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Posted: Wednesday June 17, 2009 1:24PM; Updated: Friday June 19, 2009 11:59AM
Joel Sherman Joel Sherman >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Cleveland can't trade Lee right now (cont.)

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But even Indian officials will tell you that their farm system was in much worse shape at the time of the Colon and Sabathia trades, necessitating the need to deal established players to build up the prospect base. The deals last season involving Sabathia and Casey Blake put the Indians' system in a much more favorable position. Cleveland's strength is in position prospects, such as catcher Carlos Santana (obtained for Blake) and outfielder Matt LaPorta (acquired for Sabathia). And it is likely that the Indians will have to use this positional richness to obtain a top pitching prospect from an arms-rich organization such as the Giants, Rangers or Red Sox at some point in the near future.

And that is why a trade for Lee almost certainly is not going to happen, at least not during this season. Because to move him, several executives concur, the Indians would have to get back an elite pitching prospect that is major league-ready now, such as Atlanta's Tommy Hanson or Boston's Clay Buchholz plus 2-3 other well-regarded prospects. No team is likely going to surrender that much at a time when low-cost/high-level prospects are treasured more than ever.

You can still imagine teams trying to tempt Cleveland, considering that the ace-level pitching trade market seems to worsen by the day. The most available player from this category, San Diego's Jake Peavy, is now possibly out for the rest of the season. Seattle's Erik Bedard missed his last start with shoulder inflammation, and Bedard's injury history mixed with questions about his temperament make him a harder sell. Toronto's Roy Halladay just injured his groin and the Blue Jays have insisted consistently that they will not trade him. Houston owner Drayton McLane has always been just about intransigent on giving up on a season and/or trading his best players, so that makes Roy Oswalt unlikely to go anywhere.

Right now the best-looking starter in the trade market is Brad Penny. So you see how appealing Lee would be by comparison.

However, Indians officials say they have yet to field a serious offer for Lee. And those same officials are saying they want to give the 2009 team a chance, even at a moment when Cleveland (29-38) is challenging for the worst record in the AL. Over the next few weeks, the Indians anticipate five key players returning from the DL -- Sizemore, Rafael Betancourt, Asdrubal Cabrera, Aaron Laffey and Jake Westbrook -- while they continue to hope Carmona can be fixed. If the Rockies won 11 games in a row to regain playoff hopes in the NL, the Indians hope that at full strength they can revive their season with a long stretch of solid play.

And their chances are heightened, to some degree, because of their division. Keep in mind that the Indians have already completed their season series against the Yankees and Rays, and played five of their nine games vs. the Red Sox. Those are arguably the three best teams in the league. The division-leading Tigers still have 14 games against that trio and the White Sox have 19. The Twins have just three, but Minnesota already has played 17 games against the weak West (10-7), while the Indians have played just three, albeit all three losses.

With the chance to get healthier both physically and against a weaker set of opponents, the Indians want more time to try and contend in 2009. They can't do that without Lee, and they almost certainly couldn't contend without him in 2010 either.

If at this time next year, Cleveland is not in contention again then Lee will be more like Sabathia, in his walk year with the risk-averse Indians unwilling to give long-term big money to a pitcher who turns 32 in August 2010. At that moment, the Indians can trade Lee. But between now and then, it would be foolish (and unfair to fans) for the Indians to do anything but keep Lee.

Joel Sherman is a columnist for the New York Post. Read his Hardball blog Monday through Friday here. You can also follow him on Twitter here.

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