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Is Cliff Lee the answer for the Pirates?


Tonight the Pirates open the post-All-Star game second half with their best opportunity to make the playoffs in 20 years. At this point a winning season is a foregone conclusion. According to Baseball Prospectus, only the Cardinals, at 97.7%, have better odds of being playoff-bound than the Pirates, who are projected to win 91-92 games. This suggests the Bucs don’t need to do anything at the end-of-the-month trade deadline to significantly enhance their chances of playing meaningful fall ball. But that certainly doesn’t mean they won’t.

The past two years we’ve seen Neal Huntington follow different strategies at the deadline. In 2011 he went the rental route and acquired Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick while giving up virtually nothing. Lee was excellent when he wasn’t injured, but the team folded down the stretch and both players became free agents at the end of the season.

In 2012 Huntington leveraged his minor league system to acquire Wandy Rodriguez from Houston and Gaby Sanchez from Miami, surprising many by including a compensatory draft pick in the Sanchez deal. He also moved two players off his 25-man roster in order to acquire Travis Snider and Chad Qualls. While it again appears Huntington got the best of those deals, they did not stem another late-season collapse and Huntington himself expressed some concern that the deals disrupted the team chemistry. (I find this ludicrous. Rather, I think it is a way for Huntington to shoulder some of the blame for a second late-season collapse.)

So what route will Trader Neal follow in 2013? The organization has shown a varied playbook with a willingness to take on salary and to move prospects. Generally I agree with Tim that this team doesn’t need a major upgrade. They now have the pieces in place to not only compete this year, but to be competitive for at least the next few years. The top two talents in the system, outfielder Gregory Polanco and pitcher Jamison Taillon, could be integral parts of the 25-man roster as soon as next year.

So what should the Bucs do? The conventional wisdom suggests looking for a rental upgrade like Justin Morneau at the cost of a C-level prospect and fortifying the roster when it expands September 1. Morneau or another 1B/RF bat at the cost of a mid-level prospect would certainly improve this club without impacting the long-term goals. The idea that the team is currently looking for bullpen arms seems off-base with a seven solid arms in place and Vic Black, Duke Welker, Ryan Reid and Jared Hughes available to join in six weeks.

That leaves starting pitching. The Pirates will open the second half with a rotation of Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole. Three-fifths of the season-opening rotation is out of the picture with Wandy Rodriguez shut down, James McDonald on the 60-DL and Jonathan Sanchez out of the organization. (I don’t expect Rodriguez back this season.) Nonetheless, the Pirates' starting pitching depth has been the key to the first half success and with Jeanmar Gomez in the bullpen and Brandon Cumpton in AAA the Bucs would appear to have enough pitching to get through the final 69 games.

Trade speculation will run rampant for the next two weeks and rest assured the Pirates will be tied to virtually every name in the market. Last year the most-discussed idea was acquiring Justin Upton for a package including Starling Marte. This year the early target was Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins.

Last night on ESPN Insider, Dan Szymborski, the creator of ZiPS, suggested the Pirates deal for Phillies ace Cliff Lee. Dan wasn’t the first to suggest the Bucs pursue Lee. Dave Schoenfield suggested in early July that a couple of teams not normally linked to such high-profile deals, including the Pirates, should pursue Lee. In Szymborski’s deal the Pirates would trade SS Alen Hanson, pitcher Luis Heredia and second baseman Dilson Herrera for Lee. I was intrigued, mentioned the deal on Twitter while suggesting it would never happen, and then went to bed. No visions of Lee in black and gold dancing in my head.

Now I can’t stop thinking this is exactly the deal the Pirates should make. The obvious red flag is money. Lee would be due about $8 million for the balance of this year, $25 million in 2014 and 2015 and potentially $27.5 million in 2016. This is usually where the story ends, and with good reason. The Pirates can’t afford that. Throw in Lee’s 20-team no-trade clause and the fantasy-trade bubble is fully punctured. We go back to discussing the merits of the Alex Rioses and Nate Schierholtzes of the world.

But here's the rub. Starting next season the new national television contracts kick-in and every single team will receive double the dollars it currently receives from the national-rights holders. Want to take a guess what the number is? Yep, $25 million. Rather than a $25 million check, the Pirates will get $50 million. The incremental dollars go straight to the bottom line.

All of a sudden the Cliff Lee deal becomes a lot more interesting.

Let’s look at it from a baseball perspective. The 34-year old Lee is 10-3 with a 2.86 ERA in 19 starts this year. He’s averaging 7.1 innings/start and he’s made at least 28 starts every year but one since 2004. He has 125 strikeouts and 21 walks in 138.1 innings and a WHIP below 1.000. He’s one of the 5-10 best pitchers in baseball.

With the Pirates looking at a playoff-scenario that could well include a one game play-in game, the Bucs would have their ace to take the ball while at the same time be able to come back with Liriano, Burnett, etc. if they were to move on to a best-of-seven series. At that point, it’s a roll of the dice and the Bucs become legitimate World Series contenders, if not favorites.

After the season the Pirates then have the option of trading Lee or, with the real possibility that neither Burnett nor Rodriguez will be back next year, having Lee front a rotation that would include Liriano, Locke, Morton and Cole. Not a bad option.

As of today it isn’t clear that Cliff Lee is on the market or that he would accept a trade to the Pirates, so as with most trade-speculation, the odds of this actually happening are remote. Having said that, if the Phillies struggle out of the break and Ruben Amaro, Jr. decides a full rebuild is in order, Bob Nutting and Neal Huntington need to sit down and think this through. The $25 million check makes this deal eminently feasible. It would improve the Bucs' chances at a 2013 playoff berth while providing an ace for the next two years. The cost in prospects is steep, but affordable.

Cliff Lee in black and gold? Maybe it isn’t as preposterous as it sounds.