Cliff Lee for Jorge Alfaro, who says no?— Joe Sheehan (@joe_sheehan) April 22, 2014
I was on Twitter last night -- as I am wont to do on nights I don't work -- when I came upon the above tweet from Joe Sheehan, and it captured my imagination to the point now where I have to write about it. (Also, Joe Sheehan has an excellent newsletter that I highly recommend.)
Anyway, let's get into the hypothetical trade proposal:
Cliff Lee is pitching in his age-35 season, and is still owed $50 million between now and the end of 2015 (with a $27.5 million vesting option in '16 that includes a $12.5 million buyout). Basically, the floor of his contract is $62.5 million the next two years; its ceiling is $77.5 million over the next three. That's a lot of money, but it's money well spent for one of the five or ten best pitchers in MLB.
Alfaro, 20, is hitting .262/.314/.354 at High-A Mrytle Beach so far in 2014, and is universally considered either #1 or #2 among current Rangers' prospects (along with Rougned Odor). When you factor in that Alfaro plays catcher, a premium position with very little talent spread throughout baseball, his overall value sky-rockets. If Jorge is able to turn his promising tools into usable skills at the big league level, he is forecasted to be an All Star-caliber backstop.
Of the immediate responses from Joe's tweet, the common thread involved money. How much would the Phillies have to kick in? And if they weren't paying part of Cliff Lee's hefty sum over the next three years, then why would the Rangers give up a prospect as talented as Jorge Alfaro?
These are valid questions, and there isn't necessarily a correct answer to them, which is why baseball discussions are so great. We are left in the grey area separating how we feel about Alfaro as a prospect, how we feel about Cliff Lee pitching in his age-36 and 37 seasons, and if it would be worth it to sacrifice the first six years of a toolsy catching prospect for the immediate help of a proven, albeit expensive, lefty pitching in his mid-30's.
For starters, there's the issue of money. The Rangers current payroll, per Baseball-Reference, is just north of $120 million. (For some reason I thought it was higher, but we'll just roll with that figure for now.) If we fast-forwarded a bit to the July 31st deadline, Texas would owe Lee roughly $8 million for the last two months of 2014, plus $25 million in '15, plus $27.5 million in 2016... about $60 million for the final 2.3 years of Cliff's contract.
It sounds like a lot of money. That's because it is a lot of freaking money. But it's money the Rangers have, and will continue to have over the next decade. Remember, the 20-year, $1.6 billion TV deal begins its steady cash flow in 2015, and, including the national television money that every MLB team gets a share of, there's good reason to assume Texas's payroll will jump into the $150 million-plus range possibly as early as next season. Financially, the cost of Cliff Lee over the next three years is substantial, but it's not nearly as much cheddar as it looked like when he signed the deal originally.
Then there's Jorge Alfaro, Baseball America's #54 prospect in '14, FanGraphs's #54 prospect in '14, #37 per MLB.com. He is beloved by Rangers' fans, highly-touted by numerous scouts, and thus highly-coveted by other big league franchises. From a prospect standpoint, he's in the 50-ish range for one reason: there is bust potential. From a talent perspective, there aren't many minor leaguers with a higher ceiling. He has the talent to be a top-10 prospect, but many still consider him to be raw. (This is normal for 20 year-olds; especially catchers.) He is still far from a sure thing.
A straight-up Alfaro-for-Lee trade is highly unlikely, for two reasons: (1) Phillies' GM, Ruben Amaro Jr., is currently still under the impression his team will be competitive in 2014 and beyond, but perhaps more importantly, (2) Jon Daniels doesn't like trading away the kids he believes in. Whether it be Derek Holland, Jurickson Profar, or, most recently, Martín Perez, Daniels has been apprehensive to part with his minor league fortunes.
However, if this trade proposal was legit -- which it obviously isn't -- if I'm Jon Daniels I would do it. Jorge Alfaro is cheap and controllable, but he won't be a member of the big league roster until September of 2015, at the earliest. With Yu Darvish, Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison all guaranteed to be under contract through 2016... this is their shot. They are in the primes of their careers; they are immediate. If Alfaro is to be as good as he's expected to be, he will generate a lot of wins for the Rangers. But the bulk wouldn't be coming during the championship window Texas's roster is currently in.
If you added Cliff Lee, whose contract the Rangers can afford, to a rotation featuring Yu Darvish, Martín Perez, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland, you would be looking at a championship-caliber starting five. A Darvish-Lee one-two punch would be deadly in the postseason, which, after all, is the real goal. Isn't it?
Just as in 2010, the Rangers traded away Justin Smoak -- highly-touted at the time -- for two-plus months of Cliff Lee. They sold high on whom many thought would be a cornerstone of the organization, for the chance to improve their odds of winning in the postseason once they made it there. This year, the same logic applies: Lee can swing the American League West in Texas's favor, and give them as good of a shot as anyone to represent the AL in the World Series.
If you figure in the cost of premium talent on the free agent market, and the cost of acquiring talent on the trade front, the money owed to Cliff Lee would give the club a better chance to win the World Series both this year and next, and it would be at the cost of an exceptionally gifted catching prospect who may or may not ever live up to his promise. I love prospects as much as anyone, but the benefit of adding a +5.0-win pitcher to a Rangers team projected to win roughly 86 games is excessively valuable, something the club likely couldn't find elsewhere on the trade market.
I'm philosophically opposed to trading top prospects for aging, expensive pitchers, but supply and demand in the modern baseball climate make this trade a no-brainer. Over the next three seasons -- Yu Darvish's last under his current contract -- the Rangers need to go for it.