Cliff Lee made headlines today for his comments to Jim Salisbury when asked “You came here to win. How tough is it to be here on a team that’s spinning its wheels around .500 and has a real uphill road?“:
The past year and a half hasn’t gone the way I anticipated, but that’s why you play the games. You never know. I don’t think anyone here is happy with the way we’ve played over that time frame. It’s due to a lot of injuries. There’s some good excuses. But they’re still excuses. We’re the Philadelphia Phillies. We should play better than we have. There’s not a good excuse for it, but we have had a lot of key guys injured, so it is what it is.
Salisbury then joined 97.5 The Fanatic today and said the following, fueling more trade speculation.
Salisbury: If [Cliff Lee] didn’t have a wandering eye he would’ve said, “Yeah, I’m absolutely committed to this team.”
— 975TheFanatic (@975TheFanatic) June 14, 2013
The truth is, the Phillies will get some tantalizing offers for Lee and there will come a point in time where they will have to decide if what they’re being offered is fair market value. But as we found out with both of the Cliff Lee trades involving the Phillies before, there really isn’t a blue print for trading a player like Lee.
Below is an unscientific sample of notable pitchers who have been traded close to or during the primes of their careers. I say unscientific because my method of collecting names to research essentially boiled down to me typing “very good starting pitchers who were traded” into Google and seeing what happened. I did cap the results at the 2009 deadline because for the purposes of this exercise, fWAR is cumulative and an awesome young player or budding star, for instance Oakland A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson, may be on the road to success but just hasn’t had the time to accumulate fWAR.
Some of the transactions will surprise you – for instance, did you realize that the Phillies have accumulated less fWAR than the Indians for the first Indians trade? Granted, very few will dispute that Lee’s championing of the rotation to the 2009 World Series was anything less than a win for the Phillies but it’s interesting to note that the Indians did get some value for Lee.
Numbers in GREEN backing indicate that the team acquiring the starter came out on top of the deal while numbers backed in RED indicate that team acquiring the young talent got the better end of the deal. There were ten wins for the team acquiring the very good starter while there were nine for the team trading the very good starter but the average margin was very different (10.63 for the acquirers, 33.62 for the traders) and the net win came for the team trading the starting pitcher. Notice: trades were limited, for the most part, to trades where one or more players was traded for just one notable starting pitcher. Some exceptions were made to fill out the data set.
See graph below – click to enlarge:
Only three out of the nine “losers” who acquired the notable pitchers acquired pitchers under 30
Aside from the 2009 Lee trade, the last time the team acquiring a very good starter near the prime of his career “lost” the deal was 2002, when Lee was traded from the Expos to the Indians
The only real, surefire way to “lose” when acquiring a very good starting pitcher is to not re-sign them after you acquire them or purposefully trade them again. Randy Johnson won four straight Cy Youngs with the Diamondbacks after the Astros let him walk while Lee and Loaiza were traded again.
Or… you could have the pitcher do that pesky thing called “retire”. Larry Jackson had two fine years with the Phillies after being traded for Fergie Jenkins but decided to retire after 1968. Doyle Alexander went 9-0 down the stretch in 1987 for the Tigers, taking them to the ALCS before retiring following the 1989 season.
Seeing this data, Lee is signed through 2015 with a vesting option for 2016. The team trading for Lee wouldn’t face the issue that the 1998 Astros or 2002 Expos faced but could face the issue the 1968 Phillies or 1989 Tigers did.
Most of the “hauls” you hear of for starting pitchers have been pre-1968. They really haven’t happened in a while. Then again, Jean Segura (3 WAR with Brewers in 2012-2013) is trying to start the trend in the reverse direction and ignore that whole “too early to tell” thing. There’s also Travis D’Arnaud, who would be featured in two conversations when the time is right, and others who could tip this thing in a completely different direction. The closest thing to a pattern in this data is that you are unlikely to strike it rich with a blue chipper any more in the year 2013, or at least more unlikely than you were 15-20 years earlier.