MLB Rumors: Should the Rangers trade for Cliff Lee?

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Cliff Lee may be traded this year. This isn’t really news, as Lee is currently with his fifth team in the last four years, and has been traded three times in that time frame. The Philadelphia Phillies, in particular, have had an odd relationship with Lee in that time frame.

Philadelphia, 2009: “Hey Cliff, we really want you. Come pitch here and almost win a World Series with us!”

Philadelphia, 2010: “Hey…Cliff, look buddy, we had a fun time with you, but uh, we kinda like this Roy Halladay guy a little better, so we’re gonna go ahead and set you free in Safeco Park. You’ll love it there.”

Philadelphia, 2011: “Cliffy! We were wrong to have ever let you get away; we want you back! Sure, Roy is still here, but we think we can make this work. Plus, we don’t have bad traffic here like in Dallas.”

Philadelphia, 2012: “Wow, Cliff, things haven’t gone as we expected in the last year. We’re, uh, looking into our options. This may mean some changes for you. It may not! But, just sit by the phone, okay buddy? It’s not you, it’s us.”

Cliff Lee, every year: Just tell me when to pitch.

For a player that has been a member of the Indians, Phillies, Mariners, Rangers, Phillies again, and now maybe could wear another jersey this year, one might think that Lee has been an enigma, or an underperformer, or a clubhouse cancer. Actually, no, Lee has been an incredible teammate, player, and pitcher through it all. Since 2009, Lee ranks 8th in innings pitched (788 IP), 2nd in BB/9 (1.43), 10th in ERA (3.04), and 3rd in fWAR (23.2) among all MLB starters. He is one of the ten or so MLB starters that can be legitimately classified as an Ace today, with a capital “A” and with its true definition.

The MLB rumors started on Wednesday, when news broke that there was a top scout with the Texas Rangers that was in Los Angeles to watch Lee make a start against the Dodgers. If that rumor is true, that scout saw Lee throw an eight inning, two hit, one run gem on an economical 89 pitches.

In 2010, the Rangers traded for Cliff Lee because they needed help in their starting rotation and he filled a huge hole. In 2011, the Rangers needed bullpen help and so they traded for Mike Adams and Koji Uehara to correct that issue. In 2012, the Rangers don’t have one easily identifiable problem like they have the last two years. The starting rotation is deep, the offense is in the top two in the American League, and the bullpen (when healthy) is nearly impenetrable. The Texas offensive bench is relatively weak, but that can be solved after July 31st in a waiver claim trade in the same way the Rangers acquired Jeff Francoeur in 2010. If there was one thing the Rangers are missing, it’s an Ace. The starting rotation is built of six or seven MLB quality starters, but none of them qualify as an Ace. As stated earlier, Aces are a rare commodity, and they’re incredibly valuable for a reason. An Ace becomes the rock of a pitching rotation, especially in the playoffs. If the Rangers traded for Lee, they would have their Ace, and perhaps more importantly, they would know who the Game 1 starter in a playoff series would be, and would have full confidence in handing the ball to Lee to lead them to a World Series.

Besides being an Ace, Lee would also not be a rental this year like he was in 2010. Lee is under contract through 2015, with an option in 2016. The Rangers seem to be set on not making another move for a rental in 2012. Lee fits that profile.

There are a lot of reasons that a trade for Cliff Lee makes sense for the Rangers. However, it’s not a slam dunk move, either.

First, the cost of Cliff Lee is a huge factor. Lee’s contract is monstrous for a starting pitcher who turns 34 next month. It’s so big, in fact, that it scared the Rangers out of signing Lee after the end of the 2010 season. Just because a year and a half has passed since then doesn’t mean the Rangers are suddenly more inclined to that kind of years and dollars committed to an aging player. Lee is owed $25 million in 2013, 2014, and 2015. The option in 2016 is a team option for $27.5 million. That option automatically locks in if Lee meets two criteria: 1) not on the disabled list at the end of the 2015 season with pitching arm issues, and 2) pitches 200 innings in 2015, or 400 innings in 2014-2015. If I were a betting man, I think Lee can fulfill those two tasks and lock in that $27.5 million for his age 37 season. Even if that $27.5 million option doesn’t vest, the team could pick it up or pay a $12.5 million buyout. I believe Lee’s pitching style will continue to perform well over the life of that contract, but some regression is expected, and $25 million salaries are difficult to live up to.

Even if the Phillies were to subsidize a large amount of Lee’s contract, they wouldn’t do so for free. At that point, the cost to the Rangers is to trade more, or more likely, better players to Philadelphia. The package of players needed to acquire an Ace with three years of control remaining is high enough already. If acquiring Lee would require a package like Matt Harrison, Cody Buckel, Christian Villanueva, and maybe more, it is a tough decision to make when considering the difference in on-field production for the cost of the salary, as well as the opportunity lost because those players can only be traded once, and perhaps there is a better target out there.

Second, while Lee is still an Ace now, he hasn’t been the Ace in 2012 that he has been the last several years. His BB/9 is the highest it has been since 2007 and his ERA is 3.72. The K/9 haven’t dipped yet, and he still has a 3.04 FIP. However, there may be signs that age could catch up to him sooner rather than later, making those $25 million paychecks a little tougher to cut.

Third, there is no guarantee that acquiring Lee will bring an elusive World Series championship to Texas. That is an obviously dumb point to make, but it feels like it needs to be expressed as a reminder. Yes, it would make the Rangers a better team. The question is just how much better. In the playoffs, Texas will employ a four-man pitching rotation. As the team is currently constructed, that pitching rotation likely is Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison, Yu Darvish, and Derek Holland. If Lee is added, it’s not crystal clear who is subtracted. Lee is better than all four of those, but the benefit of the upgrade may be overshadowed by the cost.

This is all just conjecture at this point. Trading Cliff Lee is neither a certainty, nor is it easy to speculate on what the exact details of such a trade would be. The Rangers clearly will have interest, or do have interest, if Lee is available. He could be that missing piece to the 2012 roster. It is also entirely possible that although he is an Ace, he’s not the Ace the Rangers are looking for. Committing to a player for another three years and $87.5 million, or four years and $102.5 million is never a decision that is made lightly. It has to be the perfect fit. There are many reasons to believe that perhaps Lee will not be that perfect fit for the Rangers anymore.

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