Big change coming to our very own division, with the addition of now-former Cleveland Indians lefty and last year’s AL Cy Young winner Cliff Lee into the mix for the Philadelphia Phillies. Now an already well-stacked team is going to get even better by replacing replacement level (or worse) production at the #5 starter position with Lee, who according to tRA was worth 19.5 runs above average so far this year in the American League.
Quick analysis: Why has Lee been such a better pitcher in the last year and a half than he was a few seasons back? A few years ago, in 2005, he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting, only to have a mediocre following season and the horrific 2007 campaign the year after. The following year, he dominates the American League and wins a Cy Young.
Well, there’s only three things a pitcher can do to improve his performance: strike out more guys, walk less guys, and allow less home runs, typically by inducing more ground balls. It can be said that by doing two of those three things well, you’ll end up having a good pitcher. Witness Ricky Nolasco, who for the past year and a half has been doing the first two things very well (8.27 K/9 and 1.93 BB/9). Also witness St. Louis Cardinals lefty and zombie pitcher Joel Pineiro, who is doing the latter two things well this season (0.91 BB/9 and a huge 61% GB%, leading to only three home runs allowed this season). Lee has too improved on the latter two things, walking only 1.61 batters per nine innings and upping his GB% from the low 30’s to the mid 40’s, dramatically cutting down on home runs. In a nutshell, this combined with his solid K rate and good stuff has turned him into an elite pitcher.
Now this elite pitcher is coming to the National League, the weak league, and to the NL East to face down, among others, the Marlins. This might prompt a number of Fish fans to proclaim the need for a player themselves. I would jump in and say a resounding “no!” The last thing the Marlins want to do this year is to mortgage the potentially bright future of this ballclub for a distance chance at the present. As constructed, the Marlins are really not in the same league as the other teams invovled in playoff chases (except for the Houston Astros, we’re better than them by a good margin). The team has a negative run differential that required a solid 7-1 streak to even bring underneath 10 runs below average. Taking the hitting, pitching, and fielding components from FanGraphs and StatCorner, the Marlins are a poor 31.6 runs below average in terms of pure talent, which means that -9 differential might be optimistic. The team simply isn’t built to compete with some of the other teams unless a few things improve drastically.
The Marlins could use serious improvement on offense, particularly third base, defense, and starting pitching outside of the top two or three. There isn’t much of a chance they can find any of those things before the deadline, especially without giving up major talent. In years past, this would not have been an issue if the team was willing to take on salary, but nowadays the Marlins need all of the farm hands for the future. The Fish are very deep in the position player side, but they lack pitching depth and could not afford to trade their top two pitching prospects given the nature of the Marlins low-budget enforcement. A playoff run would feel great right here, and the urge to spend in terms of money and prospects when someone like Lee drops into your division rival’s hands is great, but the Marlins front office knows that the organization’s farm isn’t nearly as deep as it once was and is actually a bit top-heavy, especially on the all-important pitching side. Guys like Mike Stanton, Logan Morrison, Sean West, and Matt Dominguez are the team’s future starters hopefully. Stretching for a mediocre rental, even a rental for the next season, would be a stretch if it involved giving up the type of high-end talent that we would have to give up.
And as fans, don’t fool yourselves into thinking our farm, prospects, and current players are great enough to be dealt with ease. The trade is a delicate balance of power, as evidenced by the Roy Halladay discussions this week. If either side thinks too highly about their guys or the other guy’s guys, the trade is destined to fail, either in falling apart or in busting later on. Fans this time of year often get so excited about trades and think sending two middling prospects is enough to get a start position player or that their own position player is terrible but would net good prospects from another team. We tend to overvalue our guys as fans of the team. Don’t fall into that trap, and don’t get caught up in the trade rumor mill hype when it comes to the Marlins. The last available “impact” guys began leaving for new homes today, and I suspect that will continue in a minor fashion until the deadline, unless another suitor steps up for Halladay. Don’t let yourselves get carried away by it, and try to enjoy the team as it stands (minus Bonifacio). Because while the team may not be as good as it record shows, that doesn’t mean we can’t still have fun, watch them, and hope they get hot. If they do, who knows? But the odds are not in our favor, and tipping them slightly might cost us a lot in the long run.