Lately Cliff Lee has been to trading deadline discussion what LeBron James has been to NBA free agency: He's all anybody can talk about, even when somebody isn't even talking about him. Getting into an early discussion about the free agency market? Well, it's all about how Cliff Lee finishes the season. Looking to trade Roy Oswalt or Dan Haren? Yeah, but what are three months of Cliff Lee going to cost? I have it from good sources that ESPN has prepared a "Cliff Lee To Cavaliers In Sign-and-Trade" graphics package as a contingency measure.
Such is the level of his overexposure that even the Cardinals, who have already spent their share of prospects and dollars to construct the team they put on the field now, have been placed forcibly into The Race for Lee, just a year after having corralled Matt Holliday with their last top prospect.
If the Cardinals are in the Cliff Lee race, we have to know if the trade is worthwhile. And to know whether the trade is worthwhile we have to know what it would entail. It would probably look something like this:
The Headliner: A Top Prospect
The most successful trade for a front-line starter in recent memory brought CC Sabathia to Milwaukee in time for his almost miraculous series of shutouts; squeezing 17 starts into three months, he threw seven complete games and led not just both leagues but each league in shutouts, with two in the AL and three in the NL. His 11-2 mark was crucial in dragging the Brewers into the playoffs, so they probably got their prospects' worth.
The headliner in that deal was Matt LaPorta, as good a comp for Brett Wallace as you're likely to find. LaPorta, Baseball America's 23rd best prospect in baseball in 2008, was drafted high despite the Brewers having filled first base, his presumptive position, with a franchise cornerstone. Already 23 in 2008, his second season in the minors, he was hitting .284/.402/.576 in the AA Southern League at the time of the trade and appeared to already be ready for the majors. He's continued to hit since then in the minor leagues but is just now working through a rough start in Cleveland.
The Cardinals' headliner in any deal for a front-line pitcher will be Shelby Miller, 2009's first round draft choice. Miller is a long way from contributing to the Cardinals, but nobody has doubted that he has top-of-the-rotation stuff; he's got an extraordinary fastball and breaking pitches that are at least average for a high school wunderkind. In his full-season debut at low-A Quad Cities his ERA is rough but his strikeouts and walks are outstanding. As LaPorta, a seemingly finished product, proves, players like this can wash out and do nothing, but the value they provide if they turn out to be success stories is enormous. Top tier players who are also cheap, like Colby Rasmus, are the most valuable quantity in baseball.
And as those Dontrelle Willis-for-Colby Rasmus whispers from 2006 prove, both sides of any deal have the potential to underperform.
The Second Banana: A Potential Regular
The Sabathia deal, in addition to LaPorta, included outfielder Michael Brantley and starting pitcher Zach Jackson, both solid prospects in their own right. Brantley, a toolsy speed-first outfielder, hit .319/.395/.398 for the Brewers' AA affiliate as a 21 year-old in 2008, stealing 28 bases while he was at it. (Still 23, he had a reasonably effective debut for the Indians in 2009 and has bounced between AAA and the majors in 2010.)
These guys can make it big, too, even if it's less likely. For Randy Johnson, the most famous midseason acquisition in recent memory, the Astros traded Seattle top prospect Carlos Guillen, on Baseball America's Top 100 list since 1996, as well as successful minor league starter Freddy Garcia, who had been just a little bit old for his league in as a minor leaguer in 1998. Garcia, of course, won 17 games in his first season with the Mariners and won an ERA title in 2001.
Players like this are sometimes easy to mock-trade, but they add up; it's important to keep a system stocked with players who might eventually become useful major leaguers. The Cardinals would probably have to double up—they don't have a real second banana to trade, but they could certainly offer the Mariners Bananas 2A and 2B. Daryl Jones and Allen Craig? Lance Lynn and Eduardo Sanchez? These guys might not be worth wish-casting for, but when a system doesn't have any of them you notice—the roster begins to fill, at the margins, with replacement-level thirtysomethings whom you vaguely remember starting for the Orioles a few years ago.
The Window Dressing: A Third Piece
Sometimes the third piece in a trade like this vanishes forever—who could forget, or maybe who couldn't forget, that the Cardinals threw Mike Timlin into their 2002 trade for Scott Rolen, which also included minor league reliever Doug Nickle, the rare reverse-window dressing situation. Or screwballer Rich Croushore, included to make the numbers work in the Cardinals' trade for Darryl Kile?
The last piece in a big trade like this—I'll throw in, for completeness' sake, fourth outfielder prospect Shane Peterson, the last piece of the Matt Holliday trade—is usually different from the prospects in slots one and two, often a reliever or a player who's close to or in the majors, but they're distinguished primarily by their low upside.
But their limitations don't make them useless. The Mariners got John Halama as the last piece of the Randy Johnson deal; he was on the wrong side of 25 and had poor stuff, but he was a solid fourth or fifth starter for three years, and a swingman for three more. And the Cardinals, in their endless generosity, tossed righty-neutralizing reliever Kiko Calero into the Mark Mulder deal after having surrendered their top two prospects.
The Cardinals have plenty of these guys—Francisco Samuel, a flamethrowing reliever who can't keep the ball in the strike zone, or near the hitter; Mark Hamilton, a first baseman stuck behind Albert Pujols; Bryan Anderson, a catcher who can hit in a system that doesn't value catchers who can hit.
The Problem: Money Spent Now and Later
The problem with Cliff Lee isn't the money that would be spent on Cliff Lee; the Cardinals could swing the rest of his 2010 contract, and they simply can't afford to sign him past that. The problem is that it costs money to replace the players they'd be trading in the lineup in 2012, 2013, 2014...
The six years they have to control the salary of players like Miller and Lynn and Craig would disappear, and in each player's place would go a marginal player like Kip Wells or an expensive rental like Brad Penny. And as the Cardinals pay Holliday, and begin to pay Pujols, they'll be increasingly less able to rent Penny-class players. If the Cardinals want to build around Holliday and Pujols with above-average players, they'll have to come from the system.
If the Cardinals trade for Lee, they'll be better in 2010. But the trade is more concrete than Lee for players we haven't seen yet—it's trading wins in 2011, 2012, and 2013 for wins right now. The Cardinals just don't have those wins to spend.