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Cliff Lee is pitching like it's 2008 again. He's rarely throwing pitches right over the middle of the plate, and when he is, he is disguising them well.
The bigger question now is whether this will be 2008 all over again for the Indians, when they traded three veterans after a depressing start. It worked very well last year, as the Indians' trades of ace pitcher CC Sabathia plus Casey Blake and Paul Byrd netted them a haul of young prospects and didn't hurt their performance one iota, either (in fact, Cleveland staged a startling second-half turnaround to make it back to the .500 mark). They are in last place after a similarly depressing start, and the speculation regarding another trade of their ace already has begun.
Not so fast, says Indians GM Mark Shapiro. "Every facet of our decision making is about making the team better," Shapiro said by phone. "Obviously, that dynamic could shift ... but at this point, our focus is singular."
The left-handed Lee, who went 22-3 last year in an all-world Cy Young performance, is said not to be worrying about it. And his recent performances would support that. While he's 2-5, he has a 3.00 ERA and is looking like an ace lately with a 1.43 ERA in his last six starts. Speaking of a possible trade, Lee's agent Darek Braunecker said, "It's not something Cliff's given too much consideration to, but he's aware it could happen."
Shapiro certainly succeeded with his 2008 selloff (last year's incredible haul included slugger Matt LaPorta, center fielder Michael Brantley and superb catching prospect Carlos Santana), but there's a great divergence of opinion as to whether he'll try it again. Two competing executive said they wouldn't be surprised if Lee goes in trade, but two other executives said Shapiro will keep Lee. The reasoning of the latter two was the balanced and tight AL Central division, which has no clear favorite. While the Indians are 14-22 even after two straight wins, they only trail the division-leading Tigers, Royals and Twins (yes, it certainly is tight) by 4 1/2 games.
"It's a something of a luxury that nobody has put themselves in position to run away with it," Shapiro said. "That allows us to be a lot more patient with our decision making."
But even in the AL Central, the Indians' bullpen will have to improve for them to compete, and Shapiro is well aware of that. "Horrific," was Shapiro's word to describe his own bullpen. As he pointed out, besides closer Kerry Wood and Rafael Betancourt, all the other relievers are below their career-worst years, much less their career norms. He didn't mince words. "I'm extremely disappointed with our start," Shapiro said.
Another consideration in deciding whether to trade Lee would be the Indians' chances to sign the 30-year-old long term, and the chance for that seems far less than great right now. "Not during the season," Shapiro said. "But a year-and-three-quarters with a player is a lot of time. We're hoping to keep him longer. But if not, that's still a lot of good baseball."
The Indians and Lee apparently understood there was no chance to do a long-term contract last winter, either. Neither side made a single monetary proposal, suggesting both understood that common ground was nowhere to be seen. Lee was coming off a Cy Young season, and that would have meant big bucks for the small-to-mid-market team. Shapiro cited the failing economy for deciding against making Lee an offer last winter. But Shapiro also understands the price tag -- which could be in the range of the $70-80 million received by Roy Oswalt and A.J. Burnett, another Braunecker client -- probably isn't coming down the closer Lee gets to free agency (assuming the $8 million 2010 option is exercised, Lee can be free after the '10 season).
Shapiro, one of the smartest GMs in the game, also knows that Lee is a lot more valuable in trade this summer than he would be a year from now. That lesson was easily seen in the case of Mark Teixeira, when the Braves had to surrender four big-time young players to get him one year, then traded him for only Casey Kotchman a year later.
Most importantly, Shapiro isn't afraid to change course, as he did last year. So the Lee situation is worth keeping an eye on.