Cliff Lee deal shows that acquiring prospects in trades is risky

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cliff Lee's trades to the Phillies and then to Seattle involved seven prospects, none of whom is in the majors.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cliff Lee's trades to the Phillies and then to Seattle involved seven prospects, none of whom is in the majors.
Posted: May 01, 2013

CLIFF LEE will pitch in Cleveland for the first time as an opponent tomorrow, facing the team he won his one and only Cy Young award with, in 2008.

Meanwhile, the four players the Phillies surrendered to acquire him midway through the 2009 season - the "big price" - will not be participating in the game, or any other major league game this week.

Carlos Carrasco, currently pitching in Triple A and facing a five-game suspension for a beaning incident when and if he returns to the majors, has a 10-16 career record with a 5.16 earned run average. Lou Marson, the Indians' backup catcher, went on the disabled list for the second time this past weekend with a bum shoulder. Infielder Jason Donald, an Olympic teammate of Marson in 2008, is now a Reds farmhand. Pitcher Jason Knapp is out of baseball.

The 2009 Lee trade was the Indians' second blockbuster in a calendar year, and the second time they traded away a Cy Young Award winner with the idea of restocking their team with young talent. After coming within a game of the World Series in 2007, the Indians floundered the following year despite Lee's dominance. So CC Sabathia was dealt to the Brewers for four players, including touted prospect Matt LaPorta, also a 2008 Olympian.

LaPorta has bounced between the majors and minors since and is a career .238 hitter. Lefthander Zack Jackson, a former first-round pick acquired in the trade, is currently a Kansas City farmhand. The Indians have lost 93 or more games in three of their last four seasons, and are 10-13 entering tonight's game with the Phillies.

These are just part of a long exhibit of similar cases. And yet each time the Phillies' established and well-paid stars have underperformed over the last few seasons, three themes quickly emerge: fire Charlie, fire Ruben, sell, sell, sell. (OK, technically that's five, but you get my drift.)

Each time, there is an incessant drumbeat by disappointed media and fans to swap their well-paid, established stars for a contending team's best prospects, rebuilding the Phillies into a younger contender quickly. I've been guilty of this as well, but no more. The evidence is overwhelming that it is a ridiculously optimistic premise, and one that is repeatedly proved wrong.

For all the hand-wringing over the years around here of depleting the farm system, the examples of a recently traded prospect excelling somewhere else is small. Kyle Drabek was once an untouchable. Michael Taylor was once an untouchable. Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez have established themselves as excellent major league starters, and yeah, Freddy Garcia was a bust, but the Phillies have hardly been crippled by that deal.

In Wall Street terms, you're trading an underperforming stock for an unknown one. It's akin to playing a specific number and color on the roulette wheel. Yet it's not just fans who see this as sound team building. Media habitually promote the idea, even rate those trade-deadline deals - as if anyone has a clue. In 2009, Domonic Brown was deemed one of the best prospects in the land by Baseball America, a player Ruben Amaro Jr. steadfastly refused to include in a trade for future Hall of Famer Roy Halladay.

The deal fell through, and that's how Marson, Carrasco and Co. became Indians. But say it hadn't. We'd hardly be ruing the deal now, just as we're not ruing the deal made later that year. Drabek, the untouchable who was traded with three other prospects for Halladay that December, is still rehabbing from his second Tommy John surgery. Michael Taylor, once valued nearly as much as Brown, is in his fourth season with Oakland's Triple A team. Travis D'Arnaud is in the Mets' farm system.

Amaro could have made both deals in midsummer of 2009, and the Phillies likely would have beaten the Yankees for a second straight World Series title. His misstep was buying into the anxiety of leaving the cupboard bare, dealing away Lee for Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gilles and J.C. Ramirez before making the deal for Halladay. Four years later, we're still waiting for those players to grow into their potential. And we've lowered our expectations about that potential.

Oh, and by the way, J.A. Happ, traded to acquire Roy Oswalt, was a combined 10-11 with a 4.79 ERA for the Astros and Blue Jays last summer, and is 2-1 with a 3.86 ERA this season. Power-hitting Jonathan Singleton is serving a 50-game suspension for testing positive for marijuana.

For that matter, Phillies 21-year-old catching prospect Tommy Joseph, acquired when Hunter Pence was dealt, has not yet wowed us with his bat or glove as a Triple A player. And the two pitchers acquired in the Shane Victorino trade (can you even name them?) are less impressive.

But should the Phillies fail to plug their dikes and remain a sub-.500 team in late July, I don't expect the evidence to dull the drumbeat. Because every blue moon or so a Ryne Sandberg passes from one organization to another, every now and then the ball lands on the right number and color and a team hits the jackpot. But that's less about being smart than it is about being lucky.


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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