Closing the Book on Cliff Lee

Before I go back to the business of trying not to fail the bar exam, I thought it would be a good idea to close up this whole Clifton Phifer business.

I realize that the situation has been the JFK assassination of Phillies baseball since December: everyone has an opinion, a conspiracy theory, a million different thoughts on why the whole thing was handled well or poorly.  I'm not going to debate the merits of the complicated Lee-for-Halladay swap (dajafi already did so in an extremely prescient piece back in December), the possibility that Lee could have been retained had Joe Blanton simply been non-tendered, or any of that; that's all water under the bridge at this point.

The brief discussion I want to have now is in regards to the prospects involved in the slew of Lee deals that have taken place since last July. Spoiler alert: Ruben Amaro may not have gotten top value for Cliff Lee. Check below the jump as we break it down.

July 29, 2009: Carlos CarrascoJason Knapp, Lou Marson, Jason Donald

How it looked then: Cleveland's haul in the original Lee deal was widely panned, with most prospect evaluators feeling that Mark Shapiro failed to extract full value for the 2008 AL Cy Young winner.  While I agreed with that to an extent, I thought that the haul the Indians got was a tad underrated -- Carrasco, Marson and Donald were all Top 100 prospects heading into 2009, and I thought it was a nice calculated gamble for the Indians to "buy low" after all three had struggled a touch in Triple-A.  Knapp was the centerpiece of the deal; the 18-year old flamethrower had turned heads in the South Atlantic League with swing-and-miss stuff, and the Indians insisted he be part of the trade.

How it looks now: Only Donald has acquitted himself well since the deal, hitting .280/.335/.434 with the Indians this year. Marson is back in Triple-A after OPSing .530 in the majors this year; Carrasco has regressed; and Knapp has been on the shelf all year with a bum shoulder.

December 16, 2009: Tyson Gillies, J.C. Ramirez, Phillippe Aumont

How it looked then: TGP linkage. CliffsNotes version: ehhh, not great.

How it looks now: With the obvious caveat that it's far, far too early to fully judge the deal, it is certainly fair to say that we haven't had a breakout among the above prospect trio that would validate Benny Looper's (possibly irrational) love for these guys. Aumont was converted to a starter and rushed to Double-A; he seems to have found his feet again in High-A, but I still think it's more likely than not that he winds up in the bullpen. Ramirez was solid if unspectacular in High-A, and the same has held true since his mid-June promotion to Double-A; in any case, the substantial bounce back I projected when I ranked him #3 among Phillies prospects in the offseason simply hasn't materialized.  Finally, the speedy Gillies has been plagued with a hamstring injury all season, with only 113 plate appearances to his credit.  He could still be fine in the long run, but it's beginning to look like a lost year of development for the guy I identified as the centerpiece of the Phillies' return for Lee.

July 9, 2010: Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke, Matt Lawson

How it looks: Smoak is the real crown jewel in this deal, as the switch-hitting first baseman has drawn comparisons to Mark Teixeira since his college days at South Carolina. The 23-year old has struggled a bit in the majors this year, but it's only his second full season, and scouts are still nearly unanimous in praising his hitting approach (he was a consensus Top 15 prospect heading into the season).  Beavan is a potential back-end starter type who shows solid ground ball rates and excellent control, though his stuff is shorter than one might expect given his 6'7", 250 pound frame.  Lueke is a hard-throwing reliever who looks like a decent bet to reach the majors, and Lawson is essentially a chuck in as a decent Double-A infielder.

What about the Yankees' package?: Far be it from me to question Jack Zduriencik, but I would have preferred the package offered by the Yankees.  Jesus Montero won't stick at catcher, and he's not lighting the world on fire in Triple-A this year, but he's a 20-year old man child whose bat fits into the "special" category for scouts. Before the year, PECOTA projected a bunch of .310/.360/.530 seasons for Montero from about age 23 onward, and I think that's still a fair projection.  In addition to Montero, David Adams is a sleeper second base prospect with impressive plate discipline, solid power, and above-average ability in the field, while Zach McAllister may have a shot as a back-end starter.

So... what does it all mean?

Justin Smoak is the best player involved in any of the Cliff Lee deals, and put simply, that shouldn't be the case. Theoretically, Lee's value was at its highest when he was dealt to the Phillies last July; it slipped a bit when there was only a year left on his deal back in December; and Lee should be worth even less now that he's a two-month rental.  It hasn't played out that way, however, and this is where I think it's fair to question Ruben Amaro.

Even accepting the premise that Lee needed to be dealt back in December, it doesn't at all look like Amaro was able to maximize the return.  Gillies, Ramirez and Aumont are a nice trio of prospects, and as I said above, I believe they were touch underrated at the time, but given what the Mariners were able to get for Lee seven months later, it's hard to fathom that the Mariners package was the best one on offer.  It has since been established that the Yankees were willing to part with Montero and other prospects in a deal for Lee back in December, and this is where Amaro made a huge mistake.  Even conceding that Montero won't stick at catcher, he must surely have been the best player on offer for Lee, and the simple fact of the matter is that a general manager should be seeking to maximize talent. Montero's presence in the organization had the potential to help in a number of different ways: (A) maybe he could have been included in the package for Halladay, say, in lieu of Michael Taylor and Travis d'Arnaud; (B) he would have been an excellent trade chip for the current trade deadline; or (C) he would have been in line to be the organization's first baseman of the future (on a salary of less than $25 million per year).

The sad truth of the matter is that the names being bandied about for Lee over the past few days lead to the inevitable conclusion that Amaro could have gotten more for Lee had he simply shown some patience and thrown open the bidding to all interested suitors.  Surely there must have been a better deal out there?  Referring back to one of the above links, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs -- a Mariners fan, no less -- said the following back in December:

This is the best Philadelphia could have gotten for Lee? Really? A pu-pu platter of interesting, high-risk guys not really close to the majors for a Cy Young-quality pitcher who is already well on his way to Type A free agency?

What should particularly frighten Phillies fans is the possibility that, with Benny Looper in his ear, perhaps Amaro really, honestly believed that the Mariners package was the best one out there -- and I think that, more than anything, is what bugs me about the whole situation.

But, what's done is done. Let's go ahead and close the book on this whole thing, huh?

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