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Cliff Lee Trade: Perception, Reality, Carrasco

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Twice in the last week I read toss-off sentences maligning the deal that Mark Shapiro made when he sent Cliff Lee to Philadelphia. Both were written by "smart" sportswriters: Joe Sheehan, formerly of BP, and Steven Goldman, current editor at BP. I don't put "smart" in quotation marks to indicate that Joe Sheehan or Steve Goldman aren't actually intelligent; I'm just trying to say it's a category they're in, not an actual statement on their intellects. Both are the kind of guys who sit around and make fun of Short Hops

In his March 8 newsletter (that's Vol. III, No. 15 in Sheehan's oddly academic journal like numbering system), Sheehan analyzed what Ben Francisco might mean to the Phillies season, especially in light of uberprospect Dominic Brown's hurt hamate. Sheehan wrote:

In Brown's absence, right field will fall to Ben Francisco, 29, who has served as the Phillies' fourth outfielder since being acquired at the 2009 trade deadline from the Indians in exchange for four prospects. (Indians fans, avert your eyes: even if you completely ignore the left-handed starter the Phillies got in that same deal, the Phillies may still have won that trade.)

This doesn't make sense from any angle. Just a few of the reasons this is a totally unreasonable statement: 

  1. I am 100% sure that the Indians could reacquire Ben Francisco in a one for one deal for either Jason Knapp or Carlos Carrasco, right now. 
  2. I am 75% sure that the Indians could reacquire Ben Francisco in a one for one deal for Jason Donald
  3. In the two years that Ben Francisco has played in Philadelphia, he has accumulated 1.2 WAR according to Baseball-Reference. During the same two years, three players the Indians received have reached the majors. According to B-Ref WAR, their contributions are: Carrasco—1.0, Marson—1.5, and Donald—0.8. Using the equivalent BP metric, WARP, Cleveland's trio wins again, 2.3 to 2.0. 
  4. Ben Francisco will reach free agency in time for the 2014 season. Marson, Carrasco, and Donald will likely become free agents before the 2016 or 2017 seasons. 


This list could be much longer. The only reasonable way to interpret Sheehan's statement, as far as I can tell, is to assume that Sheehan believes that over the next two seasons Francisco will be much, much more valuable than Carrasco, Marson and Donald will be, cumulatively, over the next five, both making up the current advantage Cleveland's trio holds and exceeding any value they bring to Cleveland in 2014, 2015, and 2016. All this, plus an implicit assumption that Jason Knapp never reaches the majors. In short, it's a ridiculous thing to write. 

Goldman was more vague in his pronouncement on the trade:

The first Cliff Lee deal cost the Phillies four players, and though history will likely show that they got off cheaply, that’s still four pieces out of the farm system.

Well, this is at least more reasonable than Sheehan's analysis of Francisco. However, we can introduce some accuracy into how much value Lee brought to the Phillies in his first go-round—in fact, BP peddles a stat to do just that, the aforementioned WARP. Cliff's 2009 WARP with Philadelphia was 1.4 which, you may notice, is less than the value that the pieces from the deal have already returned to Cleveland. That's not a reasonable way to analyze this trade, though. The Phillies also got some currently unpromising pieces out of the M's farm system and, much more importantly, a World Series run, a huge resulting boost in ticketing and merchandising sales, and, of course, a productive and positive relationship with Lee that helped bring him back to Philadelphia. 

Still, I don't think Goldman's statement makes much sense even when we take a sympathetic look at it. We're told that the Phillies got off "cheaply"—a term that invokes a comparison, but to what? What other team has traded away a pitcher of Lee's caliber and received a substantially better haul than what the Indians got? The only candidates I see are the subsequent Lee deals and this offseason's Zack Greinke trade. 

Evaluating the Lee deals, the Indians edition looks like the best—as it should, since it was made when Lee had the most time left on his contract. The deal the Phillies made to move Lee is the copper standard for trading a Cy Young pitcher: it already looks like a sinkhole, just two years later. The Rangers deal is interesting and there's a good chance that it ends up being the best of the three, with some scouts still projecting Justin Smoak for stardom. However, the Indians are clearly ahead at the quarter turn, having delivered two Lee-landed players to the majors successfully in Carrasco and Donald. No player from the Rangers-M's deal has reached the majors and shown much: Smoak came up and struggled, Blake Beavan is considered an innings-eater in waiting but has yet to appear in the majors, Josh Lueke is a lights-out minor league reliever with an extremely checkered past, and Matt Lawson already turned into Aaron Laffey

So, we're left with the Greinke trade, which is the best comp anyway. Greinke has two full years before free agency; when the Indians moved Lee, he had about one and a half. The Royals got back two players who appear ready to be major league role players with potential for more (Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar), a major league reliever (Jeremy Jeffress), and a lottery ticket of a high upside arm (Jake Odorizzi). From where I sit, that looks a hell of a lot like the Indians deal: Cain and Donald are both guys who arrive as players ready for the majors with some potential to be more than just average contributors, Escobar and Marson both bring plus defense at key positons and big questions about the bat, Jeffress and Carrasco are pitchers with good stuff that nobody seems ready to bet the house on, and Odorizzi now and Knapp at the time of the trade have a lot in common. The Royals are probably ahead on Odorizzi-Knapp and the Indians are ahead on Carrasco-Jeffress, just by virtue of the starter-reliever comparison. All in all, looks like a wash to me. 

Which brings me, merficully, to the point. The Indians got ripped at the time of the Cliff Lee trade and, since then, have been vindicated in some significant ways. The deal is by no means currently a second edition the Colon trade but it seems relatively obvious that the Indians found at least one major league player and one major league pitcher—that's a lot in the current trade market, whether we like it or not. 

Also, there's an option for much more here—his name is Carlos Carrasco. Carrasco came to the Indians as a high-talent, high-maintenance player, supposedly lacking in the mental fortitude needed to transition is talent to the middle or front of a rotation. Carrasco's seven start run in Cleveland last year, with a 2.71 K:BB and an ERA of 3.83, was a first indication that Carrasco might be ready to make the jump to viable major league pitcher, something slightly north of Mitch Talbot. And, of course, at only 24 years old, Carrasco has a chance to be a special pitcher, the kind that makes trading away a year and a half of Cy Young performance at least somewhat palatable. I don't think it's unreasonable to think that Carrasco will be a more valuable pitcher than Cliff Lee over the next five years. In fact, that's exactly what I think. 

Yet, that's not the narrative on the Indians Cliff Lee trade. For whatever reason, it's a trade that writers, even 'smart' ones, are allowed to write off as a bust with little fanfare. There was a time when the Indians front office received entirely too much praise but, as that focus has moved to another franchise, the sudden appearance of a a line of argument that simply assumes the Indians front office is inept has been frustrating. Mark Shapiro screwed up in a lot of ways, well chronicled here and elsewhere, but Mark Shaprio rarely screwed up a veterans for prospects trade. I don't think he screwed this one up either.