With Lee, Rangers control destiny
Trade for proven postseason pitcher gives Texas chance to win
The Texas Rangers were already front-runners in the American League West, but they were taking nothing for granted. They just made the one acquisition that should secure a place for them in the 2010 postseason.
The Rangers obtained lefty ace Cliff Lee and righty Mark Lowe from the Seattle Mariners on Friday for four players, most prominent among them first baseman Justin Smoak, the Rangers' first-round Draft choice in '08, and pitcher Blake Beavan, the Rangers' first-round Draft choice in '07.
Smoak has struggled at the big league level this season, while Beavan is having a successful year at Double-A Frisco with a 10-5 record and a 2.78 ERA. With reliever Josh Lueke and second baseman/outfielder Matt Lawson also being sent to Seattle, the Rangers have given up substantial young talent in this deal, but the return should be invaluable: a postseason berth.
Lee's value in this regard is beyond dispute. He is 8-3 with a 2.34 ERA in 13 starts for the Mariners this season. But that's just the most recent history.
Lee's been at the top of the pitching world for some time, starting with a magnificent 22-3 Cy Young Award season for Cleveland in '08. In '09, traded to the Phillies, he became a postseason star, putting up a 4-0 record and a 1.56 ERA in five starts. The only two games the New York Yankees lost in the '09 World Series were games started and won by Lee.
The Rangers' current position -- a 5 1/2-game lead in the AL West going into the weekend -- is no fluke. They are third in the AL in runs scored, and fourth in ERA. Those kinds of numbers suggest a first-place team. Take those numbers and add Lee every fifth game, and that combination seems to demand first place.
The Angels have dominated this division with five titles in the past six seasons. But they haven't put together the kind of long stretches of terrific play this year that have characterized their recent seasons. The Mariners were a popular preseason favorite due to their offseason moves, including, ironically now, the acquisition of Lee. But their offense is the AL's worst in run scoring. This trade is their concession speech for the '10 season, although it could also be of considerable help to them in the future. The Mariners have grasped the reality of their '10 situation and are wisely turning to the future. The Athletics remain a work in progress.
The Angels could approach their previous form and have a much better second half, but with the addition of Lee, the Rangers become much more difficult to catch.
The Rangers are doing what top-shelf organizations without tons of money to spend must do: They have formed a solid base of talent through their own scouting and player development, putting together a talent-rich Minor League system. And then, selected, crucial acquisitions can be made. In this case, the crucial acquisition is Lee, the pitcher who could put this team over the top.
Will he be simply a rental for the remainder of this season? Even if he is and the Rangers make the postseason, so what? The Phillies traded Lee, while acquiring Roy Halladay in a separate deal, because they thought re-signing Lee would be a very expensive proposition. He's underpaid now by contemporary standards, and he'll be looking to cash in on his next contract. If the Rangers are outbid on Lee by a mega-market team after this season, that would be the way of the contemporary baseball world. But it wouldn't be a lost cause if Lee helped the Rangers get to the postseason.
This is a deal reminiscent of Milwaukee's trade with Cleveland in '08: young talent for CC Sabathia. Sabathia had a tremendous second half and brought the Brewers back to the postseason for the first time in 26 years. The Yankees outbid the Brewers and the rest of baseball for Sabathia's free-agent services after that season, but the deal was still a successful one for Milwaukee, based on reaching the postseason.
And that's the bonus of the Lee trade for the Rangers. Given good health, he'll make roughly 15 starts over the rest of the regular season, and his recent record says that the vast majority of those starts will result in Rangers victories. But beyond that, he should give them a postseason presence on the mound that few other teams have.
The Rangers have taken the right step here, the necessary step that should turn a highly promising first half into an ultimately successful second half. They were already in the driver's seat in the AL West, but they didn't stand still. They added the one component that is always essential, a top-of-the-rotation starter, a man of proven worth in big games and the postseason.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.