In baseball, teams generally turn over gradually through attrition, free agency, and trade, so there's often no clear line of demarcation between eras of a franchise, but this week seems as definitive a boundary as the 2002 Bartolo Colon trade was. In a neat bit of coincidence, Cliff Lee was involved in both the beginning and end of that era. In 2002, Cliff was one of the three then unknown prospects received for who was then one of the best pitchers in baseball. It's taken eight years and a few detours, but now Cliff Lee is one of the elite pitchers in the game, and taking his place are four unknowns that will hopefully be part of the next good Indians team.
In both cases, the Indians did not have to make the trade when they did. Both Colon and Lee were under the club's control for one more season. The comparison does end there. Colon was one of the few bright spots in what was otherwise a sickly roster and barren minor-league system. Bartolo's departure was the first step in a major organizational turnover. The Indians of today have glaring problems, but much better young talent than at the beginning of the last cycle. The roster will not have to be gutted, but the team as is isn't good enough to win in 2010 without external additions, and according to Mark Shapiro at today's press conference, all that ownership was willing to promise was payroll stasis. Kerry Wood was supposed to be the big splash that put the Indians back into contention, but even though he's largely lived up to advance billing, the rest of the pitching staff, whether due to injury or just plain shoddy player evaluation and development, cratered the season.
Now, with the team poised for a significant financial loss and free agency additions out of the question, a tough decision had to be made: keep the core of the team together for one more season and hope for the best, or take a step back and try to regroup a couple years from now? Choosing to stick it out would mean better attendance, and a decent shot at contention, but also that the subsequent rebuilding would be more difficult and painful to execute. Mark Shapiro chose to regroup, and trading Cliff Lee was the first part of that process. In all probability there will be at least one more core player to go, and one would expect a coaching shakeup to happen at season's close. Shapiro might not have been wholly responsible for the 2002 team, but this time he's going to have to clean up his own, slightly smaller, mess.
It follows that if the Indians were going to deal pieces of the core, the best time to do so would be right away. The opportunity would still be there to deal Lee (and Martinez) at the end of this season, but the air of urgency wouldn't be there for their trading partners, and the two trading chips would be less valuable. And yes, I'm assuming Victor Martinez will be traded in next day-and-a-half, for logic would dictate that if you are committed to not competing in 2010, then a player whose contract only runs through 2010 must be traded.
My problem with this trade comes with the execution. The best prospect in the deal is Jason Knapp, an 18-year-old pitcher with great upside and peripherals but at best is 2-to-3 years from reaching the majors. Knapp might be the exclamation point to the building of the next good Indians team, but he won't be its foundation. Carlos Carrasco should contribute right away, but needs to refine his slider. The position players (C Lou Marson and IF Jason Donald), while close to the majors, don't fill obvious holes. Even if you assume Victor Martinez is gone, the Indians still have Kelly Shoppach to bridge the gap between Martinez and Carlos Santana. Marson looks like Kelly Shoppach's evil twin (good on-base skills, but little power), and could complement Shoppach as his backup, but it would make more sense to spin him off to another team who sees in him a potential starter. Jason Donald, if you look at his entire minor-league track record, could supplant or share time with Luis Valbuena at second base in a year or so, but again, the need wasn't pressing. Among the three near-MLB prospects, none of them appear to me as a future core player.
On an emotional level, seeing Cliff dealt is extremely difficult. This was a guy who was at times in his career was overrated, ridiculed, or even forgotten about, and now that he's blossomed into one of baseball's best pitchers, he's moving on. Greatness in an Indians uniform is rarely allowed to linger, and so it is with Cliff Lee.