Skip to main content

Assessing the trade market for aces Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt

Except for one thing: Lee should have big value while Oswalt just might be worth close to nothing. That's not an insult to Oswalt, just the reality of the economics of the situation.

Lee may be the only one among the two to have won a Cy Young award (in 2008, with Cleveland), but a case could be made that Oswalt actually has put together a slightly better career. He has a sizable edge in wins (141 for Oswalt, 94 for Lee) and somewhat better lifetime ERA (3.23 for Oswalt, 3.91 for Lee) -- though the AL-NL discrepancy probably accounts for the ERA edge -- and while Lee shined in the playoffs with the Phillies in 2009, Oswalt has also had success in October, winning the 2005 NLCS MVP award. However, in a couple of the categories that count most at trade-deadline time -- most prominently money -- Lee has it all over Oswalt, several baseball executives agree. Lee is in the final year of a four-year contract that will pay him $9 million this season while Oswalt is making $15 million this year, $16 million in 2011 and has a $12 million club option for 2012 with a $2 million buyout.

"At the end of the day, I don't think Houston will be able to move the entire (Oswalt) contract and get premium players back,'' sums up one AL executive. That's an opinion that's fairly widely felt, too, based on interviews.

Any team acquiring Lee would only be on the hook for about $4-to-5 million, depending on when a trade is made. Meanwhile, Oswalt comes with about a $30 million commitment. Very few teams have $30 million lying around, and those that do generally don't want to spend it.

But there are a few other less obvious differences between the two pitchers.

"There are (at least) two major factors,'' says the same AL exec. "One, Lee has done it in the American League. Two is the contract. The third factor might be that Lee's done it in the postseason [recently]. With Lee, you get two draft picks (since he's a free agent), you don't have to pay too much, and most important, he's proven he can do it in the American League.''

The contract is the biggest key, though, some others say.

Lee's value is pretty well set, having been traded twice in the past 12 months. In July 2009, the Indians dealt him to the Phillies for four solid-to-good good prospects and last December the Phils sent him to Seattle for three prospects of similar ilk. The value of top-flight prospects is so high now that last year the Red Sox turned down a straight-up offer of Lee-for Clay Buchholz, even before Buchholz raised his worth by being Boston's most consistent starter early this season. But Lee still brought some decent hauls back. Oswalt's value won't be nearly that high, and certainly not if the Astros insist on the acquiring team picking up the remainder of his full $15-million salary for 2010.

Lee's AL pedigree could bring extra teams into the mix, and even a couple richer ones. Take the Yankees for instance. The Yankees aren't necessarily seeking a starting pitcher now as they are understandably pleased with their five-man rotation and likely to become intimately involved in a trade for a top starter only in the event of injury. However, according to people familiar with their thinking, they are said to be so enamored with Lee that they are champing at the bit for next year and plan to put in a call in the coming days just in case they are pleasantly surprised at Seattle's asking price.

Meantime, a source familiar with the Yankees' situation suggests they would react to Oswalt with something akin to a collective yawn. That may be a slight exaggeration, but suffice to say, he isn't even close to their radar at this point, and barring injury, they may not even make more than the most cursory of calls.

There are other factors that could affect these two fine pitchers on the trade market. Lee is pitching a bit better this season (4-3 with a 2.88 ERA) than Oswalt (4-8, 3.23), though Oswalt has to be affected toiling for the awful Astros. But again, performance isn't the main consideration.

Astros owner Drayton McLane has been very reluctant to trade Houston's stars, as exemplified by his somewhat humorous reaction to Oswalt requesting a trade a few weeks ago. McLane told the Houston Chronicle, "I'm going to put my tongue in my cheek and say that Roy's contract includes a no-trade clause, not a trade-me clause."

The no-trade clause in Oswalt's contract shouldn't be discounted as a consideration in his trade chances either. Though Oswalt recently told's Danny Knobler that he'd consider a trade anywhere, even the American League, these little contract trade stipulations have proven not so little in the past, as evidenced by the few-month delay in the trade of Jake Peavy from the Padres to the White Sox last year. A lot has been said and written about Oswalt's availability and even anxiousness to leave the Astros. But despite his public pleadings, there's no guarantee he's really willing to go somewhere.

Meanwhile Lee's superb rep as a top performer in the AL and also in the postseason, plus his favorable contract make him a candidate to go anywhere.

Here is a summary of the teams that have been mentioned, rumored or otherwise make sense in any Lee or Oswalt derbies, and the potential questions about each:

1. Dodgers

They've cut their payroll from $120 million to $83 million (not counting deferred monies) over two years, and some wonder if they are saving up for the big score. But more likely, owner Frank McCourt wants to keep saving for his battle for ownership of the team (lawyers' fees are not cheap, especially when you hire legends like Marshall Grossman). GM Ned Colletti has pulled off a few unusual trades in midyear, ones where the trading teams paid the contracts (Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake), but that usually requires giving away a big-time prospect or desperation on the part of the trading team. But since most of the Dodgers top homegrown guys are currently with the squad, it's hard to imagine Colletti can pull this off without getting McCourt to open up his famously sealed wallet. Oswalt seems completely out of their reach financially, and there's question whether they have enough high-level prospects to get Lee.

2. Cardinals

Offense is their current problem, but Oswalt seems like a logical fit for a team that says they seek a starter and would seem to appeal to a small-town guy like Oswalt. It's hard to imagine them laying out $30 million, not with $200-million-plus needed to be set aside to retain Albert Pujols, who can become a free agent after 2011. As with everyone else, Lee's dollars work better.

3. Braves

They've been mentioned as a possibility, but their starting pitching is already very strong. And as one competing executive points out, "They don't spend at midseason, that's just not their style.'' So while Oswalt probably wouldn't mind an switch from Houston to Atlanta, he would seem to be an unlikely fit.

4. Twins

Admirably, they've already built their payroll to $95 million and revenues are up. Oswalt or Lee could be the leader of a young and solid rotation that lacks a true ace.

5. Mets

After a slow start, the Mets have rallied lately by winning eight of nine and suddenly look like a threat now -- a threat that could use one more proven starter to go with Johan Santana and the emerging Mike Pelfrey. But they didn't want to spend the extra money for free agents Joel Pineiro or Bengie Molina in the offseason. As with many others, Lee would be preferred. Their prospects are better than first thought, but would they give them up?

6. Rangers

The bankrupted team would appear to be a poor fit for a player with $30 million remaining on his pact. So a move across state seems like along shot for Oswalt. Lee's money could be workable, though.

7. Yankees

They appear to have only a passing interest, if that, in Oswalt, but love Lee after seeing him up close in the World Series. Plus, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett are both close to Lee, Sabathia from their time together in Cleveland and Burnett as a fellow Arkansas native who is also represented by agent Darek Braunecker.

8. Angels

A long shot for Oswalt, since their rotation is pretty solid as it is, and they don't often add dollars (though they showed a willingness to do so last summer when they acquired Scott Kazmir). With Kendry Morales' injury, first base is now their biggest need.

9. Reds

They've made some shocking additions in recent years, like Scott Rolen and Aroldis Chapman. There's been little suggestion they're involved yet, though they do look like a clear contender at this point. They have a chance at both Lee and Oswalt.

10. Red Sox

They can never be counted out, but they've already spent $82.5 million on John Lackey and don't appear to have an obvious hole in their rotation. They do like Lee, but there's no sense chancing an NL switch by getting Oswalt.

11. Phillies

The reason they traded Lee in the first place last December is because they didn't have the money to keep him, and they surely want to try to retain free-agent-to-be Jayson Werth, so it's tough to see them getting Oswalt. To go get Lee back might be tantamount to admitting an error. But he definitely thrived there, going 7-4 with a 3.39 ERA in the regular season and 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in the postseason. As hard as it is to believe, their offense appears to be the immediate issue.

• One person who's familiar with the skirmishes between White Sox general manager Ken Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen said even before their latest blowup, "Kenny would like to fire him if he could.'' Of course, club owner Jerry Reinsdorf is such a loyal leader it would be just about impossible to fire Guillen. According to people in the know, Guillen simply doesn't take direction well -- no surprise there. The latest blowup, as first reported in the Chicago Sun-Times, was over Guillen's dissatisfaction with the $50,000 offer the White Sox made to his son Ozney, whom they drafted in the 22nd round. Like a lot of parents, Ozzie figured his son was a top-10 round talent. Of course, logically, the other 29 teams passed through 21 rounds, so it made no sense to take it out on Williams. Ozzie's other son Oney quit his do-nothing job already (officially, he was a video coordinator, but people around the team say he didn't do very much of anything) under pressure after he tweeted inappropriate opinions about White Sox players. This is getting ugly.

• Cubs manager Lou Piniella would not have gotten where he is if not for his feistiness. So it should be no surprise he jumped ugly on opinionated White Sox broadcaster Steve Stone for criticizing Piniella multiple times for not playing rookie outfielder Tyler Colvin as often as Stone apparently thinks he should. Piniella's tirade was nothing new. "I'm not some damn dummy,'' was a typically entertaining defense, though Piniella conceded within a couple days he would begin playing Colvin more. Stone's guts are admirable, but this isn't even his team, so it's funny he would harp on this issue. The Cubs are stacked in the outfield, and a trade of Xavier Nady seems likely. That could help the reduce the logjam. While Piniella seems to have the same energy, it's being heard that his new bosses are concerned about his health, even though he's only in his mid-60s.

• Bobby Valentine interviewed for the Orioles managerial position on Friday and is not likely to be affected in his thoughts about them by just how ineffectual and dysfunctional they are at present (they're 17-46, same as the '62 Mets). The Orioles can pay, but it wouldn't be a shock to see Valentine wait to see whether a more desirable job became available. The Cubs job would probably appeal to him (or anyone else). A lot of folks see Cubs legend Ryne Sandberg as the heir apparent. But one competing GM said if the Cubs do part ways with Piniella, their best solution would be to hire Valentine to manage and make Sandberg the bench coach, where he could apprentice for the job.

• As for rumors Diamondbacks ace Dan Haren might have some sort of small hip issue, a D-backs executive joked that, if anything, he needs to stop running the bases. Haren is 6-for-6 against his old Cardinals team and batting .436 overall. Despite the fact that Haren, who is 7-4 with a 4.61 ERA after going 14-10 with a 3.14 ERA in 2009, isn't pitching up to his usual standards, there is no evidence of a real hip concern, though.

• The Phillies, who are 12-15 since binocular-gate, have tried everything, and the latest thing was a players only meeting. Personally, I think the slump is just a coincidence coming after their bullpen coach was spotted with the binocs.

• The Mariners, losers of five straight, also had a players-only meeting. And the unusual thing about theirs was that it was reportedly led by newcomers Chone Figgins, Milton Bradley and Cliff Lee. They have a young team, but Figgins is struggling mightily, batting just .228, Bradley isn't ready to lead anyone and Lee appears to be a short-timer. Anyway, it worked, as the Mariners ended their five-game slide Sunday by beating the Padres 4-2.

• The Angels are 12-3 since Kendry Morales' freakish leg/ankle injury. They aren't ruling out a return for Morales this year, but that would really be miraculous on his part, considering the damage to his fibula and high ankle area. He'll be fine by next year, however.

• It's hard to believe but the Reds' Jonny Gomes -- who is making just $800,000 this year -- is the NL RBI leader.

• Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan has to get credit as Boston is second in the American League in runs scored, a surprise to most folks considering their offseason emphasis on run prevention.

• Red Sox rookie Daniel Nava certainly didn't look like a novice on Saturday, when he hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw in the major leagues, making him just the fourth player ever to hit a slam in his first at-bat and the second, after Kevin Kouzmanoff, to do it on the very first pitch.

• The Mets' sweep in Baltimore over the weekend was their first road series victory since July 2009, when they took two of three in Houston Yes, even though it was the Orioles, it still counts.

• Marlins sophomore Chris Coghlan, who had no extra-base hits in April, is hitting .526 in June, as noted by the MLB Network.

• For the Stephen Strasburg debut, as Tim McCarver mentioned on Fox, the usual 14,000 TV viewers for Nats games (the league low average) became 160,000. It also overshadowed the recent debuts of Giants sensation Buster Posey and Indians slugging catcher Carlos Santana. Both hitters have had very nice starts. Posey is batting .368 in his first 15 games, while Santana had three hits, including a home run, in his first three games.

• Jimmie Lee Solomon, who supervised the umpires among other things with a seven-figure MLB job, was demoted. The umps had some rough moments over the past year but another issue for the aloof Solomon was his failure to form alliances in baseball. His duties will be absorbed by Frank Robinson and John McHale Jr. now.

• As Bill Madden of the New York Daily News pointed out, White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski could make sense for the Rangers. Pierzynski becomes a 10-and-5 player with veto rights as of Monday, though.

• One NL scout on Scott Rolen, who is batting .313 with 14 home runs and 45 RBIs: "I haven't seen him this good in years.''