Saturday July 10th, 2010

Within hours of breaking off a deal that would have sent lefty ace Cliff Lee to the New York Yankees for top hitting prospect Jesus Montero and two others, the Seattle Mariners have finalized a deal to instead send Lee, injured reliever Mark Lowe, and some cash relief to the Texas Rangers for rookie first baseman Justin Smoak and a trio of minor leaguers from Double-A. The deal is a coup for the Rangers, who, despite an unsettled ownership situation that recently saw the team file for bankruptcy, hold the largest divisional lead in the majors entering Friday night's action. With the acquisition of Lee, the Rangers now seem all but guaranteed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and just the third time in the franchise's 50-year history.

While the Yankees face a much tougher, three-team race in the American League East, it's hard to argue that the Rangers need for Lee wasn't far greater. The Yankees already have a five-deep rotation that includes three 2010 All-Stars (combined 32-7, 3.21 ERA), 2009 National League Cy Young third runner-up Javier Vazquez (4-2, 2.93 ERA in last seven starts) and A.J. Burnett, who has rebounded from a brutal June with two strong starts in July (13 2/3 IP, 2 ER). The Rangers, meanwhile, have a rotation headed by a converted reliever (C.J. Wilson) and an American pitcher who spent the last two years pitching in Japan (Colby Lewis). Scott Feldman, a 17-game winner in 2009, is 5-8 with a 5.51 ERA. Big offseason addition Rich Harden is nursing his 5.68 ERA on the disabled list due to a strained gluteus muscle.

Indeed, when I named the X-factor players in each division on Wednesday, I picked Rangers starter Tommy Hunter for the AL West citing his need to solidify the Rangers rotation behind Wilson and Lewis and ahead of the struggling Feldman and Harden while keeping further replacement starters at bay. With Lee in Texas, however, the pressure is off the 23-year-old Hunter as everyone moves down a spot and Lee settles in as the staff ace and potentially the best starting pitcher the team has had in decades.

Lee has been the best pitcher in the American League since returning from an abdominal strain (the third of his career) on the final day of April and is now in the third season of an impressive mid-career reinvention that has seen him reduce his once-alarming fly-ball rate, cut his walk and home-run rates by more than half, and actually improve his strikeout rate in the process. The immediate result of that improvement was the 2008 AL Cy Young award, and with Friday's trade Lee has now been the top prize of the trading season in two consecutive years, having helped lead the Phillies to the World Series in 2009 after they acquired him from the Indians on July 29.

Prior to 2008, the prospect of Lee pitching in Arlington would have been a frightening one for Rangers fans given his worse-than-average rate of 1.3 home runs allowed per nine innings, but the new Lee was largely unfazed by his move to the similarly hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park last year. He'll miss the Mariners' pitching-friendly ballpark and stellar outfield defense, but he'll still have some good fly-catchers behind him in Nelson Cruz, Julio Borbon and Josh Hamilton, and he's been pitching so well of late (1.68 ERA and just three walks in his last seven starts) that there's plenty of cushion for correction in his performance.

As for what the Rangers gave up to get him, 23-year-old switch-hitter Justin Smoak was not only the Rangers' top hitting prospect and one of the top prospects in all of baseball entering the season, but had been the Rangers' starting first baseman since late April. Smoak struggled at the plate through the end of May, but got hot in June, hitting .318/.416/.576 through June 20 before going cold again. In Seattle, Smoak will have less pressure to produce immediately and finally gives the Mariners the sort of blue-chip, middle-of-the-order hitting prospect they'd been lacking. True, Safeco Field is tougher hitting environment than the Ballpark in Arlington, but Safeco is kinder on left-handers, and the switch-hitting Smoak will bat lefty the majority of the time. That, in addition to his solid defense and major league-readiness, is likely why Smoak interested the Mariners more than the righty-swinging catcher Montero, whom many scouts believe will ultimately have to be moved out from behind the plate.

In addition to Smoak, the Mariners acquired 21-year-old right-handed starter Blake Beavan, a big Texan who was taken with the 17th overall pick in the 2007 draft and is 10-5 with a 2.78 ERA for Double-A Frisco. The 6-foot-7 Beavan threw in the mid-90s coming out of high school, but lost several miles per hour when the Rangers reworked his violent delivery and now profiles as no more than a mid-rotation starter with a miniscule walk rate. Josh Lueke is a hard-throwing 25-year-old righty reliever with solid peripherals (11.4 K/9, 4.97 K/BB in his minor league career), but who only just reached Double-A earlier this year, in part because he was drafted out of college, and in part because of a May 2008 arrest stemming from rape charges that were later plea bargained down to "false imprisonment with violence." Matt Lawson is a 24-year-old Double-A second baseman who can play some outfield and was hitting .277/.371/.438 for Frisco and would most likely be a utility player in the majors.

None of those three is a particularly inspiring acquisition, particularly when you factor in the fact that the Mariners are also sending Lowe (a solid, but fragile 27-year-old righty reliever who is out until at least September following back surgery) and $2.25 million to defray the costs of Lee's current contract. Then again, Lee will be a free agent at the end of the year, the Mariners are a hopeless last place team, and the package they received for Lee is an improvement on the trio of second-tier prospects they sent to the Phillies for Lee in December (right-handers J.C. Ramirez and Phillippe Aumont, and speedy center fielder Tyson Gillies).

For the Rangers, the "other" three minor leaguers are no loss from a flush organization (none of the three were considered among the Rangers top 15 prospects in January according to lists by Kevin Goldstein and John Sickles and none appeared on Baseball America's top 10 Rangers prospects list). So, even if they fail to re-sign Lee this winter (a distinct possibility given the team's ownership situation and the mutual interest expressed by the Yankees and Lee, who is good pals with CC Sabathia from their Cleveland days and shares an agent with A.J. Burnett, whose contract he will likely use as a basis for his own), the only lasting loss will be Smoak. In fact, in the short term the departure of Smoak could make the Rangers even better. Despite his hot run in June, he was hitting just .219/.316/.353 on the season. Chris Davis is a two-time bust already at 24, but he is hitting .354/.403/.555 at Triple-A and could at least hold the line at first base with a possibility for a rediscovery of his rookie form from 2008 (.285/.331/.549 in 80 games).

Given the Rangers organization's decade-long postseason drought and grand total of one postseason win (that's one game, not one series), Smoak may well have been worth the return, which should be no less than a division title. In that way, the trade greatly resembles the Brewers' 2008 acquisition of impending free agent Sabathia for a package built around slugging first baseman Matt LaPorta. LaPorta may well become a star in Cleveland, but I doubt many Brewers fans would trade their 2008 postseason berth to get him back. Whether or not Lee ontinues to follow in Sabathia's footsteps this winter by signing with the team the Mariners spurned on Friday is of no concern to the Rangers right now.

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