Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Phillies Acquire Cliff Lee

After weeks of speculation, haggling and negotiating, the Phillies acquired the stud front of the rotation starter they've been looking for on Wednesday afternoon, acquiring 2008 AL Cy Young winner Cliff Lee from Cleveland for four minor leaguers.

Lee comes to Philadelphia with outfielder Ben Francisco for minor league pitchers Jason Knapp and Carlos Carrasco, infielder Jason Donald, and catcher Lou Marson.

The Phillies apparently set their sights on Lee after Toronto's asking price for Roy Halladay proved to be too high.

The big winner in this mix? Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, who addressed his team's biggest need without losing any of the top four players (Kyle Drabek, Dominic Brown, Michael Taylor, JA Happ) who had been discussed in a deal for Halladay. Amaro was also able to address another need in adding a right-handed bat for the bench in Francisco, as Eric Bruntlett is versatile defensively but can't hit, and John Mayberry Jr. doesn't make enough consistent contact to stick in the bigs at this point.

Ever since Brett Myers went down with a hip injury in early June, the Phillies' need for a front of the rotation starter was evident to everyone who was paying attention. Already a formidable team in the National League, Philadelphia has now positioned itself with as good a chance as any team in recent years to repeat as World Series champions. Lee has a 7-9 record with a 3.14 ERA for a bad Indians team in 2009 after going 21-3 with a 2.54 ERA in winning the Cy Young last year for a Tribe squad that wasn't much better than this year's edition.

Lee steps in behind Cole Hamels to solidify the Phils rotation and start game two of each playoff series. He is signed through 2010 at a very market friendly $9 million before hitting free agency, and giving the Phillies at least two Octobers with Lee on board during which they will try to raise up another World Series trophy.

The move is significant in that it keeps the best of the Phillies minor league prospects in their system. While I am a firm believer that we never know what minor leaguers will do until they prove they can do it in the majors, it is a victory for Amaro and the Phillies to be able to hold onto the pieces seen throughout baseball as the bluest of blue chips, whether to help the big club on the field, or to be used as trade bait in another deal.

The curious aspect of this deal is from Cleveland's end. The Indians seemingly traded a Cy Young caliber lefthanded starting pitcher with a year and a half remaining on his contract (Lee) for a lower return than they received for a Cy Young caliber lefthanded starting pitcher with half a year remaining on his contract (C.C. Sabathia) around this time last season.

In 2008, with Sabathia staring at free agency and clearly not returing, the Indians managed to scare up Matt LaPorta, one of the better hitting prospects in the Milwaukee system, along with two other minor leaguers for a two-month rental of Sabathia.

For Lee, Cleveland received four prospects. Let's look at each...

-Jason Knapp, RHP, 18 years old- Knapp is seen as the centerpiece of this deal from Cleveland's perspective. The Phillies second round pick in the 2008 draft is a 6-5, 235 pound starter who has drawn comparisons to Josh Johnson. Knapp's fastball consistently reaches 98 mph, and he has struck out 111 batters in 85.1 innings at Low A Lakewood. Some scouts believe Knapp has a higher upside than the Phils' organizational gem, Drabek. Knapp's record of 2-7 and ERA of 4.01 aren't impressive, and an 18-year old that throws that hard is likely to be more of a 'thrower' than a 'pitcher.' He has been shut down of late because of 'shoulder fatigue', but has no discernable injury history. Pitching at Lakewood, Knapp is probably at least three years from the Majors, and as such, was not as painful for the Phillies to give up. How Knapp matures moving forward will likely make or break this deal for the Indians.

-Carlos Carrasco, RHP, 22 years old- Carrasco was once seen as the Phillies best minor league pitcher, but even during that time period, there was speculation that the Phillies saw him much more highly than other teams did. In 2009, he is 6-9 with a 5.18 ERA at AAA Lehigh Valley. The only 2009 statistic of his that stands out positively is his strikeout total of 112 in 114.2 innings. Another of Carrasco's problems appears to be maturity on the mound. He likely projects as a number three or four starter.

-Jason Donald, INF, 24 years old- In 2008 Donald emerged as potentially the Phillies' best position player prospect, appearing in the Futures Game at Yankee Stadium and participating in the 2008 Olympics for the United States team. With Chase Utley expected to miss the start of the regular season following hip surgery, there was talk that Donald would open the season playing second base for the big club. As we all know, Utley didn't miss any time, and Donald has spent the whole season in the minors. Donald has dealt with injuries and has just flat out struggled at AAA Lehigh Valley this season, hitting only .236. Most talk in the Philadelphia area has downgraded the expectations on Donald from a solid everyday player to a utility-type who backs up multiple infield positions.

-Lou Marson, C, 23 years old- Marson is the only player headed to the Indians who has appeared in the Major Leagues. He made his debut in late 2008, and hit a home run for the Phils in their meaningless final game of the regular season. Marson has also appeared in seven games for the Phillies this season during a stretch when Carlos Ruiz was injured. Like Donald and Carrasco, Marson's stock has cooled a bit after looking like an untouchable last year. Part of the reason for his availability is the emergence of Ruiz as a solid, everyday catcher. At age 30 and in his third major league season, Ruiz appears primed to be the Phils everyday catcher for the foreseeable future. Marson, who like Donald was a member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, is an obviously attractive trade candidate because of the dearth of good catching available. Marson is also particularly attractive to Cleveland if they really are intent upon moving Victor Martinez. Marson will likely develop into a solid everyday catcher, which makes his acquisition well worthwhile to the Tribe. He is also most likely to help the major league club right away.

Cleveland sacrificed the high, high level prospects that had been rumored to be included in a deal for Halladay and received quantity and major league readiness in return. Marson, Donald and Carrasco all project to help the Indians in 2010, while Knapp, probably won't reach the majors until 2012 at the earliest.

The Phillies got what they wanted and now appear set to make a run at another title in 2009 and 2010. Cleveland got quantity for Lee in an attempt to rebuild and become competitive again. How each team ultimately scores this deal will depend upon the development of four young men in Cleveland, and the outcome of the next two Octobers in Philadelphia.

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