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Posted: Friday December 18, 2009 1:51PM; Updated: Friday December 18, 2009 3:22PM
Tim Marchman
Tim Marchman>INSIDE BASEBALL

Reviewing the week's Hot Stove

Story Highlights

Seattle Mariners didn't gain as much as thought by adding Cliff Lee

Getting Curtis Granderson was a great move by the New York Yankees

Signing Jason Kendall is latest example of Kansas City Royals' ineptitude

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Cliff Lee
Acquiring Cliff Lee from the Phillies was the latest shrewd move by Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik.
John Iacono/Sports Illustrated

How can a three-team trade involving two of the five best pitchers in baseball leave so many questions about who won and who lost? It's a mystery, but Philadelphia, Seattle and Toronto managed it this week in the most convoluted and entertaining trade of the decade.

Philadelphia traded several good prospects to Toronto for Roy Halladay, baseball's preeminent ace, whom they signed to a new contract. But then they traded resident ace Cliff Lee to Seattle for several much less impressive prospects. The Philliles are better in that they will have Halladay for the whole year to replace two months' worth of tremendous pitching from Lee. Yet they are can't be considered winners when they traded Lee for little in return. Considering too that he has a $9 million contract for this year and that the Blue Jays sent $6 million along with Halladay and that the club is coming off two straight National League pennants with their attendant revenues, it's hard to think something couldn't have been worked out to keep Lee. At worst they could have held out for a better offer. When you trade off an ace for nearly nothing, you lose the deal.

Toronto isn't a better team for the trade. In exchange for Halladay, they received pitcher Kyle Drabek, catcher Travis d'Arnaud and outfielder Michael Taylor (whom they traded to Oakland for third baseman Brett Wallace). That's a respectable return for the second-best pitcher in team history, but odds are that only one of their new young players will ever do anything really impressive in the majors, and Halladay is irreplaceable.

Seattle is better for the trade, but not as much as one might think. Compared to where they were before they dealt for Lee, they're a vastly more impressive team; compared to 2009, they really aren't. After all, the Mariners got 216 innings and a 2.71 earned run average from departed starters Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn this year. That's about they can expect out of Lee. Like their recent signing of Chone Figgins to replace Adrian Beltre, this deal keeps them from losing ground, but doesn't help them make any up.

The real winner is Jack Zduriencik, Seattle's general manager. Coming off a brilliant run in Milwaukee, whereas scouting director he built the farm system that brought that town its first playoffs in a quarter century, he's turned a depressingly lousy team into one of the more dangerous in just a year. His shrewd appraisal of defense and fine eye for talent ranging from managers to center fielders is earning a reputation as an operator to rate with any in the game, and he deserves it.

*****

One way a good reputation is useful is in discouraging questions and doubts. Boston general manager Theo Epstein, for example, is generally considered especially smart, and so his moves are usually thought of as especially good, even when they aren't. (Of course, they often are.)

The Red Sox signed starter John Lackey for five years and $82.5 million this week, and outfielder Mike Cameron for two years and $15.5 million. The second is the kind that earned Epstein his reputation. The first, though, is mainly gloss.

Lackey is very good, but not great. He doesn't have great velocity, or great control, or one great pitch that keeps hitters from getting the ball in the air, or any one thing about his game that seems likely to hold up well against the slow wear of age. Whether or not Boston's medical staff is concerned about it, he's averaged just 170 innings the past two years, and his strikeout rate has dropped four years running. Lackey is 31, and recent pitchers with similar workloads, adjusted ERAs and strikeout rates through age 30 include Bartolo Colon, Kevin Millwood, Freddy Garcia and Wilson Alvarez.

There are lots of justifications for the move, the most compelling two being that Boston has lots of money and plays in such a tough division that they can get more return on a dollar spent improving their club than anyone else can. Also, his flaws are priced into the contract: He may be a high-end number two starter and not an ace, but going by the precedent of A.J. Burnett, who signed the same contract last year with the Yankees, that's how he's being paid. Still, there is a lot to be wary of with Lackey, and one would expect a team that generally declines to sign five-year contracts to be a lot warier.

The Cameron deal is much better, and not just because so much less money is involved. One of the least appreciated players of his generation, Cameron is good for 60 hits and 70 walks every year, which more than makes up for a poor batting average. Add in good outfield play -- according to UZR and John Dewan's Plus/Minus, the best of the fancy defensive statistics, he's averaged five runs saved over the last three years -- and he is to seemingly departed left fielder Jason Bay what Bay was to Manny Ramirez: more a thrifty man's version than a poor man's.

As with Lackey there are reasons for concern: Cameron is about to turn 37, and the list of regulars who have stayed productive at that age with anything near his strikeout rate is extremely short. You shouldn't be surprised if the team is shopping for an outfielder in June. Despite that, this is the kind of shrewd signing that allows the Red Sox to take the occasional calculated risk with a player like Lackey.

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