Saturday, September 20, 2014
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The Cliff Lee Kids: How do they stack up?

Over the last 15 months, 11 minor league prospects have switched organizations in trades for Cliff Lee (oh, OK -- and Mark Lowe and Ben Francisco). At some point I think it would be fun to organize a charity game in which Lee squares off against a team composed entirely of players for whom he was traded for. We could even include Bartolo Colon, who was traded for Lee (and Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore) way back when the lefty was a prospect in the Expos system.

The Cliff Lee Kids: How do they stack up?

Cliff Lee was traded twice last season. Who got the best deal? (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Cliff Lee was traded twice last season. Who got the best deal? (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

Over the last 15 months, 11 minor league prospects have switched organizations in trades for Cliff Lee (oh, OK -- and Mark Lowe and Ben Francisco). At some point I think it would be fun to organize a charity game in which Lee squares off against a team composed entirely of players for whom he was traded for. We could even include Bartolo Colon, who was traded for Lee (and Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore) way back when the lefty was a prospect in the Expos system.

Judging by those prospects' recent history, Lee wouldn't have much trouble.

Five of the 11 prospects were part of Baseball America's Top 100 list at the start of the 2009 season, Lee's last in Cleveland. This year, though, none of the 11 made the cut (one -- first baseman Justin Smoak -- was not eligible).

All of this is on my mind for a couple of reasons:

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1) Lee makes his Grapefruit League debut today against the Tigers at Bright House Field. It is sure to be a banner day, with Lee pitching his two innings in about five minutes before turning the game over to a bunch of guys who won't be the focal point of a Phillies marketing campaign any time soon.

2) I read this article by Baseball America's Jim Callis, who discusses 20-year-old righthander Jason Knapp, who was part of the four prospect package the Phillies dealt to the Indians in the original Lee trade in July of 2009. Knapp was a prospect who the Phillies were reluctant to part with. He's battled a shoulder injury since the deal -- in fact, he battled it in Philadelphia before the deal -- but still has big upside.

So I got to thinking: How do the three batches of prospects acquired in exchange for Lee compare to each other at this juncture?

Here's the run-down:

Indians

Carlos Carrasco, RHP: Carrasco, who turns 24 on March 21, started seven games for the Tribe last season, going 2-2 with a 3.87 ERA. His peripherals were mostly solid -- 7.7 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9 -- and he averaged better than six innings per start. Although his stock was trending downward at the time of the trade, Carrasco was the Phillies' top pitching prospect for a couple of seasons. He was 6-9 with a 5.18 ERA in 20 starts at Lehigh Valley in 2009 before the deal and struggled in five starts for the Indians at the end of that season (8.87 ERA). But he went 10-6 with a 3.65 ERA, 8.0 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 and 1.0 HR/9 for Triple-A Columbus last year before getting the call-up.

Jason Donald, UTIL: A lot of people projected Donald as little more than a career utility man with a little bit of pop in his bat. His numbers with the Indians last season are in line with that assertion. He hit .253/.312/.378 with four home runs and five steals in 325 plate appearances while playing 41 games at second base and 47 games at short stop. But Donald is a gamer, someone who has always gotten the most out of his athletic talent, and I'm interested to see what he does in 2011. This year, Donald is competing for a job as the Indians regular third baseman. Last year, he hit .286 with an .833 OPS against lefties.

Lou Marson, C: There were a lot of doubts, particularly defensively, about whether Marson would ever develop into a regular catcher. He hit .314 with an .849 OPS at Double-A Reading in 2008, but his offense has dropped off since. He started last year as the Indians regular catcher before being replaced by top prospect Carlos Santana. Marson finished the year hitting .195/.274/.286 in 294 plate appearances.

Jason Knapp, RHP: The one player with the highest upside in the deal was considered to be Knapp, and the Phillies were reluctant to part with him. Only 18 years old at the time, he had a huge arm and the previous season had struck out 38 in 31 innings in the Gulf Coast League. But Knapp had been in affiliated ball for only one calendar year, and might have been five years or more away from being major league ready. Plus, he'd had shoulder trouble that would eventually require arthroscopic surgery.

Still, Knapp still has the makings of an elite prospect, provided he can stay healthy.

Cleveland took some considerable heat for the package of prospects it landed from the Phillies. Although all four players were on BA's Top 100 list at the start of the 2009 season, none of them was considered a blue-chipper, something the Indians should have been in line to receive given the fact that Lee was under club control at a relatively affordable salary for the next year-and-a-half.

But this deal still has the potential to pay dividends for the Indians. If Carrasco can put together a season with numbers like he posted in his brief appearance with the big league club last season, and if Knapp can fulfil his potential, the Indians could end up getting more talent out of their Lee deal than the Phillies or the Mariners did. Big ifs, of course.

Mariners

Justin Smoak, 1B: Of the 11 prospects acquired for Lee, Smoak had the highest profile at the time of the deal. The 24-year-old first baseman was the centerpiece of this trade, the 13th-best prospect in baseball according to Baseball America. This would have been the equivalent of the Phillies including Domonic Brown in the Roy Oswalt deal. Smoak, who posted a .902 with nine home runs in 225 plate appearances at Triple-A last season, has struggled during his limited experience in the big leagues. In 100 games with the Rangers in Mariners in 2010, he hit .218/.307/.371 with 13 home runs and 91 strikeouts in 348 at-bats.

RHP Josh Lueke, RHP: He left the Mariners with a bit of a black eye, since he had pleaded no contest to a sexual assault charge that occurred in 2008 when he was still with the Rangers. You can read all about that story here. Essentially, the Mariners claimed they were unaware of the severity of the situation, even though a quick Google search would have clued them in. Lueke happens to be a reliever who throws in the mid-90's. Last year, he saved 17 games with a 1.86 ERA, 13.4 K/9, 2.1 BB/9 and 0.3 HR/9 in the minors. The Mariners think he projects as a back-of-the-bullpen piece.

RHP Blake Brennan, RHP: Isn't expected to be anything more than a fifth starter. Went 14-8 with a 3.90 ERA, 5.4 K/9, 1.1 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9 at Double and Triple-A last year.

Matt Lawson, 2B/OF: Not considered a major prospect. Hit .293/.372/.439 with nien home runs in 527 plate appearances at Double-A last season.

Between Smoak and Lueke, the Mariners have the potential of yielding a premium power piece and premium bullpen arm out of the deal.

Phillies

Phillippe Aumont, RHP: Aumont's struggled were well-documented last season. He began the year as a starter at Double-A Reading, but was sent back to high-A Clearwater after going 1-6 with a 7.43 ERA, 6.9 K/9 and 6.9 BB/9 in 11 starts. He pitcheda little better in the Florida State League (4.48 ERA, 9.6 K/9, 5.2 BB/9), but remains a big question mark. The Phillies have converted him back to a reliever. He is only 22 years old. But he needs to find his curveball and his command before re-establishing himself as a significant prospect.

Tyson Gillies, CF: The 22-year-old speedster oozes athleticism, but last year was a lost year for him as he battled both hamstring injuries and a felony cocaine charge that was ultimately dropped. Gillies appeared in just 28 games, hitting .243 with a .302 on base percentage and .336 slugging percentage. In 2009, he hit .341/.430/.486 and stole 44 bases for the Mariners' high-A affiliate. This is a big year for Gillies.

J.C. Ramirez, RHP: The big-bodied righty might have the best chance to validate the Lee trade. He has the ideal frame for a power pitcher with a fastball in the mid-90's. He was solid in 11 starts for Clearwater last season, going 4-3 with a 4.06 ERA 7.7 K/9, 2.4 BB/9 and 0.3 HR/9. After a promotion to Double-A Reading, he went 3-4 wtih a 5.45 ERA, 7.0 K/0, 2.8 BB/9 and 1.3 HR/9. He then had offseason hip surgery. Ramirez has a lot of potential, but he'll need to develop in a hurry: Only 22 years old, he is already on the 40-man roster and in his first option year. Like most young pitchers, his future will hinge on whether he can develop his change-up and slider, both of which are still raw.


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David Murphy Daily News Staff Writer
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