The baseball trading season is upon us and, as expected, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik began the roster reconstruction of his woeful team over the weekend with the first of many moves.
What wasn’t expected is Zduriencik’s apparent insistence that the last-place Mariners are not a lost cause. By shipping off two minor-league prospects to Cleveland for 34-year-old former Seattle first baseman Russell Branyan – the same Russell Branyan who, at the age of 33, sat out last September with a bad back – Zduriencik is in conflict with conventional wisdom.
According to conventional wisdom, teams that are 31-44 on the last Monday of June should be stocking up on minor-league prospects, not exchanging them for 34-year-old veterans with a history of back problems.
But Zduriencik’s seemingly stubborn reluctance to embrace a youth movement can be explained. For one, the prospects were not projected to be prominent in the Mariners’ future. Center fielder Ezequiel Carrera won the batting championship of the Double-A Southern League in 2009, but the Mariners are settled in center field with Franklin Gutierrez, and Carrera’s lack of power makes him a poor fit for either of the outfield corner positions. Shortstop Juan Diaz, meanwhile, is in his fourth pro season, and hasn’t progressed beyond Single-A. In other words, the re-acquisition of Branyan cost practically nothing.
If he hits a few bombs that help the Mariners win – or, heck, at least score some runs to make their losses less yawn-inducing – the trade works. And if he does nothing but swing hard and miss, at least we’ll be spared from watching the alternative at first base, Casey Kotchman, jog back to the dugout after another routine ground ball to the right side of the infield.
But my sense – my hope – is that Zduriencik is just warming up his arm before waving the white flag.
Starting pitcher Cliff Lee has the ability to turn a fringe contender into a playoff team, and a playoff team into a World Series favorite. With a league-leading four complete games and league-leading 2.39 ERA, with a ridiculously efficient strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 76-4, the left-hander never will have better trade value for the Mariners than he’s got right now.
Lee takes the mound at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday. After that, his starting schedule pencils out like this: At Detroit on July 4; the Yankees at home on July 9; at Anaheim on July 16; at home against the White Sox on July 21; at the White Sox on July 26; at Minnesota on July 31. Then again, an All-Star Game appearance could alter that itinerary, and put a home game against the Red Sox into the equation.
When Lee is on – and he’s been on so often, it’s a struggle to recall the last time he was off – he can shut down anybody, anywhere. But he’s looking at a month’s worth of playoff-caliber competition, with two starts against the Yankees.
I know, Lee was 2-0 against them last year in the World Series. But between now and the July 31 trading deadline, there’s no way his remarkable statistics can be improved upon.
Which is to say: If there’s a such a thing as a perfect day to trade Cliff Lee, that day is today.
Zduriencik and his braintrust don’t share the same sense of desperation about Lee’s market value.
As Tony Blengino, the Mariners’ special assistant to the GM, told 710-AM’s Matt Pittman on Sunday: “We’re in a position of strength … We’re perfectly content to keep him.”
Some of that is poker-table posturing: If, say, the Twins sense Zduriencik wants to deal Lee sooner than later, they’ll be disinclined to add another prospect or two into trade talks reportedly built around the Mariners acquisition of minor-league catcher Wilson Ramos and left-handed pitcher Brian Duensing.
Still, it’s not illogical to suspect the Mariners really are content to keep Lee, a free agent whose anticipated departure from Seattle would be worth an extra 2011 draft pick in the first round and another compensatory draft pick preceding the second round.
Holding onto Lee for the entirety of this hopeless, joyless season can gain the Mariners some respect on the public-relations front, I suppose, but only those whose bulbs are dim would see it as a courageous refusal to lose. As for the extra draft picks, they’re draft picks: Many of them eventually advance to the big leagues, few of them advance to the big-league team that scouts and signs them.
Thanks to Lee, the Mariners have an opportunity to bulk up an anemic offense that’s become the laughingstock of the sport.
Over a telephone conversation, Zduriencik is in a position to ply at least one major-league-ready hitter from the Twins, or Rangers, or Mets, or Dodgers, or White Sox. In addition to the major-league-ready hitter, Zduriencik can demand a lefty for the bullpen, and some low-farm prospects more accurately defined as projects.
Make it happen, Jack. Make it happen today. I realize that when the conversation turns to Lee, you’re in a position of strength.
You’re also in a position of fourth, in a four-team division, with no chance of progressing until you acquire a 22-year-old with a better bat, and a better back, than Russell Branyan.