MLB Trade Deadline 2009

Buzz leading up to July 31 non-waiver deadline

Cliff Lee has a 3.14 ERA, but due to poor run support, his
record is just 7-9.

Let's suppose that Cleveland Indians general manager Mark Shapiro, after watching New York Mets GM Omar Minaya's recent press conference, is filled with shame and despair at his career choices, and decides that to atone for having entered such a field he ought to do something for the public. Let's further suppose that he decides the thing to do would be to help bring a world championship to Los Angeles, a city that hasn't enjoyed one in 21 years -- we'll take Anaheim's claim that it isn't really part of L.A. seriously for a moment -- and doesn't even have a football team. So he packs off defending Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee to the Left Coast in exchange for Shawn Estes. How much does this do for the Dodgers?

Since the beginning of last year, Lee has given up 2.78 earned runs per nine, and averaged seven innings per start. For the sake of argument we'll say this is his true talent level, and that he'd do just as well at Chavez Ravine. As of now he would replace Jason Schmidt in the Dodgers' rotation. Schmidt has been lousy in two games, but we'll compare Lee to a theoretical replacement pitcher instead as the Dodgers would have no problem scaring up someone -- Jeff Weaver, for instance -- who could better a 7.88 ERA.

In 13 starts over the rest of the year, Lee would pitch 91 innings and give up 28 runs. Assume that Weaver or someone like him would run up an ERA of 5.20 -- that's 20 per cent worse than league average for starters -- that he would average five innings per start, and that the remaining two innings per start would be taken up by replacement level relievers with an ERA of 4.80, and all together that would be 91 innings and 51 runs. So the difference between Lee and random bad pitching would be about 23 runs, or two wins, over the rest of the year.

Those wins don't mean anything to the Dodgers, who will win their division whether Lee or Tanyon Sturtze takes up 13 starts. The real difference he would make would be in October. So how would he do there?

In a typical Lee start, he goes seven innings and gives up two runs. In a typical Weaver-plus-scrub-relievers game, the Dodgers would give up four runs in the first seven innings. Since the Dodgers score five runs per game, on average they've scored four runs through seven innings. This means that Lee would, on average, likely leave the game with a 4-2 lead, while the replacement pitchers would leave the game tied 4-4.

That's a big difference, given how important a single playoff game can be. Whether at home or on the road, the Lee start would give the Dodgers a better than 90 per cent chance of winning the game. (You can play around with the odds in different situations here.) The replacement pitchers would give the Dodgers about a 50/50 chance, a bit better at home and a bit worse on the road. That difference matters.

The problem here, though, is that the Dodgers wouldn't be running their worst pitchers out in the playoffs. Lee wouldn't replace Weaver; he'd replace Hiroki Kuroda or Randy Wolf. Both are good pitchers and, by the logic we're using here, would be expected to exit the game with a lead, meaning Lee would represent an improvement of a run or so over seven innings in a crucial playoff game. And that's assuming seven innings and just two runs from him -- no sure thing.

In the best circumstances, assuming he pitches brilliantly and comparing him to outright bad pitchers, Lee represents a fairly marginal improvement in the Dodgers' odds of winning a given playoff game, let alone a championship. If he cost nothing more than Shawn Estes and cash, it would doubtless be worth the Dodgers' while to trade for him, especially since he has a reasonable contract for next year. Given what he's likely to cost, though -- to my knowledge Shapiro has not in fact been overwhelmed by shame after watching a video of Minaya's public implosion -- you'll have to be understanding if they pass, and perhaps a bit puzzled if they don't.


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