On the Idea of Trading Zach Lee

As trading season heats up – and as news of Dee Gordon‘s thumb surgery leaves the Dodgers with three total black holes in the infield, along with their other issues – you can bet that you’re going to hear the name of Zach Lee coming up quite a bit in rumors more and more. As we’ve talked about a lot, the Dodgers are going to go all-in this year no matter how banged-up they get, and that means we could be seeing a lot of prospects headed out of town.

Lee’s the consensus top Dodger prospect, and as prospects go, he’s seen pretty favorably. He came in at #49 in Baseball America‘s midseason top 50 list yesterday, up from the #62 he was prior to the season, and ESPN’s Keith Law noted in a chat this week that he thinks Lee could turn into a #1 starter. In parts of two seasons, he’s struck out 153 against 45 walks, and at the end of June he made it to Double-A Chattanooga two months ahead of his 21st birthday. Even the few less-positive reviews of Lee I’ve seen say that he might only be a #3 type rather than a true ace, and while that might not be as high of a ceiling as we’d like to dream on, that’s still a pretty valuable major leaguer.

If that all sounds good, it should, because Lee is probably the most highly-regarded Dodger pitching prospect since Clayton Kershaw. That, of course, makes him desirable in the eyes of teams hoping to gouge the Dodgers this month as they desperately try to patch up their offense despite a lack of other high-end prospects. The idea of trading Lee stirs up a lot of different emotions in people; to some, he’s absolutely untouchable, while to others, he’s just a long-away prospect.

For my part, I never consider any prospect completely off-limits, unless you’re dealing with a once-in-a-generation type like Mike Trout or Bryce Harper. There’s a price to be had for any prospect, and if you can extract proper value, then so be it. While we all like to think that every draft pick is going to excel in a Dodger uniform, it doesn’t always work that way; value can be had in trade as well as on-field performance. It just has to be for the right reasons in the right situation, is all – and apologies if you’ve heard me say this a million times before – and that’s why trading Carlos Santana for two months of Casey Blake and James McDonald for twenty minutes of Octavio Dotel never made much sense.

So is there a deal out there which could be appropriate to include Lee in? I’ll say this right off the bat, there’s absolutely no way I would do what the Giants did with Zack Wheeler last season and trade Lee for a rental who can walk at the end of the year. There’s almost no player out there who could impact this Dodger team so much in just two months that giving up six years of Zach Lee makes sense, and if that means we’re not going to be seeing Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke this summer, then I’m okay with that. I’d much rather hang on to Lee, accept that Ryan Dempster (or someone like him) will contribute about a win less over the remainder of the season, then throw gobs of cash at Hamels or Greinke and have one of them join Kershaw and potentially Lee himself in a fantastically interesting rotation for the next few years. No rentals are worth losing Lee over. Period.

If you’re trading someone like Lee, it’d better be for someone who’s under team control for at least another year if not more, and that’s where things get interesting. The stars you’d like to get – let’s say, a Joey Votto, or an Andrew McCutchen – are obviously not available on any planet, and the rest of the market is flooded with non-impact plug-ins. The obvious names here are the two we’ve been talking about for some time, Houston’s Jed Lowrie & San Diego’s Chase Headley. Each are controllable through 2014, and the fact that they bring two additional years of control beyond this season makes them immensely valuable. (That’s right, I’m now in the position of saying that Lowrie & Headley may be more valuable trade commodities than Hamels & Greinke, though obviously not better players, just because of how much of their time you’re purchasing.) Lowrie & Headley were born less than a month apart from each other in 1984, which puts each into their age-28 season right now and makes them under team control through their age-29 and -30 seasons, which is exactly when you want a player.

Whichever one you get, you’re not only fixing a current need at third base – Lowrie would fill in for Gordon first in the short term, of course – you’re handling a future need, because the Dodgers have absolutely nothing at the position in the minors and the best of the upcoming free agency class might actually be Maicer Izturis. Which, ugh. Given the choice between the two, I’d probably prefer Headley, since he’s been far more durable and is a better defender; besides, I like the version of Headley that’s away from his pitching-friendly home field (.848 OPS this year) much better than I do Lowrie away from Houston (.716 OPS).

Are either worth Lee? I’d like to think that it’s possible to get either without, but I don’t know that it is. Though I’d like to get Lowrie, I wouldn’t trade Lee for him, not with his injury history and the fact that just a few months ago he was worth only a kinda-good reliever (Mark Melancon) and a fringe starter (Kyle Weiland). As for Headley… well, on name value alone, no. But he’s a third baseman at a time where finding a third baseman is becoming impossible, and he’s a very good one; right now, he’s second behind David Wright in fWAR on the season, and since 2010, he’s ahead of Wright and behind only Adrian Beltre & Evan Longoria. Because he plays for a poor team in a small market and in a ballpark that crushes his productivity, he rarely gets press, yet adding him would solidify third base for the next two-plus seasons at a time where I genuinely have no idea where else they could turn.

Of course, Headley & Lowrie aren’t the only two guys on the market, but they do seem to be the only guys who could help now and into the future. I suppose some team could try to put together an interesting package that relies more on quantity than quality, since the Dodgers have so many holes right now. But that doesn’t seem worthy of moving Lee for. Unfortunately, if the Dodgers want to improve their offense, they may be forced to do so via trade, because, the list of upcoming free agents is less than appetizing; as we’ve seen in Los Angeles with Matt Kemp & Andre Ethier, teams just don’t let their quality young bats make it to free agency anymore. Look at the list of guys coming free after 2013, and you’ll mostly see players who were at their peak years ago, aside from outfielders Chris Young, Shin-Soo Choo, & Hunter Pence, none of whom might be available or good fits for a trade right now in 2012.

I don’t want to trade Zach Lee. I hope, badly, that he’s still in the organization a month from now, and I don’t see a lot of reasons to move him. Still, the more I think about Chase Headley, and how perfectly he fits this team’s needs both now and in the future, and how much easier it would be for this team to replace one pitching prospect than find a third baseman… well, I don’t know if I’m quite there yet in moving Lee for him, but I think I could certainly be talked into it.