With the July 31 trade deadline three weeks away, Mariners lefthander Cliff Lee was the one pitcher known to be on the trading block who was considered good enough to make a substantial impact on a divisional race. So the predeadline market got a little less interesting last Friday when Seattle shipped Lee and reliever Mark Lowe to the Rangers for a four-player package centered on prized first base prospect Justin Smoak.
The deal signaled two things: The Mariners have officially given up on their lost season, and the Rangers, who went into the All-Star break with a 4½-game lead in the AL West, are now the overwhelming favorites to win the division. Lee projects to make 16 starts for Texas, and at seven innings per start—he's averaging eight this season and went nine in his Rangers debut, a loss to the Orioles last Saturday—would pitch 112 innings. Based on his performance since the beginning of 2008, Lee would allow 37 runs in those 112 innings. Texas's fifth starters this season have averaged fewer than five innings per start and nearly six runs per nine innings. That means Lee should save the team 25 to 30 runs in the second half. The rule of thumb is that a positive differential of 10 runs equates to a win, so the Rangers should be three games better over the season's final three months with Lee than they would have been without him.
This trade may be a winner for Texas off the field as well. With G.M. Jon Daniels's financial hands tied by an imminent sale of the franchise that must be approved by a bankruptcy court, he has little room to add payroll this season. But Seattle sent Texas more than $2 million to offset about half of Lee's remaining 2010 salary. Plus, Lee could become a revenue source. The Rangers sold more than 14,000 extra tickets to the lefty's debut; eight home starts with that kind of impact could add a couple million dollars to the team's coffers. A postseason berth, of course, would bring millions more.
For the Mariners, trading Lee is the latest dip in a roller-coaster ride that began in 2007, when an overachieving bullpen helped the team to an 88--74 record and created outsized expectations for '08. That team stumbled to 101 losses, however, and a new front office, led by G.M. Jack Zduriencik, garnered a lot of attention for building a team around defense. After 2009 again produced a fringe contender, this year's team has been undone by one of the worst offenses in the game. The acquisition of Smoak, 23, who is projected as a middle-of-the-order hitter and has been compared favorably with Mark Teixeira, is intended to address that problem. It's not without risk though: The switch-hitting Smoak, who hit .209 with eight homers in 70 games for Texas this season, has yet to be productive above Double A and has shown a disturbing lack of ability from the right side of the plate. The Mariners passed on Yankees √ºberprospect Jesus Montero, a slugging catcher who is three years younger than Smoak, to make this deal. If they got it wrong, it will haunt Seattle for years.
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Ex--big leaguer Morgan Ensberg gives a players' take on the news at SI.com/mlb
Next In Line
With Cliff Lee off the market, Astros righty Roy Oswalt(below) is now the top trade target for teams in need of pitching. Oswalt is 6--10 but is having his best season since 2007. His ERA (3.08) would be his lowest in five seasons, his strikeout rate (8.4 K/9) would be his best in a decade, and he seems to be over the back issues that hampered him in 2009. But unlike Lee, Oswalt has a hefty price tag for 2011 ($16 million) and a full no-trade clause. While he has expressed a willingness to waive the latter, the clause will complicate Houston's efforts to take the kind of rebuilding step that the Mariners took. If trading for Oswalt becomes too difficult, teams needing an upgrade on the mound will look to the Cubs' Ted Lilly, the Indians' Fausto Carmona or the A's Ben Sheets.
TEXAS HEAT By grabbing Lee, the Rangers helped their pennant chances and their bottom line.