good chance that that option will be exercised.

For any team, that is a pretty steep price tag, but for the Indians, it's astronomical. As a small market team, the Indians will always be somewhat handicapped by their resources, and there's a very good chance that Indians owner Larry Dolan would not even be open to acquiring Lee because of the financial burden that comes hand-in-hand with such a move.

An argument could be made that Lee could end up being well worth the price of admission, but there is still much risk involved. Remember that Lee is now 34 years old and will be 37 years old at the end of his vesting option in 2016. He's entering that age where pitchers start to heavily decline, and no team wants to see a multi-million dollar investment flop.

Some may say Lee is too good and too proven and that his skills will not deteriorate, but it's happened to similar pitchers before. After all, who can honestly say that they ever believed Phillies right-hander Roy Halladay would endure the recent struggles that we've seen.

The other negative in acquiring Lee is that not only would it be expensive financially, but it's also expensive foundationally. As everyone knows, the farm system is and will always be the nucleus that makes up the Cleveland Indians. If the team is to ever maintain consistent success, it will be because the farm system is producing high-quality Major League talent. This was the case in the 1990s, and this was also the case in the early-to-mid 2000s.

To acquire Lee, the Indians would almost certainly have to part with a number of their top talents, possibly even shortstop Francisco Lindor, who most might even label as an untouchable.

Clearly, as you can tell, the risk and burden involved in acquiring Lee is heavy — very heavy.

It's a nice thought, but when one starts to be realistic, it's easy to see how unrealistic this type of move may be.

Still, it's easy to see why it may be beneficial for the Indians to at least explore such a move. The team is devoid of an ace right now, and Lee definitely fits that category.

Including his 2008 breakout season with the Indians, Lee has averaged a 2.84 ERA and 222 innings per season. This is a guy who dominates and eats up innings. What more could a team ask for?

Also, while some may worry that Lee could decline as he continues to age, the positive is that he's never really been much of a power pitcher. In reality, Lee has always been the consummate pitcher's pitcher.

As he's progressed throughout his career, he continually has made adjustments to better himself. For example, after Lee added his cutter, his strikeouts saw a significant spike, which led to him becoming an even more effective pitcher.

Even as he continues to lose velocity, it's highly probable that he'll remain a stud pitcher for the simple fact that he knows how to pitch and get guys out regardless of the situation.

Also, while the price would be expensive in terms of the prospects that the Indians would have to part with, this is not a parallel situation to the Ubaldo Jimenez trade from a couple years back. At the time, Jimenez had just one season under his belt where his performance could be described as ace-like. In comparison, Lee has been a model of consistency for the past six seasons. If anything, Lee's performance has only gotten better even as he continues to get up there in age.

There would be no questions about what the Indians would be getting if they were to acquire Lee. The team would know that he would go out there on every fifth day and give them a legitimate shot at winning, and he would probably provide that for the remainder of his contract.

Sure, it's an expensive acquisition as the Indians may very well need to part with Lindor in order to get it done. But it's also a safe acquisition in many ways as the Tribe likely would know what they could expect from Lee.

So, that then brings us to the final question. As the trade deadline begins to approach over the course of this next month, should the Indians legitimately explore a trade to acquire Cliff Lee?

First and foremost, the team is going to have to get approval from Dolan, but if he is willing to take on payroll, then this kind of seems like a no-brainer.

Heck, imagine if the Phillies would even be willing to eat some of Lee's salary just to get the contract off the books. That would make the acquisition of Lee even more attractive.

Also, let's say the Indians could acquire Lee without giving up Lindor. That may be a stretch, but if there is even the slightest chance of that happening, then the Indians have to do what they can to land the big left-hander.

Yes, the risks have been well-outlined, and it would be a move that would be heavily criticized.

However, the top benefit is that for three and a half years, the Indians would once again have a legitimate top-of-the-rotation stopper. Cliff Lee would immediately be the best pitcher that the Indians have had since, well, Cliff Lee.

The deadline may still be more than a month away and the acquisition of a guy like Lee could be wishful thinking, especially when the Phillies keep insisting that he will not be on the block.

Regardless, if I'm Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti, I'm already making phone calls to Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro.

Who knows? Maybe the two are on the phone right now.

Steve can be reached via email at

User Comments

June 22, 2013 - 6:22 PM EDT
besides all the bad reasons mentioned, IIRC lee & VM had an ongoing feud whose roots were racial in origin. seeing that our catchers are now santana and gomes, i'd rather have a proctologist named dr. hook before bringing lee back to NE ohio and ruining what seems to be great chemistry on the team.
June 22, 2013 - 9:20 AM EDT
I'd see what the Cubs want for Matt Garza. He's a FA after this season, we pay whatever's owed on a $10.5 million contact. He seems healthy & is pitching well. The Cubs are years away & might deal him cheap. They haven't re-signed him so I'm not sure if they're interested. Always liked that guy.
June 22, 2013 - 8:03 AM EDT
Lee's still an ace, of that I have no doubt. I'm on the fence with regards to the cost of the deal long-term (the Phillies will clearly pay salary to get him off the books) and the cost of the deal with regards to the prospects. I firmly believe that the Indians can contend this year, and if they improve, and they have a legit shot at moving through the playoffs...then Lee is a guy they need to look at.

The Phillies would have to take a SUBSTANTIAL amount of salary though...and I don't think they'd take the amount that the Indians would need them to. Seriously...they'd have to get that deal down to what...$10-12 mil a year...and even THAT would be a stretch...

Would they (the front office) do it? I really believe they would...but so many factors....

I would NOT doubt that they call, but eventually focus on more cost-effective starters, and preferably with upside and years of control under that $10 million mark already...and not without having to ask the team they are trading with to take more than half over the duration...

but Steve's right...they need to be in the mix for never know...
Joe Chengery
June 22, 2013 - 1:53 AM EDT
I am not convinced about Lee's ability to still be an ace, especially switching back to the American League. Remember that he was hit around more with Texas in the postseason and wasn't the lights out guy he was with Philly his first-go around. Combine that with his age and the sizable package it would take to get him (Lindor and/or Salazar plus probably 2-3 more prospects), plus the cost constraints on our team in the next 3 years, I'd pass. I still like Cliff, but am not convinced he's that much better than Masty, especially at his age, the cost of the prospect package and contract, and the move back to the AL. I see Lee as a 2-3 on an AL playoff team, much like Masty- sure, Lee would be nice to acquire, but not under those circumstances.
June 22, 2013 - 12:31 AM EDT
I love Steve's guts for putting this out there, but in the end, I see no way in hell the Indians acquire Cliff Lee. The contract is just something that they cannot take on, no matter how much cash the Phillies throw into the deal. And even if they DID take on Lee, it leaves them with almost no room to make other moves or to resign guys like Masterson, etc in a year-plus from now.
June 22, 2013 - 12:28 AM EDT
Starter is definitely still a huge need. Just because Kazmir's velocity has returned, doesn't mean he's doing well enough. If we replace him with Lee, our rotation will be filthy (Lee, Masterson, McCallister, Kluber, Jimenez... Carrasco, Bauer) and our offense and bullpen will be above average. For 2013 and 2014, we will be legitimate WS contenders and for that reason alone, acquiring Lee would be worth it. The Phillies gutted their farm system and are in trouble now. I'd say their rings make their present struggles acceptable.

Also, I doubt we would have to give up Lindor, especially if we're going to be paying a great majority of Lee's contract. It'll be very interesting to see how much Lee commands in a trade with his future salary.
June 21, 2013 - 11:25 PM EDT
I'd rather see the Tribe swing a deal for Scott Feldman, James Russell and Nate Schierholtz of the Cubs.
June 21, 2013 - 8:54 PM EDT
An effective left hand reliever is a far bigger need than a SP.
June 21, 2013 - 8:30 PM EDT
I agree with the previous comments. Adding Lee to this squad doesn't guarantee anything. He's pitching for the Phillies now. How is that working out?
June 21, 2013 - 8:14 PM EDT
He makes his own argument as to why this deal would be the epitome of foolishness for the Indians:

"He's entering that age where pitchers start to heavily decline, and no team wants to see a multi-million dollar investment flop.

Some may say Lee is too good and too proven and that his skills will not deteriorate, but it's happened to similar pitchers before. After all, who can honestly say that they ever believed Phillies right-hander Roy Halladay would endure the recent struggles that we've seen."

It's not just that "no team wants to see a multi-million dollar investment flop." The Indians can not afford to risk that happening. It's not just something they don't WANT to happen. It's something they can't AFFORD to happen.

Even if Lee was 26-years-old they wouldn't give up their #1 prospect for that contract. At 33 it's ludicrous.

What the Indians need is not a $25 million a year ace. They need Pestano and Perez to get healthy and get their velocity back. They need Cabrera and Swisher to get healthy. And they need to get a lock-down LOOGIE or two. And they need Chisenhall to finally emerge as a .280 hitter with power.
June 21, 2013 - 6:31 PM EDT
Where do the Indians get the money to pay Cliff Lee? Not from the lowest attendance in baseball for sure and unlikely he would improve that. Think I will root for the potential ace in Columbus even with his command flaws rather than throwing money away on a pitcher who does not want to be in Cleveland.
June 21, 2013 - 5:47 PM EDT
I think we're selling Masterson a bit short here. To commit so much money to one player is debatable, but to sacrifice the farm to do it would not be a wise move IMO.
June 21, 2013 - 5:17 PM EDT
27-28% of annual payroll on 1 player in his mid thirties? He'll be joining CC or pitching in LA if he goes anywhere.
June 21, 2013 - 4:54 PM EDT
Pass. I absolutely love Cliff Lee -- he was my favorite pitcher from 2004 on, and it was gut wrenching to see him leave Cleveland -- but on salary alone I say no way. Let alone the package it would require to acquire him. Would be great to have a lefty in the rotation, let alone a guy we all saw grow into one of the best pitchers in the game on our own squad who now has the kind of playoff experience he has... but $25M/year?? Yikes. No way. There will be cheaper options available, and I'd rather fill multiple holes (lefty reliever, mid-rotation starter, one more bat) than spend it all (money and prospects) on one guy. Even if it is CPL.
June 21, 2013 - 4:50 PM EDT
too big of a contract think about it 750,000 a start yes he is great pitcher and nice individual but ask the Mets about santana and his $750,000 a start cost. if he doesnt come back it is incredible cost. a pitcher is one pitch from oblivion.
Baseball may be of the mind set to pay that kind of money but if every one in the neighbor picks up a downed power line you gonna do it too? and that doesnt take in consideration of what it will cost in talent. NO THANKS I will take my chances with masty heading up the rotation

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