Should the New York Mets Trade for Cliff Lee?

I’ve always liked playing the role of manager more than the role of general manager, and this week has been no different. I’d much prefer to be in Jerry Manuel’s cleats than Omar Minaya’s shoes. The reason? Cliff Lee.

Lee is Seattle’s ace, a pitcher who won the Cy Young for Cleveland in 2008, got traded to the Phillies in July of last year and led them to the World Series, and was traded again this past offseason after Philadelphia acquired Roy Halladay. He is a free agent after this season.

I am having a difficult time deciding whether or not I want the Mets to trade for Lee, though. Here’s why:

They’re only prospects…
Reports are saying that a package of minor leaguers will likely be enough to get Lee. If that’s the case, then the Mets could significantly upgrade their team without giving up anyone whose absence will hurt the team in 2010.

And they may never help the team, as prospects often don’t pan out. If you have the opportunity to trade players who might amount to something for a player who’s already a star, you do it, right?

…but they are prospects.
To recognize the value of holding onto prospects, the Mets can look at their very own infield. Ike Davis (23 years old) and Ruben Tejada (20) made their major league debuts this season and have been instrumental in the team’s success, while Jose Reyes and David Wright (both 27) are also home-grown. That’s without even mentioning starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey.

Youngsters such as Jenrry Mejia, Wilmer Flores, and Josh Thole could be the next wave of players to come up through the minor leagues and excel with the Mets. It would be a shame to see promising young players traded, especially since watching home-grown players perform well is more satisfying (at least to me) than signing a free agent star.

Lee is very, very good…
After starting the season on the disabled list, Lee is 7-3 with a 2.45 ERA for a last-place Seattle team. In his 12 starts, he has the same number of walks as complete games (five). Five walks is a good outing for Oliver Perez.

Mets fans who want Lee think he can do the same thing for New York that he did for Philadelphia last season. The Mets are right in the thick of the race, but there are still questions about the rotation: Is Hisanori Takahashi better suited for the bullpen? Can R.A. Dickey maintain his impressive start? My gut tells me “yes” and “probably not,” so adding a quality starter, especially one as awesome as Lee, would be a great thing for the Mets.

…but nothing is guaranteed.
Contrary to what some fans seem to believe, adding Lee doesn’t automatically earn the Mets World Series rings. Putting Lee at the top of the rotation with Pelfrey and Johan Santana looks great on paper, but dealing away top prospects to get him puts even more pressure on the team.

What are the expectations for a Mets team that includes Lee? A playoff berth? A World Series appearance? A championship? If the Mets mortgage some of their future to acquire Lee and fail to meet these expectations, the season will be a big disappointment.

He may not be worth a rental…
World Series titles don’t grow on trees (at least not for this New York team), so say the Mets trade for Lee and win it all, but he walks after the season — would it be worth it? Probably, but that is of course the best case scenario. A more likely result is that the Mets don’t win it all, in which case they would have dealt prospects for nothing.

…but he’s probably not worth re-signing either.
Lee will turn 32 at the end of August. He’s clearly in his prime right now, as he’s been dominating batters since the 2008 season. But unless Lee is unlike all the other star pitchers who have hit the free agent market over the last 10 years, he is going to want a very large, multi-year contract.

He may be worth the money for the first couple of years of that deal, but by the end of that fourth year, when he’s 36, it’s unlikely Lee will be performing at the level of his salary. No, it’s not my money, but no team has an unlimited budget, so cash tied up with an underperforming is money that could have been used to get someone else.

This is why I’m glad I’m not Minaya. It’s unclear what the right decision is, and even after he makes up his mind, it may take a few years before we learn whether it was the smart move.

Do you think the Mets should trade for Cliff Lee? What are your feelings about dealing prospects in general? Let me know in the comments section or via e-mail at andrew@thesportsjournalists.com.

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