Commentary

Lee remains elite option with Rangers

Smoak's move to Mariners in blockbuster deal gives Davis another chance in Texas

Updated: July 9, 2010, 8:27 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Just call him "Cliff Lee: Summer rental."

For the second consecutive season, Lee is on the move during the month of July, getting traded on Friday from the Seattle Mariners to the division-rival -- and division-leading -- Texas Rangers. Justin Smoak, the hot-and-cold rookie first baseman, leads a package of four players headed to the Mariners, while right-handed reliever Mark Lowe joins the Rangers. The Mariners also receive minor league second baseman Matt Lawson and pitchers Blake Beavan and Josh Lueke in the deal. (Jason Grey had a profile of Beavan last year.)

Cliff Lee
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonCliff Lee is a top-10 starting pitcher on the Player Rater despite not making his first start until April 30.

Lee, clearly, is the focal point. He gives the Rangers a true win-a-playoff-series-on-his-own staff ace, something the team has lacked for more than a decade. With Lee in tow, the Rangers get to ease the pressure on their younger starters (such as Derek Holland and Tommy Hunter), their two breakout sensations (Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson) and a currently DL'd veteran who probably wasn't suited to be a leading man in the first place (Rich Harden).

Now the Rangers can mix and match their starters during the second half of the season, which has, for the most part, been a similar strategy to what fantasy owners had been doing -- and should probably keep doing -- with most of these guys. (Not to discount Lewis' fairly consistent first half, but presumably most owners added him in-season, as opposed to trusting him since Day 1.) When you look at Rangers pitchers, you've always got the fear of what that bandbox ballpark might do, especially to the younger hurlers.

It's for that reason fantasy owners might learn of Lee's arrival in Texas and immediately fear the impact to his ERA and WHIP; those same people might point to his 7.62 ERA, 1.55 WHIP and .311 opponents' batting average in seven career starts there as reason to be worried. A counterpoint: He tossed a complete-game gem there, allowing only two runs and seven hits, as recently as June 7, and remember he was facing potent Rangers offenses every time he has pitched there.

Perhaps Lee's status as the American League's leader in both ERA (2.34) and WHIP (0.95) might be somewhat threatened with the Rangers, but if he finishes with 3.00/1.00 numbers in those categories, why complain? Any drop-off in the ratios should be more than made up by shifting from a team that provided him little run support, forcing him to finish his own starts in order to win, to one that should give him every chance to win most every turn. It's splitting hairs; the equivalent of fretting whether he'll finish fourth or, say, eighth among starting pitchers on our Player Rater. (Incidentally, he's currently ranked eighth on that list, though that's mostly due to his spending almost all of April on the DL.)

Another thing to consider: An advantage Lee had in Seattle is also one in Texas, as both teams rank among the strongest defensive squads in the game. In terms of Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), a statistic tracked by FanGraphs, the Rangers actually have a better number -- 20.5 -- than the Mariners do (16.4). Don't underestimate the value of quality defense, nor the fact that Lee will be united with a pitching coach with an outstanding reputation in Mike Maddux.

Like Lee, Smoak's fantasy value probably won't change significantly with his change in uniforms, though that's partly because he has been one of the most maddening players to own to date. In spite of his significant home-field advantage, look at the streaks he has put forth so far this year:

April 23-May 30: 35 G, .175/.291/.316 (AVG/OBP/SLG), 21.1 K%, 14.2 BB%
June 1-25: 23 G, .300/.400/.525, 28.8 K%, 14.7 BB%
June 26-July 8: 12 G, .122/.217/.122, 24.4%, 10.9 BB%

Smoak is also a .202/.331/.333 hitter at home, compared to .217/.297/.377 on the road, so he has hardly capitalized upon any advantage. The move to Safeco Field does diminish his fantasy appeal the second half of the season, but perhaps playing for a team out of playoff contention might allow him to adjust more quickly. Keeper-league owners want to be patient with Smoak, but those owners in redraft formats might want to pick and choose his streaks, as they have thus far.

If anyone's fantasy value is most affected by the deal, it's actually the man who might get a chance to replace Smoak in Texas, Chris Davis. Painful memories of his .188/.264/.292 stat line in his first 15 games of this season might have fantasy owners hesitant to again trust the third-year slugger, but if he gets the call, gets everyday at-bats the remainder of the season and succeeds with them, it wouldn't be the first time that has happened. Remember that last year, Davis, following a midsummer demotion to Triple-A Oklahoma City, roared back with .308/.338/.496 rates, six home runs and 26 RBIs in 36 games with the Rangers.

Incidentally, check out Davis' numbers for Oklahoma City in 67 games since his demotion: .354/.403/.555, 10 homers, 56 RBIs.

That sure sounds like a hot pickup, at least in AL-only and deep mixed leagues.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.