Once again the Indians are one of the majors' most disappointing teams. Once again they have the defending AL Cy Young winner, again a lefty who began the season terribly and is now pitching superbly. Once again they have a piece -- that high-end lefty starter -- who through trade can change a playoff race.
But the Indians cannot do this year with Cliff Lee what they did last year with CC Sabathia, in part because there would be no Cliff Lee in reserve.
At this time last year, the Indians were already heavily scouting the systems of the potential suitors for Sabathia. But remember where the Indians were last year, and not just under .500 and -- at best -- a Hail Mary from contention. Sabathia was a looming free agent and Cleveland had zero chance of re-signing him. But they had Lee pitching like the Cy Young winner he would become. Also, Fausto Carmona was on the DL, but he was 4-2 with a 3.10 ERA and coming off a season in which he finished fourth in the Cy voting behind Sabathia.
In other words, the Indians knew Sabathia would not be part of their 2009 team whether they kept him for all of 2008 or traded him during the season. But at the moment they did trade Sabathia to the Brewers last July 7, they could imagine still having a rotation fronted by Lee and Carmona in 2009 and, thus, being a contender.
However, they cannot project the same for 2010 if they trade Lee, who has a very reasonable $8 million option for next year. Obviously, in that scenario, the 2010 Indians would not have Sabathia and Lee. Since Carmona came off the DL to pitch last July 26, he has started 24 games and produced the worst ERA in the majors at 7.52 (minimum 100 innings) while also walking (73) more batters than he has struck out (71). He is so out of whack that he was optioned all the way to rookie ball to work at the Indians' minor league facility in Goodyear, Ariz.
In addition, the Indians' top pitching prospect, Adam Miller, underwent major surgery on a finger in April and there is fear he will never pitch again. The Indians' next best pitching prospects are Hector Rondon, who is at Double-A, and lefty David Huff, who is currently in their rotation. Neither is viewed within the industry as a top-of-the-rotation prospect.
So if the Indians trade Lee between now and July 31, they are not only damning any long-shot chance they have to get back into the AL Central race this year. They also are pretty much erasing contention next season. That might be more tolerable if they were playing in the AL East, where they would have to be thinking of ways to contend for the long term against the Red Sox and Yankees. But they play in the tepid AL Central.
"There is no reason in the world they can't compete in their division next year," an AL executive said. "At some point it has to be about winning and not selling off parts for a sunny day in the future."
Also, front offices should not generally make decisions based on the emotional reactions of their fans. But it would be an incredible breach of faith with Indian supporters to trade the Cy Young winner a second year in a row while still asking them to spend on tickets in a tough economy.
"A factor [in the decision] is your covenant with your fans," Indians GM Mark Shapiro said of trading someone such as Lee. "So if you are doing it, you better believe it gives you a chance to win soon and win big for a long time."
That trade does not appear to exist. That's why no one should expect Lee to be dealt. It is in Shapiro's DNA as a GM to at least listen to offers. This is a GM, after all, who traded not only Sabathia during the midst of a huge season, but in June 2002 traded Bartolo Colon during a 20-win campaign. Ironically, in the Colon deal, Shapiro received back Lee plus Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips.
But even Indian officials will tell you that their farm system was in much worse shape at the time of the Colon and Sabathia trades, necessitating the need to deal established players to build up the prospect base. The deals last season involving Sabathia and Casey Blake put the Indians' system in a much more favorable position. Cleveland's strength is in position prospects, such as catcher Carlos Santana (obtained for Blake) and outfielder Matt LaPorta (acquired for Sabathia). And it is likely that the Indians will have to use this positional richness to obtain a top pitching prospect from an arms-rich organization such as the Giants, Rangers or Red Sox at some point in the near future.
And that is why a trade for Lee almost certainly is not going to happen, at least not during this season. Because to move him, several executives concur, the Indians would have to get back an elite pitching prospect that is major league-ready now, such as Atlanta's Tommy Hanson or Boston's Clay Buchholz plus 2-3 other well-regarded prospects. No team is likely going to surrender that much at a time when low-cost/high-level prospects are treasured more than ever.
You can still imagine teams trying to tempt Cleveland, considering that the ace-level pitching trade market seems to worsen by the day. The most available player from this category, San Diego's Jake Peavy, is now possibly out for the rest of the season. Seattle's Erik Bedard missed his last start with shoulder inflammation, and Bedard's injury history mixed with questions about his temperament make him a harder sell. Toronto's Roy Halladay just injured his groin and the Blue Jays have insisted consistently that they will not trade him. Houston owner Drayton McLane has always been just about intransigent on giving up on a season and/or trading his best players, so that makes Roy Oswalt unlikely to go anywhere.
Right now the best-looking starter in the trade market is Brad Penny. So you see how appealing Lee would be by comparison.
However, Indians officials say they have yet to field a serious offer for Lee. And those same officials are saying they want to give the 2009 team a chance, even at a moment when Cleveland (29-38) is challenging for the worst record in the AL. Over the next few weeks, the Indians anticipate five key players returning from the DL -- Sizemore, Rafael Betancourt, Asdrubal Cabrera, Aaron Laffey and Jake Westbrook -- while they continue to hope Carmona can be fixed. If the Rockies won 11 games in a row to regain playoff hopes in the NL, the Indians hope that at full strength they can revive their season with a long stretch of solid play.
And their chances are heightened, to some degree, because of their division. Keep in mind that the Indians have already completed their season series against the Yankees and Rays, and played five of their nine games vs. the Red Sox. Those are arguably the three best teams in the league. The division-leading Tigers still have 14 games against that trio and the White Sox have 19. The Twins have just three, but Minnesota already has played 17 games against the weak West (10-7), while the Indians have played just three, albeit all three losses.
With the chance to get healthier both physically and against a weaker set of opponents, the Indians want more time to try and contend in 2009. They can't do that without Lee, and they almost certainly couldn't contend without him in 2010 either.
If at this time next year, Cleveland is not in contention again then Lee will be more like Sabathia, in his walk year with the risk-averse Indians unwilling to give long-term big money to a pitcher who turns 32 in August 2010. At that moment, the Indians can trade Lee. But between now and then, it would be foolish (and unfair to fans) for the Indians to do anything but keep Lee.