Cleveland Indians Retrospect: The Cliff Lee Trade Revisited


The Cliff Lee Trade: Six Years Later

Six years ago today, the Cleveland Indians traded away reigning Cy Young winner Cliff Lee (and reserve outfielder Ben Francisco) to the Philadelphia Phillies for a quartet of minor league prospects.  The 2009 trade marked the end of that 2005-2008 run that saw the Indians finish .500 or better three out of four years and coming one game short of the World Series in 2007.  It also marked the second time in 13 months that the Cleveland Indians traded away a Cy Young winner (C.C. Sabathia traded in July 2008).  So just how has this trade worked out for the Indians, their fans, and all parties involved? 

As per usual, the deal was met with very little fan support. Hard to blame anyone as Cliff Lee still was still under team control for another year thanks to a very reasonable team option.  He had just won the 2008 Cy Young award and was off to another great year.  Yet, on July 29, 2009, the Indians dealt him to the Philadelphia Phillies for four prospects:  RHP Carlos Carrasco, IF Jason Donald, C Lou Marson, and RHP Jason Knapp.  On paper this didn’t seem too bad as Carrasco, Donald, and Marson were all pre-season top five prospects in the Phillies’ system, and Knapp was ranked a midseason top 50 prospect by Baseball America that summer.  However, none were in the big leagues at the time of the deal and there were a trio of prospects more highly rated at the time in the Phillies’ system in Michael Taylor, Domonic Brown, and Kyle Drabek.  Didn’t help knowing that two of those three were dealt less than a year later for Roy Halladay of the Blue Jays…

It also didn’t help fan perception given how well Lee pitched for the Phillies, helping lead them to the World Series before losing to the New York Yankees (who were led by former Indians’ pitcher Sabathia).  Lee was one of the best pitchers in baseball after the trade, and it appeared as though the Indians got very little in return.  In fact, I wrote about this just last year when I ranked the trade as one of the five worst deadline deals in Cleveland Indians’ history, stating the following:

"I wanted to leave this deal out as it still hasn’t been a full-five years since the deal was made, but didn’t think one week would change where this deal ranks.  I have defended this trade for so long now, but trading the previous year’s Cy Young winner needs to net you more than one bullpen arm, which is all the Tribe has really gotten out of this deal.  At least Donald was able to be flipped in the Shin-Soo Choo/Trevor Bauer deal, but Knapp’s injury was bad and Marson never developed to be even a backup catcher (injuries hurt him too, though).  Meanwhile Lee continued to pitch like he had in 2008 and the first half of 2009, and has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since this trade.  The return seemed light at the time, but even worse looking back."

In parts of three seasons with the Indians, Jason Donald hit just .257/.309/.362 in 170 games and 603 plate appearances. He did manage seven HR and 12 stolen bases but was at best an ok utility infielder and was eventually dealt and has yet to appear in the big leagues again while playing in Triple-A for the Reds, Royals, and Rangers.

Lou Marson was given a chance to start for the Indians behind the plate in 2010 but was seen as more of a place holder for mega-prospect Carlos Santana.  He looked at first like he could fill that backup role quite nicely as he could draw a walk and played solid defense, but a shoulder injury eventually forced him out of Cleveland with Yan Gomes taking his spot.  Marson, like Donald, hasn’t appeared in a big league game since leaving Cleveland in 2013.  He’s seen time in Double-A with the Reds the last two years.

Marson, like Donald, just never developed like the Indians hoped. Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jason Knapp was without a doubt the biggest disappointment in the trade. Hailed as a future Ace, he was seemingly hurt from day one after being diagnosed with a shoulder injury a month after being acquired.  He threw exactly 40 innings for the Indians in 2009 and 2010, all at Class-A or lower.  He was released by the Indians in 2012 and has only thrown 32 pro innings since (in 2014 with the Rangers in Advanced-A ball).  The Indians really dropped the ball on this one, and there’s no sugar-coating it.

Then there was the fourth piece in the deal, right-handed starter Carlos Carrasco.  He was at one time the best prospect in the Phillies farm system, rated as a top 50 prospect in all of baseball.  His name was even mentioned the previous summer in Sabathia trade rumors.  While his stock had fallen a bit he still was striking out nearly a batter an inning in Triple-A for the Phillies with a walk rate under three per nine.  His ERA was an ugly 5.18 but a 3.96 FIP showed some promise.  After being acquired in July he pitched well for the Indians in Triple-A, posting a 3.19 ERA, 2.87 FIP, 7.65 K/9, and 1.59 BB/9.  He even made his Major League debut that year though he really struggled in his five starts.  Still, there were signs of optimism in his young arm.

He had a very solid 2010 with the Indians organization as well in both Triple-A and with the big league club.  He made seven starts for the Indians going 2-2 with a 3.83 ERA, 4.13 FIP, and 3.42 xFIP.  This lead the Indians to given him a rotation spot in 2011 and he made 21 starts with a 4.62 ERA, 4.28 FIP, and 4.07 xFIP.  On the surface not too impressive; however, in June of that year he threw 42.2 innings with a 1.90 ERA, 3.26 FIP, and 3.66 xFIP.  It appeared as if the former top prospect was coming into his own as a starter.  But then, disaster struck…

Carrasco struggled in July and eventually landed on the disabled list with a bad elbow. He would undergo Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 2012 season.  So three years after the trade, the Indians had a struggling utility infielder, struggling backup catcher, a hurt starting pitcher, and had cut the key piece to the trade.  Needless to say, the deal looked like a disaster heading into the 2013 season…

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Things didn’t look much better after Carrasco (the lone piece left), struggled in 2013.  He made only seven starts and made eight relief appearances, posting an ugly 6.75 ERA. While his 4.10 FIP and 4.33 xFIP weren’t nearly as bad, he wasn’t striking anyone out and struggling with command.  He entered 2014 out of minor league options and there was real doubt over his future with the organization. After struggling in the rotation in April, he was moved to the bullpen, which not only saved his career, but possibly the Lee deal as a whole.

In the second half of 2015, Carrasco (mostly from the rotation) posted a 1.72 ERA, 1.98 FIP, and 2.25 xFIP while striking out over 10 per nine innings.  Carrasco showed so much promise that the Indians rewarded him with a four-year extension, buying out all three arbitration years and one free agent season.  The deal wasn’t large in terms of money but still was a small leap of faith for the Indians with Carrasco having just half a good year in the rotation.  However, he’s rewarded the Indians faith and then some in 2015.

It took a while, but Carrasco has become the pitcher the Indians always hoped he’d be. Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Corey Kluber has been the Indians Ace and one of the best pitchers in all of baseball this season, but Carlos Carrasco hasn’t been that far behind.  His ERA may be just 4.26 but in 20 starts and 118 innings of work, Carrasco has an amazing 2.90 FIP and 2.73 xFIP.  He’s striking out more than ten batters per nine innings while walking less than two.  He also ranks 10th in the American League in fWAR at 2.7.  In fact, Carrasco ranks in the AL top 10 in FIP (7th), xFIP (5th), K/9 (4th), and GB% (10th).  Carlos Carrasco has arrived and he’s the starting pitcher that every team hopes to get in a big trade such as the Lee one.

So Who “Won” the Trade?

As with any trade, people will always want to know who “won” the trade.  This really isn’t a fair question to ask as there is sometimes never a clear winner and loser.  The Phillies “won” in that they got exactly what they wanted/needed. They got the Ace pitcher to put atop their rotation to help them try and win a title, and while they fell just short the gamble certainly paid off.  And it took a (really) long time, the Indians at least one piece they were hoping for, a young top of the rotation starting pitcher for the future.  Did the Indians “lose” because three of the four players turned out to be flops?  To me the answer to that is no, same as with the Sabathia trade. Sure, you want more than just Brantley or just Carrasco when trading an Ace pitcher, but at the end of the day the Indians traded 1.5 years of Cliff Lee for 4+ years of Carrasco in his prime.  I’m not sure many teams would be upset with that trade.

So as I hinted at in my article last summer, you can’t judge a trade until things have fully played out.  Sure it took over five years, but the Indians made out well enough in the Cliff Lee deal.  They traded one Ace for another.  I call that a “win” for the Cleveland Indians.

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