Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What If? - Twins trade for Cliff Lee in 2010

In July of 2010, the Texas Rangers traded a prospect package highlighted by Justin Smoak for Seattle Mariners ace Cliff Lee.  The trade helped propel an already talented Rangers team to the World Series in 2010.  In the Winter of 2010, Lee surprised everyone by signing a multi-year contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, spurning a reportedly larger offer from the New York Yankees.  Ok, so what?  What does this have to do with our beloved Minnesota Twins?

Well, the Twins were reportedly in on Cliff Lee during the summer of 2010.  No one really knows for sure, but it sounds like the prospect package would have centered around Kyle Gibson and Aaron Hicks, with some lower level prospects potentially added to sweeten the deal.  I remember being very confident that Twins would make this happen.  I thought those prospects were extremely attractive.   The Twins were coming off a decade of relative success, but were languishing through a pretty difficult first half.  Cliff Lee could have changed everything, but it didn't come to fruition.

Without Lee, the Twins surged in the second half of 2010.  They instead decided to bolster the bullpen by trading for Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes.  Their strong second half brought them home field advantage in the divisional series against the Wild Card winner New York Yankees.  In Game 1, Francisco Liriano pitched well through 5 innings, fell apart in the 6th and then watched a seesaw game that ended with a Yankee win.  The Yankees then won the next two games, started by Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing.  The Twins had been swept by the Yankees once more.

The question is, would Lee have helped?  I'm not so sure.  The Twins didn't hit in that series, other than game 1.  Perhaps winning game 1 behind Lee (who was brilliant in the first two rounds of the 2010 playoffs) would have allowed the Twins to find their bats in Game 4 and have Lee ready for Game 5 at Target Field.  That alternative reality might exist, but it is also entirely possible that the bats stayed dormant in Game 4 and the series ends anyway. 

From this point, it is impossible to know how things would have been different.  Texas may not have beat Tampa Bay in the other first round series without Lee.  Or, Texas may have traded for a different stud pitcher and still won.  It is impossible to know.  Lee would have helped the Twins to a Game 1 and Game 5 advantage, but would Liriano, Pavano and/or Duensing have been favored in any of the other games.  Well, it is hard to know considering we cannot even know which team the Twins would have met.  Texas had a better offense than the Twins and Tampa had a better rotation, even with Lee.  It is very likely the Twins would have lost in the ALCS, even if they beat the Yankees in the ALDS.

Odds are, Lee walks after the 2010 season.  The Twins would have gotten a draft pick (number 33 to be exact) and would not have had some of their top prospects.  Knowing what we know about Kyle Gibson now, that impact might not have been felt as immediately.  Hicks floundered in 2011 but has bounced back in 2012.  Gibson looks like he could be in the rotation by the end of 2013.  Who knows which low level prospects would have been included. 

So, I guess my question is, would it have been worth winning that 2010 ALDS and having a chance to get to the World Series, for what looks like a future number 3 or 4 starter and an outfielder with exciting upside?  I would personally take that trade-off every time, as I tend to subscribe to the "World Series or bust" philosophy.  I can see the argument on the other side though.  The Twins need pieces to rebuild after two terrible seasons.  However, I don't think anyone would have thought in 2010 that things would fall apart so spectacularly.

Would Seattle have even been interested in the Twins' package?  Justin Smoak was a better prospect, at that time, than pretty much anyone the Twins had in their system.  He projected as a switch hitter with a swing that would produce power and average.  He also was graded as a good defensive first baseman.  That sounds like Mark Teixeira to me.  Gibson was considered a future MLB starter, but nowhere near that level.  Odds are, the Twins were never really that close to acquiring Lee.

Ok, in a field of uncertainty, one thing is certain:  Trading for Cliff Lee would have been a ton of fun.  The 2010 Twins had a great second half and ended up hosting a playoff series.  With Lee, the team would have been even better.  In addition, Lee was so locked in that year that every game would have been an event.  The excitement leading into the playoffs would have been even greater and when Lee took the mound for Game 1, there would have been an extreme sense of confidence at Target Field.  It is impossible to know how that series would have turned out differently, but the psychological impact with Lee on the mound could have been enough to turn the tides.  We will never know for sure, but it is one of the more interesting What ifs in Twins history.  

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