Assessing the trade market for aces Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt
Seattle Mariners pitcher Cliff Lee is a very attractive trade option for many teams
Houston's Roy Oswalt has a large contract that could limit his market
The Dodgers, Reds and Twins are among teams that could be interested
Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt are very likely to be the two biggest stars among starting pitchers on the block this trading season. Lee, a 31-year-old lefty for the Mariners, and Oswalt, the Astros' 32-year-old righty, are two excellent and accomplished pitchers who are about the same age and carry the potential to be big difference-makers for someone else this season. For this summer at least, they are inextricably linked.
Except for one thing: Lee should have big value while Oswalt just might be worth close to nothing. That's not an insult to Oswalt, just the reality of the economics of the situation.
Lee may be the only one among the two to have won a Cy Young award (in 2008, with Cleveland), but a case could be made that Oswalt actually has put together a slightly better career. He has a sizable edge in wins (141 for Oswalt, 94 for Lee) and somewhat better lifetime ERA (3.23 for Oswalt, 3.91 for Lee) -- though the AL-NL discrepancy probably accounts for the ERA edge -- and while Lee shined in the playoffs with the Phillies in 2009, Oswalt has also had success in October, winning the 2005 NLCS MVP award. However, in a couple of the categories that count most at trade-deadline time -- most prominently money -- Lee has it all over Oswalt, several baseball executives agree. Lee is in the final year of a four-year contract that will pay him $9 million this season while Oswalt is making $15 million this year, $16 million in 2011 and has a $12 million club option for 2012 with a $2 million buyout.
"At the end of the day, I don't think Houston will be able to move the entire (Oswalt) contract and get premium players back,'' sums up one AL executive. That's an opinion that's fairly widely felt, too, based on interviews.
Any team acquiring Lee would only be on the hook for about $4-to-5 million, depending on when a trade is made. Meanwhile, Oswalt comes with about a $30 million commitment. Very few teams have $30 million lying around, and those that do generally don't want to spend it.
But there are a few other less obvious differences between the two pitchers.
"There are (at least) two major factors,'' says the same AL exec. "One, Lee has done it in the American League. Two is the contract. The third factor might be that Lee's done it in the postseason [recently]. With Lee, you get two draft picks (since he's a free agent), you don't have to pay too much, and most important, he's proven he can do it in the American League.''
The contract is the biggest key, though, some others say.
Lee's value is pretty well set, having been traded twice in the past 12 months. In July 2009, the Indians dealt him to the Phillies for four solid-to-good good prospects and last December the Phils sent him to Seattle for three prospects of similar ilk. The value of top-flight prospects is so high now that last year the Red Sox turned down a straight-up offer of Lee-for Clay Buchholz, even before Buchholz raised his worth by being Boston's most consistent starter early this season. But Lee still brought some decent hauls back. Oswalt's value won't be nearly that high, and certainly not if the Astros insist on the acquiring team picking up the remainder of his full $15-million salary for 2010.
Lee's AL pedigree could bring extra teams into the mix, and even a couple richer ones. Take the Yankees for instance. The Yankees aren't necessarily seeking a starting pitcher now as they are understandably pleased with their five-man rotation and likely to become intimately involved in a trade for a top starter only in the event of injury. However, according to people familiar with their thinking, they are said to be so enamored with Lee that they are champing at the bit for next year and plan to put in a call in the coming days just in case they are pleasantly surprised at Seattle's asking price.
Meantime, a source familiar with the Yankees' situation suggests they would react to Oswalt with something akin to a collective yawn. That may be a slight exaggeration, but suffice to say, he isn't even close to their radar at this point, and barring injury, they may not even make more than the most cursory of calls.
There are other factors that could affect these two fine pitchers on the trade market. Lee is pitching a bit better this season (4-3 with a 2.88 ERA) than Oswalt (4-8, 3.23), though Oswalt has to be affected toiling for the awful Astros. But again, performance isn't the main consideration.
Astros owner Drayton McLane has been very reluctant to trade Houston's stars, as exemplified by his somewhat humorous reaction to Oswalt requesting a trade a few weeks ago. McLane told the Houston Chronicle, "I'm going to put my tongue in my cheek and say that Roy's contract includes a no-trade clause, not a trade-me clause."
The no-trade clause in Oswalt's contract shouldn't be discounted as a consideration in his trade chances either. Though Oswalt recently told CBSsports.com's Danny Knobler that he'd consider a trade anywhere, even the American League, these little contract trade stipulations have proven not so little in the past, as evidenced by the few-month delay in the trade of Jake Peavy from the Padres to the White Sox last year. A lot has been said and written about Oswalt's availability and even anxiousness to leave the Astros. But despite his public pleadings, there's no guarantee he's really willing to go somewhere.
Meanwhile Lee's superb rep as a top performer in the AL and also in the postseason, plus his favorable contract make him a candidate to go anywhere.
Here is a summary of the teams that have been mentioned, rumored or otherwise make sense in any Lee or Oswalt derbies, and the potential questions about each:
They've cut their payroll from $120 million to $83 million (not counting deferred monies) over two years, and some wonder if they are saving up for the big score. But more likely, owner Frank McCourt wants to keep saving for his battle for ownership of the team (lawyers' fees are not cheap, especially when you hire legends like Marshall Grossman). GM Ned Colletti has pulled off a few unusual trades in midyear, ones where the trading teams paid the contracts (Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake), but that usually requires giving away a big-time prospect or desperation on the part of the trading team. But since most of the Dodgers top homegrown guys are currently with the squad, it's hard to imagine Colletti can pull this off without getting McCourt to open up his famously sealed wallet. Oswalt seems completely out of their reach financially, and there's question whether they have enough high-level prospects to get Lee.
Offense is their current problem, but Oswalt seems like a logical fit for a team that says they seek a starter and would seem to appeal to a small-town guy like Oswalt. It's hard to imagine them laying out $30 million, not with $200-million-plus needed to be set aside to retain Albert Pujols, who can become a free agent after 2011. As with everyone else, Lee's dollars work better.
They've been mentioned as a possibility, but their starting pitching is already very strong. And as one competing executive points out, "They don't spend at midseason, that's just not their style.'' So while Oswalt probably wouldn't mind an switch from Houston to Atlanta, he would seem to be an unlikely fit.
Admirably, they've already built their payroll to $95 million and revenues are up. Oswalt or Lee could be the leader of a young and solid rotation that lacks a true ace.
After a slow start, the Mets have rallied lately by winning eight of nine and suddenly look like a threat now -- a threat that could use one more proven starter to go with Johan Santana and the emerging Mike Pelfrey. But they didn't want to spend the extra money for free agents Joel Pineiro or Bengie Molina in the offseason. As with many others, Lee would be preferred. Their prospects are better than first thought, but would they give them up?
The bankrupted team would appear to be a poor fit for a player with $30 million remaining on his pact. So a move across state seems like along shot for Oswalt. Lee's money could be workable, though.
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