Commentary

One of the game's most historic deals

Three-way blockbuster involving Halladay and Lee will be remembered for a long time

Originally Published: December 15, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It isn't just a trade. It's a foray into the history books.

How often in life do you ever see a trade like this -- two Cy Youngs in their prime changing teams in, essentially, the same deal? When you get right down to it, it's Roy Halladay for Cliff Lee, with a supporting cast that looks like the roster for the Futures Game.

You just don't see trades like this one, ladies and gentlemen. It isn't exactly Wes Littleton for Beau Vaughan, now is it?

"I can remember a lot of blockbuster trades, and this is definitely a blockbuster," said one longtime baseball executive Tuesday, as the shock waves from the mind-blowing four-team, nine-player Lee/Halladay mega-whopper began rippling through his sport. "I can remember big trades in the past. But it's been awhile since we've seen anything like this."

A while? Sheez, you could make a case we've never seen a trade like this.

We spent part of our day perusing pretty much every trade in history that involved a Cy Young Award winner. We couldn't find any deal that resembled this deal. And that's because no Cy Young winner has ever been traded for another Cy Young winner. Ever.

[+] EnlargeRoy Halladay
Morry Gash-Pool/Getty ImagesRoy Halladay was third in the American League with a 2.79 ERA in 2009.

Technically, of course, that isn't happening in this Phillies-Jays-Mariners-A's monstrosity, either. We're calling these linked parts "companion" deals, because they aren't quite one trade.

But Lee wouldn't be heading for Seattle if Halladay weren't heading for Philadelphia and prospects weren't flying all over the continent. So it's all one big unforgettable blockbusterama to us.

And now comes the fun part, once this stunner becomes official: Deciphering what it all means. So let's try to sort it out.

The Phillies

One of the toughest questions to answer in all of this is: Are the Phillies really any better?

Basically, they've swapped Lee for Halladay. And they've substituted three of Seattle's best prospects for three of their best prospects. They also passed on the opportunity to go for it all in 2010 by not dealing Lee at all and keeping both Cy Young monsters on the same staff for a year. So how'd they do? Tough call.

If most people in this sport had a choice of Halladay or Lee, they'd take Halladay. But barely. "They're better with Halladay, by a little, but not by a lot. They're both tremendous," said one scout. Another scout's take: "Roy Halladay is still the answer to the question, 'If you had to win a game tonight, who would you pick to pitch it?' I used to say Curt Schilling. But Halladay has been my answer for the last four or five years."

Agreed. Bear in mind that the past two years have been the two best seasons of Lee's career. Halladay still beat him in wins, ERA, WHIP and opponent average. And he had to do it all pitching in the AL East, where he was forced to make 31 starts against the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays alone. So the thought of him in the NL East? Scary.

But if this were just about 2010, the Phillies probably wouldn't make this trade. Or they'd make the Halladay deal, keep Lee, clear payroll space by unloading Joe Blanton and unleash both Cy Youngs on the world.

Except that wasn't their MO. This was about extending their window of NL dominance as long as possible, not for one brief run at glory.

If they'd stood pat, Lee almost certainly would have headed off next winter to hit the free-agent lottery. And they'd most likely have gotten outbid by the Yankees or Red Sox on Halladay. So without either Lee or Halladay, the Phillies very conceivably might have had to blow up their team and retool.

Now, though, they can hang on to Halladay for at least four years. They still have J.A. Happ -- who "might turn into Cliff Lee" someday, said one scout. They're assuming Halladay's leadership and work ethic will be "exactly what Cole [Hamels] needs" to resuscitate his career, said one member of their organization. And by making the Lee trade, they'll replenish their prospect pool in the same deal that would have emptied it.

Scouts we surveyed were split on whether the prospects exiting (Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor and Travis d'Arnaud) have a higher ceiling than the prospects arriving (Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies and J.C. Ramirez). But the whole group is "a bunch of legit prospects," said one NL scout. "They're not just throwing in a bunch of names to make this look good."

So while the Phillies still have bullpen issues to address, "I like this deal a lot for the Phillies, long-term and short-term," said an AL scout. "They got the best pitcher in the game right now. And they got a couple of guys from Seattle [Aumont and Gillies] I'm surprised they could get."

Finally, this trade is a statement about how far the losingest franchise in professional sports has come. Nine years ago, Curt Schilling couldn't wait to force his way out of this town. Now Philadelphia is a place where a Cy Young winner seems to burst through the door every 15 minutes. This makes three of them GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has acquired just in the last five months (Lee, Halladay and Pedro Martinez). Who'd have thunk it?

The Mariners

The last time this team traded a bunch of prospects for a top-of-the-rotation left-hander, uh, it didn't work out too hot. But enough about Erik Bedard. We're declaring the statute of beat-up-the-Mariners limitations for that mess to be officially over.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Brian J. Myers/US PresswireCliff Lee was 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five postseason starts for the Phillies in '09.

This time, they've traded for the real thing -- Clifton Phifer Lee, a 31-year-old big-game Goliath on a mission to prove his greatness and make his CC-esque fortune.

"I talked to a buddy of Cliff's today," said one baseball man. "And he said, 'This is just going to tick him off even more. He really liked it in Philly. He'll be on a crusade now.'"

No one knows if the Mariners can afford to sign Lee. No one knows if he's amenable to sticking around. But for a year, he and his majesty, King Felix Hernandez, form the meanest, nastiest, most intimidating tag team since the Executioners.

"If you can find a better 1-2 than that," said one scout, "I'd like to see them."

We did hear a lot of praise heaped on Aumont ("big arm") and Gillies ("chance to be dynamic"). But we also heard scouts who questioned whether Aumont will throw enough strikes to be a closer and whether Gillies is still too raw to turn into the heir to Shane Victorino in Philadelphia any time soon. So the Mariners are in no danger of being haunted by this deal in the short term.

And this trade is another sign of just how fast GM Jack Zduriencik has overhauled the whole ambiance of the Mariners in barely a year on the job.

"I like this move for Seattle," said the AL scout quoted earlier. "This and [signing Chone] Figgins clearly upgrades them. I'll tell you what, man. Jack is sharp. He flies under the radar, but when he got that job, I was sure they'd get better. And they have. He's a great evaluator."

The Blue Jays/A's

When you wave farewell to a franchise-changing figure like Roy Halladay, it's never good. There's nothing good about this for the Toronto Blue Jays.

They had the best pitcher in baseball on their payroll for the past eight years -- and never played one postseason game. They were the wrong team in the wrong division in the wrong era. And none of that was Halladay's fault.

But his time had come, and his time had gone. He wanted out. He wasn't going to stay. So the Blue Jays had no choice.

They should have traded him in July when they had more bidders and more leverage. But with no time machine to jump in and no mulligan to play, new GM Alex Anthopoulos did the best he could in a situation that left him with only one team outside the division that Halladay would sign an extension with.

So let's look at what the Jays got back.

Kyle Drabek: "Electric stuff. Hell of a competitor," said one exec. But while the Blue Jays and Phillies have portrayed Drabek as a top-of-the-rotation force, other clubs aren't so sure. We heard "No. 3 starter" a couple of times. We heard questions about his size and durability ("we're talking about a 5-10 right-hander who's already had Tommy John surgery"). But he was the guy the Blue Jays lusted after for six months. So his career will define this trade. It's that basic.

I can remember big trades in the past. But it's been awhile since we've seen anything like this.

-- A longtime baseball executive on
the Roy Halladay-Cliff Lee trade

Brett Wallace: As Buster Olney and Jerry Crasnick reported Tuesday, once this deal goes down, the Blue Jays will spin one of the Phillies' prospects, Michael Taylor, to Oakland for Wallace, who was the centerpiece of the Matt Holliday trade this past July. The A's figured out fast that Wallace couldn't play third base and moved him. But in Toronto, he looms as a successor to Lyle Overbay at first base. And offensively, we don't know anyone who isn't certain that Wallace will hit. "He'll help them," said one scout. "The one thing is, he's a lot like a guy they've already got, in Travis Snider. But Wallace is a better pure hitter. I know they like him a lot."

Travis d'Arnaud: He was the Phillies' top catching prospect and their No. 4 catcher overall. Scouts love his gap power and defensive presence. But he gets mixed reviews for his plate discipline ("no pitch selection at all") and footwork behind the plate. So while his tools are undeniable, he's going to be a work in progress for at least the next two years.

The other lingering Blue Jays question is whether they would have been better off hanging on to Taylor, who inspires massive debate between scouts who love him and scouts who think his power potential will never recover from his three years at Stanford. He's coming off two spectacular minor league seasons (.334, 39 homers, 67 doubles, 36 steals, 172 RBIs). But Toronto loves Wallace and has a bigger long-term need at first base. Oakland needed a right-handed outfield thumper and gets a hometown hero out of this swap. So this seems like a deal that makes sense for both sides.

Whether the Blue Jays' end of this deal makes total sense is another story. "I thought they'd get more," said one scout. But when you size this up, they did better than the Twins did in the Johan Santana deal, got more than the Indians got in either the CC Sabathia or Lee deals and at least got this over with -- for everyone's sake.

And in the end, they helped make history -- with a deal that will never be forgotten.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com