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The Curious Case of Cliffton Lee

The Curious Case of Cliffton Lee
May 17, 2012
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Many Indians fans have been talking a lot about the failure of the Indians to get talented players when they traded their stars a few years ago. With this in mind, it seemed like an opportune time to look back at all of the Cliff Lee trades.

I can’t recall the last time a player was traded three times in one year, but this happened with Cliff Lee.  It has been almost two years since the last of these trades so it is fair to judge all three of these deals, so I have focused on each trade and then listed the winners and losers of the Cliff Lee trades.

Trade #1

On July 29, 2009 the Indians traded Cliff Lee and Ben Francisco to the Phillies for Lou Marson, Jason Knapp, Jason Donald, and Carlos Carrasco. Lee was coming off a CY Young season, and was pitching well again for the Tribe, but the problem was a lot of teams were wary about Lee. The reason being was simple as Lee had been a good pitcher, but all of the sudden he was a great pitcher. When was the last time a player reached a new level of play past 30 (Lee was almost 31). He had a year and a half of great play, and teams were just not willing to pony up for Lee. The Indians seemed desperate to cut salary and traded him when maybe it would have been best to wait.

For the Phillies this worked out great as Francisco was a solid fourth outfielder for them and Lee helped them to make the post season and in time the World Series. He dominated the playoffs, and without him there is a very good chance that the Phillies would not have made it to the World Series.

For the Indians this trade has been hampered big time by injuries. Knapp had front of the rotation potential and was set to be a top 20 prospect in all of baseball. He has not pitched since 2010 and really has to prove he can still be a prospect. The one silver lining with Knapp is he is still only 21, and if he does get healthy he still has a chance to make the majors.  Carlos Carrasco last year looked like he was finally starting to put it together and at worst would have been the fifth starter for the Tribe this year, but he hurt his elbow and had Tommy John surgery at the end of last season. The hope for the Tribe I imagine is that next year he will be ready to go to fill Derek Lowe’s spot when he hits free agency.

Lou Marson was thought to be a possible starting catcher, but it is very obvious he is only a great defender and a bench player. He is a useful player but not much more. Jason Donald has been a bit infuriating this year. He is what the Indians need, a right handed bat who can play all over. The problem this year was his defense was awful, his throws were erratic, and his bat was very inconsistent, so he is currently back in AAA. The potential is still there and I think he could be a starting middle infielder in the league at some point.

Trade #2

The Phillies traded for Roy Halladay and all the sudden had major salary concerns, so in spite of a very low salary that had him making less than 10 million a year, the Phillies decided to move Lee. Seattle thought with Lee and Hernandez at the top of a rotation they could contend, so they figured out a deal that both sides liked. On December 16, 2009 Lee was traded to Seattle for J.C. Ramirez, Phillippe Amonte, and Tyson Gillies.

The Phillies return was noticeably less than they had paid to acquire Lee in the first place. J.C. Ramirez has spent the last three years in AA, and is being moved into the pen for the first time and his best outcome is as a pen arm in the future. Phillippe Amonte was a former high draft pick for Seattle that is a large lefty but was also quickly turned into a pen arm. He has looked very good stat-wise since he was put in the pen, and has the potential to worst case be a potential LOOGY out of the pen. Gillies is really a non prospect at this point with six seasons in the minors and has been stuck in AA, and really has not produced. So for Lee, the Phillies got two pen arms in total.

Lee produced for Seattle and made the All Star team, but unfortunately they had misjudged the rest of the team’s talent and quickly put Lee on the block to try and get more assets before Lee would leave in free agency.

Trade #3

On July 9, 2010 Lee was traded along with Mark Lowe to Texas for Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke, and Matt Lawson.

This deal worked out great for the Rangers. First, Lee helped them get to a World Series. Second, Mark Lowe has remained an important part of their pen and has been used as a set man from time to time. The Rangers also got compensation picks and at the end of the first round last year they drafted left handed pitcher Kevin Matthews out of a Georgia High School and with the other compensation pick they drafted Zach Cone a toolsy outfielder from the university of Georgia. So they added an ace which got them to a World Series, a set up man who is still with them, a young arm, and an outfield prospect.

Seattle had a hard choice to make before deciding on Texas as the Yankees were also very much trying to acquire Lee. The Yankees package was mostly around Jesus Montero, who Seattle in time managed to acquire anyways. The players they did get though are an interesting lot. Justin Smoak is an amazing defender at first base, but has failed to perform at the major league level where in 900 AB he has only had a line of .225/.309/.376. Blake Beavan made the Mariners rotation this year and looks like a potential back of the rotation arm for them.

Josh Lueke caused members of the front office to be fired when word got out about Lueke’s criminal history.  He was brought up on sexual assault charges and pleaded false imprisonment with violence charges. They later traded him to Tampa for John Jaso, and Lueke was just called up by Tampa. Needless to say having him on any team is not going to be a popular move for a franchise. The last player Matt Lawson, ended up being traded to the Indians for Aaron Laffey.  He played 30 games in Akron last year and is now hanging around in extended spring training. So in the end it looks like Seattle got a back of the rotation starter and a solid catcher who is more than likely a backup.

So who got the best package?

Trade 1: backup catcher, utility infielder, back of the rotation starter and a lottery ticket spec.

Trade 2: a pair of relievers.

Trade 3: back of the rotation starter and a backup catcher.

As crazy as it sounds, the Indians might have gotten the best package.  If Knapp does manage to make it back and even turn into a relief arm then I think the Indians far and away ended up with the strongest package of any of the teams in those trades. I think Seattle should get credit though for turning lesser prospects into better prospects in under a year. Yet does that make the Tribe the big winner?


I think the overall winner is the Phillies. Most players would be upset to be traded so quickly, but Lee loved his time there and returned to the Phillies. This allowed them to build one of the strongest rotations I have ever seen in my life time. They managed to get him back, and did gain two pen arms out of the whole equation.

The other winner is the Texas Rangers; they traded away prospects and got a player who got them to their first World Series. They also got a solid bullpen arm, and ended up with two picks as well, which they turned into a pair of interesting prospects to help fill the voids in their own system. The prospects they got right now are better regarded than the players they gave up at this current point and time.


The losers to me at least in all of this are the New York Yankees. They really were never in the hunt when Cleveland tried to move him. If they had just offered Montero then Lee would more than likely be a Yankee. They failed to get a deal done with Seattle because they would not trade Eduardo Nunez who they view as the future Jeter replacement. The Yankees needed an arm, and they finally managed to get a deal done with Seattle who traded them Michael Pineda for Jesus Montero. The Yankees finally got the arm they needed, and then Pineda went down for the year with an injury. So in the end they moved their assets for a player who went down with injury and still don’t have that second ace they were hoping to land.  

So there it is the crazy two year cycle for Cliff Lee which resulted in over a dozen players changing teams and multiple franchises making the World Series. It might not have worked out best for the Indians, but it didn’t end up nearly as bad as many Indians fans think. The Indians still might have had the best return of any team, which shows just how hard it is to judge prospects, especially prospects on opposing teams.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffmlbdraft, or email him at

User Comments

May 18, 2012 - 9:49 AM EDT
Personally, I think the organization is trying to make an example of him to the younger players to not 'retire' and then try to come back. If that is the case, trade or release him and get it over with. He deserves a chance to play somewhere.
May 18, 2012 - 9:20 AM EDT
One thing with the time of the trade the injury was not considered serious and the industry mostly valued him the most over any player not named Drabek in the Phillies organization. Many considered Knapp to be the best or second best prospect in the entire organization at the time of the trade.
May 17, 2012 - 9:34 PM EDT

I understand your point on Knapp, but he was injured at the time of the trade. Cliff was a CY young winner and too good a pitcher to take a chance on an injured player, regardless of what the GM said. A shoulder injury to a pitcher is a serious red flag. As far as the 50%, I don't agree, I will give you Santana trade was excellent. Martinez trade I still think is a tossup as Masterson has really only had one good year and although Hagadone looks good so far who knows, but missing on Sabathia, Lee and now Jiminez to the point you don't even have one everyday player to show for it (ok maybe Brantley) just isn't acceptable for a low budget franchise. That coupled with poor drafting still makes the future of this club cloudy at best. We haven't had a winning season in 3 years and although we are in first now, we started the same way last year. Don't get me wrong, I am diehard fan and so passionate, that is why I get so upset when we make mistakes with players and especially the draft, I still have no idea how Mirabelli is a VP after all those disasters. I am still haunted by the Brandon Phillips debacle especially since my work transferred me to the Cincinnati area where I have to hear about the "Phillips gift from the Indians" everyday.
May 17, 2012 - 6:26 PM EDT
Brown and Drabeck were higher but no one who follow the deep minors thought Happ was better. He was pitching well for them in the majors but everyone knew his stuff was not there. The Indians choose between Knapp and Taylor. Brown was so untouchable that Blue Jays could not even get him when they moved Doc.

and Knapp was a blue chipper was a top 50 mid season spec that year by baseball america and in spite of injuries even that year he was 64th best prospect by BA later that year.

Bigger point is everyone misses and this team is hitting on 50% right now which is actually very good
May 17, 2012 - 6:07 PM EDT
It should be mentioned though when the Tribe made the deal they still had control for 1.5 years on him. The package they received is completely unacceptable when that is factored in. Not to mention, none of those guys were considered a blue chip prospect as Knapp was well behind Drabek, Dominic Brown, and Haap. Marson should not even be in the big leagues, regardless of his ability to throw out runners as he can't hit the ball off a tee. If it is all about defense then Perez at Akron should be here. Once again, the front office swung and missed on what should have been a franchise changing trade, but as usual no consequences given out by Dolan for it.
May 17, 2012 - 5:02 PM EDT
It is a little odd that Lawson is in extended while the Indians have Rohlinger and Stoneburner in Akron. But all three are just organizational guys, though me personally, I like Lawson better and would have liked to see what he could do. Unfortunately, it is what it is. If he was deemed to have any upside he would be playing. Just the realities of the game and also the frustrating part of it where teams most times have too much control over a guy's career.
May 17, 2012 - 3:33 PM EDT
The Indians haven't given Lawson a chance. After Lawson played fall ball in 2011 his body was pretty well beat up from 14 consecutive months of baseball. He put up great numbers for both the Ranger and Mariner organizations; but he needed to rest up a little. After the Laffey trade there were people in the Indian organization that didn't even know they made the trade. Lawson can play if the Indians would give him another chance!!!

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