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Trade Retrospective: Mariners move Cliff Lee to Rangers for prospect haul

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After going 33-44 through the first three months of the 2010 season, the Mariners dealt Cliff Lee to their division rivals for a package headlined by Justin Smoak.

This was the final of four blockbuster trades during Lee's career.
This was the final of four blockbuster trades during Lee's career.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Mariners began the 2010 season with lofty ambitions after winning an unexpected 85 games in 2009. That was ten wins more than their Pythagorean win total, suggesting a healthy dose of luck was responsible for their performance, but in the following offseason the Mariners still made the bold move of acquiring ace Cliff Lee from the Phillies in his walk year. The prospect of a starting rotation fronted by Lee and Felix Hernandez was appealing, but without a supporting cast the team regressed, and was a seller at the deadline.

Lee was an obvious trade candidate with a plethora of teams vying for half a season of his services. However, Seattle's own division rivals, the Texas Rangers, edged out the others by making top prospect Justin Smoak available in a package. The Rangers were hoping to reach their first playoffs in eleven seasons, and finalized the blockbuster move on July 9, weeks before the trade deadline.

As always, this series is concerned only with evaluating the initial decision made by the teams participating in the transaction and not later moves that retroactively affect the perceptions of the deal. The final judgement is reached by comparing each player's salary and fWAR-based free agent dollar value from FanGraphs to create a surplus value measurement. Salary and service time figures are taken from Baseball-Reference.

As with other recent editions of this series, a non-scientific attempt is made at future win depreciation. In almost all blockbuster trades, one team (the "buyer") sacrifices long-term wins to improve their team in the near-term. In essence, present wins are more valuable than future wins. The below table is just a rough estimate attempting to accommodate for that consideration.

Year 2011 Value 2011 WAR
2010 150% 1.50
2011 100% 1.00
2012 75% 1.33
2013 55% 1.82
2014 40% 2.50
2015 30% 3.33

As this is a trade deadline deal, a heightened value is placed on wins in the second half of the immediate season (2010). The value is still presented relative to the following offseason (2011 in this case), the period of time around which this entire series has revolved.

The Deal

Cliff Lee, the Rangers' key addition in this trade, was originally a 4th round pick by the Montreal Expos in 2000. He was the 30th best prospect in baseball prior to the 2003 season per Baseball America, and was a piece in one of the most lopsided trades of all time that same offseason.

Lee struggled to establish consistency with the Indians until 2008, where he saw a jump in strikeouts (4.2 percentage points), a similarly large drop in walks (4.3 percentage points), and produced 6.7 fWAR. He won the Cy Young Award, and maintained the excellence into 2009.

That season, he was moved at the deadline to the reigning World Series Champion Philadelphia Phillies, who sent four prospects (headlined by Carlos Carrasco) to Cleveland for the ace. That offseason, the Phillies then flipped Lee to the Mariners while simultaneously acquiring Roy Halladay from the Blue Jays (with the latter promptly signing an extension).

Lee pitched over 210.0 innings and produced at least 5.0 fWAR every season from 2008-2013, and his 37.4 fWAR made him the most valuable pitcher in baseball over that stretch. He would become a free agent at the end of the 2010 season.

With him went Mark Lowe, a 27 year old reliever who could hit 100 MPH, but still had difficulties missing bats in the Majors. Lowe would go on to break out as a 32 year old in 2015 and himself be the cornerstone of a trade deadline deal to the Toronto Blue Jays. He had two seasons of team control remaining beyond the 2010 season.

In return for Lee, the Mariners would receive top prospect Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Matt Lawson, and Josh Lueke.

Smoak was a two-time top 25 prospect in baseball, per Baseball America. He profiled as a power-hitting left-handed first baseman after being the 11th overall pick in the 2008 draft. He lived up to that profile as he climbed the Minors, but struggled during his half season debut with the Rangers in 2010. At the time of the trade, he was a career .291/.402/.458 hitter in the Minors and had fully six seasons of team control remaining.

Beavan was also a former Rangers' first round pick, the 17th overall selection in the 2007 draft. As a prospect, he had good command but little in the way of strikeout ability. He was considered to have a backend starter's profile, and was leaving Texas' AA affiliate with a 3.05 FIP over 110 innings to that point in the 2010 season. He had yet to make his Major League debut, and had all six seasons of team control remaining.

Lawson was a 14th round pick in 2007 out of Missouri State University, and was described as a fringe infield prospect at the time of the trade. He spent most of his time in 2010 at second base, and hit .277/.371/.438 in 345 plate appearances at AA through that point in the season. Lueke was a hard-throwing Minor League reliever and bad person, who the Mariners wanted despite being alerted prior to the deal to the charges he faced.

The Ripples

Rangers Transaction With To/By/With For
Cliff Lee Free Agency
Mark Lowe Free Agency

Yet again with this series, the "buyer" has an unexciting transactional family tree. When receiving fewer players for shorter periods of time, that tends to happen. Cliff Lee hit free agency following the season, and returned to the Phillies in free agency exactly one year after the team traded him away. He reportedly turned down larger offers from both the Yankees and Rangers to pitch again in Philadelphia.

Mark Lowe would reach free agency following the 2012 season, and sign with the Dodgers. They would release him during Spring Training, and he would spend time with the Angels, Nationals, and Rays that season.

Mariners Transaction With To/By/With For
Justin Smoak Claimed Blue Jays
Matt Lawson Traded Indians Aaron Laffey
Blake Beavan Free Agency
Josh Lueke Traded Cash Rays John Jaso (PTBNL)
John Jaso Traded Athletics Mike Morse
Mike Morse Traded Orioles Xavier Avery

Justin Smoak's Major League struggles would continue through the entirety of his time with the Mariners. Despite being a lauded offensive prospect, a 94 wRC+ and 0.0 UZR led to a -0.2 fWAR over 2218 plate appearances through 2014. He would be claimed by the Blue Jays, a team with a history of fixing former power-hitting prospects, and perform marginally better (108 wRC+, 0.6 fWAR) in 2015.

Matt Lawson never reached the Majors with the Mariners, and was traded to the Indians for reliever Aaron Laffey prior to the 2011 season. Blake Beavan would pitch parts of four seasons with Seattle before hitting free agency after the 2014 season. The Mariners received future John Jaso from the Rays for Lueke, before flipping him to the Nationals for Mike Morse. Morse was then flipped to the Orioles for outfielder Xavier Avery.

The Results

Remaining Control fWAR Salary (M) FA Value (M) Surplus Value (M) Surplus Value - Adj (M)
Cliff Lee 0 3.1 $4.61 $18.80 $14.19 $21.29
Mark Lowe 0 0.2 $3.16 $1.40 $(1.76) $(1.59)
--
Justin Smoak 1 0.7 $5.07 $6.70 $1.63 $0.90
Blake Beavan 5 0.7 $1.52 $5.70 $4.18 $5.49
Matt Lawson 6 0.0 $- $- $- $-
Josh Lueke 5 0.2 $0.41 $1.30 $0.89 $0.89
--
Rangers Total 0 3.3 $7.76 $20.20 $12.44 $19.70
Mariners Total 17 1.6 $7.00 $13.70 $6.70 $7.28

Bad trades involving Cliff Lee seem so commonplace as to have become a trope in the baseball community, developing their own set of superstitions. Teams traded away Cliff Lee on four separate occasions and appeared to clearly lose the trade in all four instances. The emergence of Carlos Carrasco has softened that perception some for Cleveland, but there's no real doubt that Montreal, Philadelphia, and here Seattle lost their respective trades.

In the second half of Lee's 2010, his best season (7.0 fWAR total), he practically doubled the production Seattle received in return over the next five years. Not only that, but the total salaries spent by the two teams are roughly equivalent.

With only one season of team control remaining before Smoak hits free agency and lower expectations for the remaining pieces, it seems clear that the Rangers have a comfortable lead in value generated in this deal. That's without even mentioning that Lee did lead the team to the World Series. Texas has to feel good about this trade.

. . .

Spencer Bingol is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. He can also be read at Crashburn Alley. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.