What Went Wrong: The Cliff Lee Non-Trade

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I imagine the scene would have been different had Lee been a Yankee (Eric Gay/AP)

They couldn’t have known it would happen at the time, but they had to know it was a possibility. When the Yankees found out that Seattle would send Cliff Lee to Texas rather than New York, the thought of facing Lee in the playoffs had to cross their minds. By that point, though, it was too late. The process was already far enough along that we could have called it a done deal. Cliff Lee was heading to Arlington, while Seattle would receive a package featuring 2008 first rounder Justin Smoak. The Yanks had lost out.

That day represented perhaps the most exciting and disappointing one of the regular season. When I went to bed on July 8 the only thought of Lee was that the Yankees were to face him the next evening. When I woke up on the 9th I realized that he wouldn’t. It sounded pretty certain that the Yankees and Mariners would finalize a swap sometime during the day. Jesus Montero, David Adams, and Zach McAllister would go to the Mariners, and the Yankees would add a second lefty ace to the staff. World Series, here we come.

A few hours later we would learn that the trade fell apart. The Mariners didn’t like the medicals on David Adams. At the time it sounded like an excuse to bring other teams into the bidding, but as we found out later Adams did have significant ankle issues. The Mariners, so the story goes, asked the Yankees to add Ivan Nova or Eduardo Nunez. The Yankees declined. The Yankees suggested Adam Warren. The Mariners weren’t interested — though perhaps by that time their disinterest was due to Texas’ new offer, which included Smoak. Not long after we heard that the deal with the Yankees fell apart, we heard that Cliff Lee would be Arlington-bound.

The reaction to this non-trade has two strong sides. One lamented the missed opportunity, because of its implications for the 2010 team. The other celebrated it, because it meant holding onto the team’s prospect while retaining the ability to sign Lee during the off-season. Mike will cover the latter point shortly. This will focus only on the lamentation.

At the time

At the time of the non-deal, the Yankees had five starting pitchers. CC Sabathia had been his regular self for most of the season and Andy Pettitte was keeping runs off the board, but beyond them there were a number of questions. Javy Vazquez had recovered from a poor start, though he still seemed to be the odd man out. A.J. Burnett had just come off what was probably the worst month of his career, but the Yanks couldn’t move him. Phil Hughes had struggled, but to move him would be to further stunt his development. They wanted him to get a full year in the rotation. Something would have to change, but for Cliff Lee that’s not much of an issue. You move mountains to make room for Cliff Lee.

We knew then what Lee would bring to the Yankees. He would turn the starting staff into the best in the AL, perhaps the best in the majors. It already ranked among the top, but there were still weaknesses, described above. If Javy broke down again, if Burnett didn’t fully recover, if Hughes ran into problems as he entered uncharted territory — all of these what-ifs had to weigh on the front office’s mind. Acquiring Lee would render these questions less meaningful. The Yanks would then have six starters, so if something went wrong they would have a fill-in ready to go.

The Yankees also had to know how acquiring Lee would make it easier to re-sign him during the off-season. This isn’t scientific fact, of course, but rather an intuitive connection. If the Yankees traded for Lee and then won a World Series with him, how could he then turn down the sack of money the Yankees would hand him? If he went elsewhere and won a World Series there, well, maybe he’d be more inclined to take a bit less to stay in place where he has experienced the ultimate success. The Yankees’ willingness to pay twice for a player in this instance suggests that they thought along these lines.

In hindsight

The at-the-time case seems easy enough. Adding Cliff Lee would have greatly increased the Yankees chances of winning the World Series. They would have received a proven veteran in exchange for a player whose career is nothing but potential right now. Little did we know at the time that the hindsight argument would be even stronger.

The Yankees lost the ALCS because they couldn’t hit a lick, but the pitching staff didn’t help matters. CC Sabathia got knocked around in Game 1, and Phil Hughes got hit harder in Game 2. A.J. Burnett has a solid Game 4 until the Molina homer, and then Hughes was again shaky in Game 6. Imagine the staff had they added Lee.

Sabathia still would have gone Game 1, and perhaps it would have unfolded similarly. Lee taking Hughes’s place would have been an enormous upgrade. That would have pushed Hughes to Game 4, at which time the Yankees might have been in a better position. That’s not only because Lee likely would have been more effective in Game 2, but because the Yankees might not have lost Game 3, because Lee wouldn’t have been pitching for the Rangers.

That brings up another hindsight point. The Rangers wouldn’t have been nearly as strong a playoff team without Lee. They almost certainly would have made the playoffs without him — at the time they acquired him they were already running away with the division. But once they got to the playoffs they wouldn’t have been as well prepared.

In fact, I’d bet that had the Yankees acquired Lee, they would have won the AL East. That would have set them up against a Lee-less Texas in the first round; that would have been something of a mismatch. Sabathia-Lee-Pettitte, and then Hughes if necessary. They would have faced Wilson-Lewis-Hunter, though missing out on Lee might have motivated Texas to work out something for Roy Oswalt. That would have been a bit difficult, though, given Texas’s financial situation at the time. Getting approval for $3 million or whatever they ended up paying Lee is one thing; getting permission for the $10+ million they’d have to pay Oswalt over the next two years is quite another.

The benefits, as you can see, would have cascaded. The Yankees would not only strengthen their own team with Lee, but would have left competitors scrambling for another solution. That would have left the Yankees in the best possible position.

In terms of how it would have helped the 2010 team, missing out on Lee is one thing that went terribly wrong. They would have been sacrificing a potential piece of their future, but they would have added a Top 3 pitcher for 2010, and then given themselves a better chance to re-sign him during the off-season. After missing out, the Yankees just have to hope they can convince Lee to come to New York in the same manner they convinced CC Sabathia.

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  • AndrewYF

    But we don’t know what Lee would have done while in the playoffs.

    The Yankees showed that they couldn’t beat Colby Lewis. He, not Lee, was a big reason why they failed at advancing.

    How much of a disappointment would it have been had the Yankees been bounced WITH Lee? Then they would have given up their best prospect since Jeter for pretty much nothing.

    Me? I’m perfectly happy with the result of the non-trade. Remember too that Montero was pretty bad for the first months of the season leading up to the trade, which lead people like me to be somewhat okay with the deal (I’ll admit, I was sad but excited). He exploded offensively afterwards. If that had happened in Seattle, and the Yankees didn’t end up in the World Series, I would be seriously, seriously bummed right now. Fortunately, it didn’t, and I’m okay with everything.

    • Mike HC

      Good point. Losing with Lee would have been far more disheartening. Not sure that makes losing out on Lee any better, but it is definitely another way to look at it.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

      This is an excellent outline of why hindsight analysis is flimsy. It assumes too much most of the time. Which is why we try to analyze things from the at-the-time perspective (and hence the designations in this post).

      • dalelama

        But if you explain it is a mistake beforehand and it turns out to be a mistake then it isn’t hindsight but foresight.

        • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

          …which would constitute at-the-time analysis, which I just laid out in the post.

      • Ted Nelson

        I don’t understand your comment that I’m responding to, or why it’s relevant to Andrew’s original comment…

        Relevance: Even at the time you could say, “the Yankees might acquire Cliff Lee and still get knocked out in the ALCS… he is not a sure thing ticket to the title.” You could also say, “Montero has struggled early, but he’s one of the best hitting prospects in baseball and he’ll adjust… he’s a very valuable piece who should maintain value for at least another season or so even in a bad case scenario.” You don’t need hindsight to make Andrew’s points, though it helps to justify/prove them.

        Using hindsight: All speculative analysis is flimsy. At some point you do have to use the actual results to validate your speculation. If the Yankees speculated that Nunez was too valuable to include in this trade (along with Montero) and he never spends a full season in the bigs or nets the Yankees anything in a trade, for example, their at the time judgement was wrong. If he and Montero (and maybe Cliff Lee) somehow figure in prominently to the next 5 Yankee championships (either playing or via trade)… they can feel justified in their non-move.
        We only have the information available to us at the time, but some of it comes down to judgement calls. How likely are you to sign Cliff Lee as a free agent? What kind of careers will Montero and Nunez and Adam Warren and Ivan Nova, etc. have? Opinions will differ on this at the time (and possibly even in hindsight in some cases). For example, after a while if you keep holding prospects who are busts and trading good prospects or vice versa, hindsight matters. At the time you thought they were all great prospects, but you were wrong. With all their available info the Yankees thought Eric Duncan and CJ Henry were the best guys to draft… if we just ignore the results these guys produced how do we evaluate anything in baseball? No one is accountable for anything besides your at the time opinion of their decision.

        • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

          I’ve tried to compose a few replies, but they all come down to this:

          You don’t ignore results. But, rather, you use the results to look back on the decision process and determine whether it was good or bad. Good process often leads to bad results, especially in sport as random as baseball.

          So no, if Nunez busts and doesn’t play a full season you don’t go back and evaluate the trade based on that alone. You go back and determine why you overvalued Nunez. There can be plenty of factors, including ones that weren’t known until after the non-trade. Ditto Duncan and Henry. You back and evaluate why you thought they were the best players available. If there was a good process, but they just busted out like the majority of processes, it wasn’t a failure.

          That’s where hindsight is useful: when applying it to proceses, not to isolated events. It might not seem like much of a difference, but it is.

          • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

            if Nunez busts and doesn’t play a full season you don’t go back and evaluate the trade based on that alone. You go back and determine why you overvalued Nunez.

            “No one exceeds their potential. If they do it just means we didn’t judge it accurately in the first place.”


          • Ted Nelson


            I pretty much agree. I think the original language of not using hindsight just came across strong.

            I still think you can make both at-the-time and 10/28/2010 arguments both for an against the deal, though. There are so many factors to consider. Quantifying all those and then weighting them is pretty tough.

            In your analysis I think you make a lot of assumptions and do a lot of speculating. Someone pointed out a couple weeks back that Cliff Lee coming to NY does not necessarily increase the odds of his re-signing. You say: if they win with him, he’s more likely to re-sign. The obvious other side of the coin is: if they lose with him he may be less likely to re-sign. You suggest that if he went elsewhere and won he’d be more likely to sign there. Unless you’re using hindsight, it’s just as likely that he would have gone somewhere else, lost with them (maybe even to the Yankees) and not wanted to re-sign there.

            Basically, I think you wanted to trade for Lee and have slanted the argument heavily to suite your desired outcome. I find your analysis very subjective, non-scientific, and quite honestly lacking. It’s completely biased towards your point of view.

            You miss 90% of the at the time points, and your hindsight points are wild speculation. As someone else points out in the comments, the Yankees still could have lost to the same Rangers team if the only thing you changed was Cliff Lee. Cliff Lee did not win that series for them. The Yankees couldn’t score and the Rangers could. There is no way to prove Cliff Lee would have changed that. I honestly doubt it would have, actually. The Yankees scored 2 runs in Game 2, so assuming Cliff Lee would have held the Rangers under 2 runs and won that game for them knowing what we do now… tough to say. If the Yankees win the division, they might just lose the Rangers in the ALDS instead of the ALCS. Again, you make only points that support your argument and don’t even mention the other side. You present everything in a best case Lee scenario… No mention of the other side of the same arguments.

            • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

              Did you not see the What Went Right section? Clearly I’m going to make all points in favor of the trade here, leaving Mike to make the other points in another post.

              • Ted Nelson

                Didn’t see it, no. Didn’t realize that was the set-up.

    • CBean

      This. I mean, at the end of the day, we didn’t play against Lee twice. If it had gone to the 7th game and we ended up losing to Lee, this non-trade would have been a lot more bitter in my mind. But we couldn’t beat Colby Lewis (twice!) and we couldn’t beat Tommy Hunter. Andy Pettitte pitched a beautiful game against Lee and we couldn’t do anything offensively. Can’t win if you don’t score runs, no matter how good a pitcher you have on the mound.

      • Ted Nelson

        True, Giants didn’t have much problem scoring against Rangers and Lee in game 1…

  • Mike HC

    Nice job. I’m still having nightmares about messing up/getting screwed by that Cliff Lee deal. Gotta move on to next year though.

    • Ted Nelson

      I don’t think you can say it was a mess up yet. *If* Montero is as good as we expect (not even saying best case HOF hitter, just medium case very good hitter), Nunez was a nice trade piece and/or strong utility guy, and/or Cliff Lee signs with the Yankees this offseason… You’re going to be writing Cashman and the Mariners daily thank you notes for not making this deal… Maybe the Yankees lost 1 WS (which we can’t even say with any degree of certainty) but won 5 future ones.

  • http://twitter.com/cephster Ross in Jersey

    As disappointing as the ALCS was, I think if Lee signs here and Montero ends up being an impact player, the fact Lee never came here in July 2010 will be a long forgotten memory.

    • Ted Nelson

      Good point.

    • Jimmy McNulty

      If that happens, you’re correct, no one will give a shit.

  • JobaWockeeZ

    Again at the time CC was a beast as ever. Hughes was the young ace nd one fo the best starters in the gme. Pettitte was going to have a career year with a ERA in the 2’s! The only Burnett that existed was good and Javier Vazquez went through two months with a 3.20 ERA!

    If anyone could predict that 4 of those starters all had major setbacks in performance then I applaud you. But at the time Lee was a huge and costly luxury.

    • Ted Nelson

      Good points… If we’re using at the time analysis only there are still tons of factors to consider and huge discrepancies in opinion.

  • John

    Even in hindsight, I’m not sure I would have done the trade. The Yankees scored two runs vs. Lewis and zero vs. the bullpen in Game 2. The Yankees offense was shut down all series long and Texas’ offense was raking. I’m not sure if Lee would have actually outpitched Lewis in Game 2, nor am I sure if Pettitte would have outpitched Lee’s replacement in Game 3 considering the offense’s poor play. Too much hypotheticals for me. As demonstrated by yesterday’s game, Lee can be hit, which the Yankees offense could not do except for one game in the ALCS. Their chances of winning would have certainly considerably increased, but I’m just not sure if I would have done the trade knowing that the Yankees would get in the playoffs and beat the Twins in the ALDS without Lee. IMO the Yankees and Rangers offenses just got cold and hot respectively at the wrong time.

  • Scout

    I think Joe’s post nails it. At the time, you could say the trade would have significantly increased the probability of going deep into the post-season. No deal ever does more than that — that is, no trade ever guarantees a world championship. We can differ over whether the cost (Montero and others) was worth the value-added of that increased probability of post-season success, but that is really the only point at issue.

    • Ted Nelson

      It’s a pretty big point, though.

      The other big points at issue are the actual variables:
      1. How much Lee’s presence increases the Yankees chances? As JobaWockeeZ says above, at the time the Yankees had what looked like a great staff. At the time they had a great offense. Some people might say Lee only gives them a marginally better shot, while others might say a huge one…
      2. What is the cost (Montero and others) worth. At the time some people were ready to jump off the Montero bandwagon and didn’t value Nunez, so they might have said not much. Others still loved Montero and considered Nunez a pretty solid SS prospect relative to other SS around baseball… they might have said that’s a huge cost.

  • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

    “What Went Wrong Right: The Cliff Lee Non-Trade Viewed In Terms Of Cost-Benefit Analysis And Strategic Planning”
    By Joe Pawlikowski

    • nsalem


    • Jimmy McNulty

      I disagree with this, you’re counting the chickens before they hatch. If Cliff Lee brings the Rangers a WS, he’ll stay there…end of story, either that or the Yankees will have to sign him to a ridiculous contract. Either way, I feel that if they traded for Cliff Lee that they’d win the division and thus have homefield advantage, probably give the stars a few days off so they’re better rested…and they’d get the Rays, and likely face much shittier pitching and be in the World Series as we speak. However, if the Rangers win the World Series then they get Cliff Lee, and the Yankee rotation has major issues.

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

        I disagree with this, you’re counting the chickens before they hatch.

        Fair enough.

        If Cliff Lee brings the Rangers a WS, he’ll stay there…end of story,

        Irony and humorous juxtaposition FTL.

        • Jimmy McNulty

          I don’t think it’s that far fetched of an idea. The DFW area has a huge TV market, they have a motivated new ownership group, they’ve found a way to get the ignorant shit kickers that live in Texas to show up to games (claws and antlers), and a championship does wonders to a franchise. Look at what Jerry Jones did with the Cowboys in the 90s and look at what Mark Cuban is currently doing with the Mavs. A good owner can do amazing things in that market. When was the last time an elite FA who was a WS Hero left the team he just brought to the promised land? (Yes, I understand that this rarely happens…usually WS heroes are smaller players: Mike LOL, Joe Blanton, Matsui, etc.)

          • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

            It’s not that it’s not farfetched, it’s just that you objected to me assuming that Cliff Lee going to the Yankees at season’s end was a fait accompli and logically unsound, and then IN THE VERY NEXT SENTENCE said that if the Rangers won the World Series Cliff Lee resigning with the Rangers was a fait accompli and somehow that’s not logically unsound.

            You can’t have it both ways.

            • Jimmy McNulty

              Well you’re suggesting it’s going to happen, regardless. When I suggest that a future event will happen…at least I have the good manners to condition it upon another future event happening.

            • Jimmy McNulty

              Though fair enough.

  • theyankeewarrior

    The reason I’m not up-in-arms about missing out on Lee is because once you already have arguably the best team in baseball, they should be able to win the Series on their own, without sacrificing the farm system.

    I don’t mind giving up B+ prospects for a power arm or bat in the lineup, but to give up a stud like Montero just so you can DEFINITELY be the best in MLB is a little much.

    However, going forward, I do think that the Yanks should begin to get more aggressive in-season. There will be more injuries, and less opportunities for a repeat of ’09 with the age of this team climbing.

    Jeter & Co. should see at least two more fall classics. Cash should do whatever it takes – IMO – besides dealing Montero for a loaner.

    • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

      “I don’t mind giving up B+ prospects for a power arm or bat in the lineup, but to give up a stud like Montero just so you can move forward the timeframe in which you wiil DEFINITELY be the best in MLB by a mere three months is a little much.”


      • Jimmy McNulty

        I disagree with the notion that the Yankees will get Cliff Lee is fait accompli, if he brings the Rangers a trophy…I think he stays.

  • pat

    Cash already has him on the payroll. Look how he threw last night, he clearly wants to tank so he can come be a Yank.

  • Dave M

    Is Cliff Lee related to Chum Lee?

    • UncleArgyle

      Chum Lee? Are you talking about Chumlee on the show “Pawnstars”? Or Chung Lee from the Street Fighter games? Or are you refering to a Asian being used as Shark Bait?

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

        Or are you refering to a Asian being used as Shark Bait?



  • Hughesus Christo

    Things That Went Right: Not Trading Jesus Montero


  • Chris in Maine

    I think that a lot of the points made in the article would apply if the Yanks had completed the deal for Haren as well. I suspect The Yankees would have won the Division. Not that I think Haren is better than Lee, just that Haren is better than Javy/Burnett.

    • JAG

      Dan Haren also wouldn’t have costed Montero (at least not in any reasonable scenario). Sacrificing Joba, who pitched a couple mop-up innings in the post-season, and prospects who didn’t impact at all for a guy like Haren would almost certainly have improved our chances.

      Then again, in predetermined-outcome-world, we still probably don’t advance b/c the only games in which we scored runs at a useful pace we won anyway. Haren instead of Hughes doesn’t guarantee a win in Game 2 nor does Hughes instead of Burnett in Game 4. It’s only that Haren would still be under contract for next year (right?) that would make the deal still worthwhile in hindsight.

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

        Wasn’t the rumored package that Arizona wanted Joba, Nova, Z-Mac, and Banuelos?

        That’s a lot of young pitching. The first three for Haren, I could probably see, or Banuelos by himself, but those three PLUS Banuelos seems a bit much.

        The package Arizona took for Haren from the Angels was far less than what they were demanding from us (which shouldn’t surprise anyone).

        • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder
        • UncleArgyle

          Yikes. Thats way too much for Haren.

        • Jimmy McNulty

          I don’t think that they’d have the balls to ask for Banuelos.

          • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

            But they did.

    • claudellwashington

      Joba would’ve been better than Javy/Burnett.

      • Ted Nelson

        I would have been better than Javy/Burnett ;)

  • larryf

    Fact shown during game last night: Only Yogi and Posey have been rookie world series starters as catcher.

    Montero next year.

    The guy is gonna be awesome if he stays healthy.

    • Rick in Boston

      Yeah, that’s not true. Andy Etchebarren was the starting catcher for the Orioles in the ’66 series. Fox messed up that trivia question.

  • Guest

    I am actually, right now in hindsight, perfectly happy with how this went down.

    We won five playoff games. I know for the Yankeea a season is a failure if we don’t win the World Series, blah, blah, etc., etc., ad infintum…But it’s still fun to win five playoff games. I enjoyed them.

    Now, we certainly would have had a better shot at winning the World Series with him than we would have had without him. But,
    as pointed out above, there is no GUARANTEE that we would have won the World Series with Cliff Lee. There isn’t even a guarantee we would have made it as far as we did without him (What if he put the clunker he put up last night in Game 1 against the Twins/Rangers in the ALDS?)

    So, here we are. World Series less, but with a nice playoff run replete with five playoff victories (and no heartbreaking painful losses).

    AND we are number one with a bullet to sign him in time for the holidays.

    AND a 20 year old Jesus Montero who rebounded to get in the running for best minor league hitter in the game regardless of position.

    I think this turned out rather well actually.

  • nathan

    Lee would have improved the Yanks’ chances but we saw what happened with the super-trio of Doc-Oswalt-Hamels. Nothing is set in stone.

    You are taking some serious leaps, there is no certainty that Lee would have pitched liked this at Yankee stadium. Remember, he had that back issue, if that had happened with us.. then OMG the trade was a bust, he might have pushed hard and hurt further (how can i assume that, the same way you assume he will pitch great @ YS).

    I really dont think this was as big a miss. Montero can still be used in a huge trade for an SP in the offseason or help us as the catcher/DH. I take the latter, because if the offense performed the same way with Lee we wouldnt have won the ALCS anyway

  • the yankee fanatic

    I’m even more interested in why the Dan Haren trade fell thru…if losing Montero is a deal at least have guaranteed control of a player for multiple years…but maybe not getting any of these pitchers will be a blessing…hope Jesus Montero pays off…

    • http://www.teamnerdrage.com dr mrs the yankee

      I don’t think it was ever particularly close with Haren.