The Cliff Lee Trade and the Current Strategic Context

The Cliff Lee trade was an interesting trade not only because it worked out well for all three teams involved, but because it exemplifies the different kind of strategic thinking that is becoming the norm for different kinds of teams. Although the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners were the only teams to move players, the New York Yankees were very involved as well. The Yankees offer of minor league prospects Jesus Montero and David Adams for Lee was initially accepted by the Mariners, before it fell through at the last minute when the Mariners accepted the Rangers’ offer instead.

By picking up Cliff Lee, the Rangers who have a comfortable lead in the AL West not only increased their chances of winning that division, but added the kind of pitcher who can have a substantial impact in a short series. The trade does not catapult the Rangers into being favorites to win the AL pennant, but it gives them a good chance to hold on to their division lead and to get past the first round of the playoffs for their first ALCS playoff berth ever. The Mariners, for their part, have been solidly out of contention for weeks, and picked up some good prospects that may be able to help the team over the next several years.

The Yankees, who were all but certain Lee would be theirs, ended up not having to give up their top prospect, Montero, in exchange for half a season of filling a need that did not really exist. A half season of Lee would have been a clear upgrade from Javier Vazquez, who is currently the Yankees fifth starter. However, Vazquez has been pitching very well lately, so the upgrade might have been relatively modest one. It would not have made a lot of sense for the Yankees, who already have the best record in baseball, to swap their best prospect to upgrade an already good pitching rotation.

These three teams acted in ways that reflect current strategic thinking for different kinds of franchises as well. The Mariners had a busy off-season centered around the acquisitions of Chone Figgins and Cliff Lee which they had hoped would make the team a contender again. The Mariners sent a package of prospects including Phillippe Autmont, a well regarded pitching prospect, to the Phillies for Lee. Lee’s contract was due to expire after the 2010 season, so as soon as the Mariners fell out of contention, it made sense to shop Lee around. The Mariners had taken a chance on Lee based on their hopes of being around the playoffs this year. Once that hope evaporated, it became a strategic imperative to move him before he inevitably left the team as a free agent after the season. The Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke and Matthew Lawson group which Texas sent to Seattle for Lee was probably better than the Autmont, Tyson Gillies and J.C. Ramirez group which they gave up to get Lee in the off-season. For the Mariners Lee was not so much a player as an investment. They bought when his stock was high, but sold when it was at its peak.

The Rangers acted as a middle payroll range team should by deciding that because things were falling into place this year they had to do something to improve a bit so that they could increase their chances of getting into the LCS. A decade ago it was the wealthier teams that frequently made the mid-season pickups of proven stars, but the Ranger leadership understood that it is now more important for middle range teams to make these moves because their opportunities come far less frequently and they cannot compete as much in the free agent market. If Texas did not decide to go all in this year, they would have missed a chance that does not come around very frequently. Lee does not, of course, guarantee that Texas will win the World Series this year, but by picking him up they put themselves in a far better position to do that.

The Yankees did not need Lee, but they went after him anyway. One possible reason the Yankees tried to get Lee, rather than to meet a more important need like picking up a platoon partner for Curtis Granderson or a setup man out of the bullpen, was to prevent Lee from ending up with another playoff bound team who would then use him twice in a playoff series against the Yankees. This was a concern only the Yankees could afford, but it was not entirely rational either. Because Lee’s dominant game one in the 2009 World Series was so memorable, it is often overlooked that in his second start of the series, Lee was very ordinary giving up five earned runs in seven innings.

Moreover, for the highest payroll teams like the Yankees, Red Sox or Mets, making mid-season trades is a less essential means of building a team because they have the ability to pursue the most elite free agents. This is the lesson the Yankees learned when they signed CC Sabathia as a free agent after failing make a trade for Johan Santana in the spring of 2008. The Yankees will very likely get another chance to get Cliff Lee after the season, when Lee becomes a free agent and won’t have to give up a top prospect to do so. This marks something of a shift from a few years ago when it was only the high payroll teams who could afford to make big mid-season pickups of players like Cliff Lee. Today, they are the only contending teams that can afford to wait.

The Lee trade is a reflection of the new order in baseball and the strategic environments for different teams in that order. All three teams acted wisely given those strategic environments. Seattle was able to rent Lee for half a season and trade him for slightly more than they gave up to get him. Texas rightly decided this was the season in which they had to make a real run for it; and the Yankees still have a strong shot at landing Lee after the season. The true impact of the trade will, however, be determined by how far Lee and Texas go this year.