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Trading Cliff Lee, and other related cliffs

It's now officialCliff Lee and Ben Francisco have been traded to the Phillies.  The Indians receive four highly rated prospects back in the deal:  RHP Carlos Carrasco, shortstop Jason Donald, and catcher Lou Marson, all from Triple-A Lehigh Valley, and RHP Jason Knapp, way down in Low-A ball but potentially the "big fish" of the deal.

This trade marks the most significant sea-change for the club since the Bartolo Colon deal that brought Lee to the Indians seven years ago.  Sabathia was arguably a more significant player for the franchise, but the Sabathia trade didn't mark a significant change in direction for the franchise.  This trade is more significant, because it was a trade of choice, not of necessity.  That is, the Indians faced Sabathia's impending free agency and could not re-sign him; it would have been moronic not to trade him last July.

Lee, however, had a club-friendly option for 2010 in his contract, just as Colon did in 2002, as so just like Colon, he could have been part of a contending charge at reasonable dollars the following season.  The Indians traded Colon because they just didn't see the pieces in front of them to contend in 2003.  One has to wonder what they are now saying about 2010.  It isn't necessarily that they didn't think they could contend with Cliff Lee on the roster (and his paycheck ont he payroll) in 2010.  It may be only that they don't think that's their best bet.

Does that mean that they are tanking 2010?  Not necessarily — not even if Victor Martinez is dealt in the next 45 hours, as may well happen.  But the Indians can't and don't ever think about how to contend in one particular season, but rather over multiple seasons.  This isn't about contending or tanking in 2010; it's about contending as much as possible over the next three or four seasons.

This trade raises so many Big Issues for the Indians, one hardly knows where to start.  Rather than writing 1000 words on each one, I'll try to go over some of the broad strokes in a paragraph or two.

THE PROSPECTS:  Two themes emerge in reading about the four prospects we're getting back.  One is upside, and the other is that now more than ever, the Indians obviously do not give a rat's ass what anyone else thinks about the moves they make.  Reminiscent of the Chisenhall draft pick, each comes with obvious reasons for doubt -- Carrasco has a high ERA, Donald is coming off an injury that has hampered his hitting, Marson seems punchless, and Knapp (the supposed prize) was recently shut down with shoulder soreness.

The Indians don't care — in fact, one suspects they almost like this sort of thing.  Doubts scare away other clubs and drive down a prospect's valuation.  The Indians no doubt are confident that Carrasco has pitched into some bad luck and defenses, that Donald is already a big league-ready player who will recover quickly, that Marson is more useful than he seems, and especially — especially — that Knapp's injury is insignificant, that his shutdown was out of an abundance of caution.

If these four guys had been Our Guys prior to this season, what would we be saying about them now?  One thing I'll tell you for sure, we'd be howling if our club had traded Jason Knapp, a flame-throwing 18-year-old with great big piles of strikeouts.  Everyone wants to talk about Kyle Drabek now, but six months ago, Carrasco was the Phillies' top-rated pitching prospect and one of the top dozen in the world.  The Indians aren't impressed by a few months of excitement out of a player at any age.  They like long track records.

DEALS LIKE THIS:  They work, and nobody in the business does them better than Shapiro.  The Indians have problems, maybe systemic failures, maybe incurable incompetencies.  But this isn't one of them.  There is no question that deals like this have been highly effective for the Indians, even if little else has gone right.  Regardless of how long we go without getting to the World Series, it most definitely is not time to "try something new" in this particular area, and anyone who says otherwise should have his or her head examined.

THE PR PROBLEM:  I said it a couple weeks ago, and I'll stick with it now.  This is the best possible time to make outrageous moves that inflame the fans, because the team is already at rock-bottom.  Two miserable disappointments in a row, the body fanatic does not really believe this team will contend with or without Cliff Lee (or Victor Martinez).  Trading Lee does not make it worse, because it could be no worse.  The only cure for this is winning, so the Indians are right to concern themselves only with winning, as best they see fit.  I'm not saying this is the right move for winning, but I am saying that they're right to consider the PR situation a lost cause, paying it no mind.  (Not that Shapiro has ever let public sentiment influence his big decisions anyway.)

THE MONEY PROBLEM:  I think the Indians genuinely didn't need to trade anyone, having already jettisoned Mrk DeRosa, Rafael Betancourt and Ryan Garko.  I think they were worried not about cutting payroll generally, but about restoring some flexibility to their situation (while seeding the system with talent of course).  Donald suggests strongly that they will prepare for a roster without a veteran backup like Jamey Carroll on it, and perhaps without Jhonny Peralta.  Marson suggests that they have no intention of paying arbitration dollars to both Martinez and Shoppach — and why should they?  There are great things you can say about all those players, but we have the young players to plug in and conserve another $10 million, aside from Lee's salary.

In planning the roster from a financial standpoint, the first obligation of a club is to ensure that it can pay its own best, youngest players through their arbitration years.  Not pre-arbitration guys, who are always affordable, and not our just-okay arbitration guys, whom we may as well trade (and almost always do).  But our best guys, coming into arbitration.  If you can't pay those guys, you're just shooting yourself in the foot.  I don't know what offseason acquisition may be made possible by the money savings the club will achieve this week.  I do know that we have some work to do in locking up at least a couple of young guys, starting with Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo.

THE SYSTEMIC PROBLEM:  Given that outrage seems to be a way of life for many Indians fans, it's amazing how little of it is directed at MLB's financial structure, which has clubs raking in the bulk of all revenue from local TV deals, creating an imbalance among club resources that topped $100 million per year by the time the YES Network debuted in 2002.  Unlike the NFL and NBA, MLB has teams competing on a vastly un-level playing field, one which equates into a 20- to 30-win advantage for some clubs over others.  Everyone acts like this is business as usual, but it's not.  The Knicks cannot offer LeBron James one dime more than the Cavs will, let alone twice as much.  In the NFL, cap management is the organizing principle of roster management.

We could not re-sign Sabathia, and we could not have re-signed Lee.  As much as we hate to say it, we should not re-sign Victor Martinez — no, really, we shouldn't.  None of this is the fault of Indians ownership or management, but it's still worth getting mad about.  Indians fans are mad as hell, but why aren't they mad as hell at the system?

THE VICTOR PROBLEM:  Victor is the heart and soul of this club, but realistically, we can't keep him.  He may want to finish his career as an Indian, but how much under market would he have to be willing to take to make it a smart move for the club?  I love having Victor now.  I love his hitting, I love his defense around first base, I love that he's a solid catcher.  Moving forward into his 30's, however, he becomes one of two things:  Either an aging catcher, when we know that catchers don't age at all well, or good-not-great hitter in slow decline at a non-skill position.  I can't see how the Indians can invest even $40 million in either one of those assets, and while I could be "clever" and devise a hybrid role that makes it look like a good value — squinting through rose-colored eyelashes — it would only be a rationalizing for keeping a player who has been extremely productive and beyond likable.

If you're asking me to come up with a way to justify keeping Victor, I can do it.  But if you're asking me, purely objectively, how the Indians try to beat the odds in 2011 and beyond, it doesn't involve Victor.  That's the brutal truth.  So the question of whether to trade him this week isn't really about whether we could extend Victor.  It's really only about what we do since we know we won't extend him beyond 2010.  And it is that sad fact — along with the need for at least one more major league-ready pitcher for the rotation — that is going to get him traded.  Kelly Shoppach is about to become the new Josh Bard — a perfectly good young catcher who is keeping the spot warm for a sensational prospect.  We now have three guys who can back up Shoppach and provide depth.  This brutal week is about to get tougher.