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Welcome To Arlington, Cliff Lee

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At a high cost, Cliff Lee gives the Rangers something they've not quite had before.

Hey, folks. The Rangers traded for the best pitcher in the American League (at worst) last night. Not sure if you noticed.

This instantly becomes the best pitcher the Rangers have had since probably Fergie Jenkins in the 70s.  Maybe ever. No, his career hasn't been better than Nolan Ryan or Bert Blyleven, but his last few seasons have been better than theirs were in Texas, and his total season in 2010 might just be better than any Rangers pitcher has been ever.

If that doesn't get you excited, I don't know what will.

I think Matthew Carruth of Lookout Landing described Lee best yesterday with this:

He cannot throw a 90mph changeup, a 100mph fastball with movement or a slider that's untouchable. What Lee does is take what he does have and repeat it time and again, over and over, doing precisely what he wants with it. Instead of being the Swiss army knife of pitchers, Lee is the Swiss watch. He is simply pitching, perfected.

And that's exactly right. If you're frustrated by nibbling, walks or inconsistent command, you're in for a treat every five days the rest of the season as a Rangers fan. Lee does what he does by keeping the ball where hitters can't do anything with it, while staying in the zone at a completely ridiculous pace. 72.5% of his pitches this year have been for strikes. He's had six walks all season to go with his 89 strikeouts. His K/BB rate is more than eight strikeouts per walk better than the next best pitcher in baseball.

Six walks. In 13 starts. Think about that.

He is simply awesome. Stats only begin to describe Lee, and if you haven't watched him yet, you'll know that soon. The way he confidently shreds through hitters at will with surgical precision is pretty hard to convey without actually seeing. It's almost an art form, especially this season, when he's seemed like he's on a higher plane than the rest of baseball.

Ubaldo Jimenez has put up his eye-popping numbers thanks to some good luck, the lack of a DH and electric stuff that can sometimes be close-your-eyes wild. Lee doesn't have that stuff, but there's no sense of potential wildness, and the numbers also aren't thanks to much luck. Lee's Fielding Independent Pitching is actually lower than his ERA (2.21 to 2.34). That's something that will almost certainly rise in a more homer-friendly park (he has an xFIP of 3.24), but keeping an ERA under 3.50 is pretty realistic, if not pessimistic, going forward.

It's already been discussed how much Lee would probably help the team going forward, both in the pennant race and the playoffs, so rather than recap I'll just link you. But, as a quick and dirty example, FanGraphs currently has Lee's 2010 season as having been worth approximately four wins above a replacement level pitcher. That's about what the Rangers have gotten from their worst pitchers this season. So, if Lee's innings this season had been in Texas instead of Rich Harden and Matt Harrison, you could realistically expect the division lead to be almost ten games right now.

Soak that in.

Of course, all that awesome rotation help comes at a price. And that price was Justin Smoak.

Blake Beavan, Matt Lawson and Josh Leuke are certainly not completely expendable, but they brought back a potentially solid reliever in Mark Lowe, cash for a team that needs it, two Type A compensation draft picks, and a shot at adding Cliff Lee. The real meat is simply giving the Mariners the next six years of Smoak for three months of Lee.

The Rangers were fortunate to have Smoak in the first place, as he never should have fallen so far in the draft. But he did, and he instantly became one of the most heralded prospects in baseball. His ceiling as a very good MLB bat with at least solid defense at first was a big part of excitement about the Rangers future. That potential is now going to be a part of a division rival, and the Rangers have to find someone else to man first base in their future plans.

And Smoak isn't necessarily just a loss of future value, his removal potentially also creates a hole for the roster going forward. Smoak was showing much better skills at the Major League level than his paltry .209/.316/.353 slash line suggests. Despite having a 23.9% line drive rate that rivaled Josh Hamilton, Smoak had a .238 batting average on balls in play. A 12.2% infield fly rate contributed to some of that, but unlikely all of it. His weighted on base average of .299 regresses to more like a well-above-average .353 when regressed for ball in play rates. And his .832 OPS in June suggests he was coming around a bit.

So far this year, he's been no more than the team probably could have gotten out of Chris Davis, but Smoak was a much more likely candidate off of peripherals to improve going forward than Davis. Just regressing to that performance and keeping average defense suggests Smoak could probably have realistically been worth an extra game in the standings over what Davis has been over his career. And if you buy in to that, and if you don't expect Davis to reproduce his rookie year, then that takes some 2010 value out of the Lee deal.

Of course, Davis could just figure something out, fill in well at first now and in the future, and the loss will be somewhat moot.

And there is more to the value of the trade than simply the gains that are easily measured. For one, this bullpen is getting taxed, throwing more innings than any other in the American League. Some of the struggles the last two nights may well be a result. The pen has been incredible for the Rangers, but keeping it rested going forward is important. Cliff Lee's staggering 7+ innings per start over the last two and a half seasons will help with that, and add at least a little bit of a gain for the Rangers going forward that WAR doesn't quite capture.

And then there's the fan experience. The Rangers need something to sell tickets and generate interest in the franchise. To bring fans in to rooting for a winning ball club. Cliff Lee is something to get excited about. He gives fans something thrilling to watch every five days, he improves the chances of seeing a rewarding pennant race, and, most importantly of all, helps improve the chances of fans seeing the first ever legitimate Texas Rangers playoff run. And it is certainly easier to get people to buy in to the Rangers chances going in to a series against an AL East juggernaut by touting Cliff Lee to start the opening game, instead of merely trying to convince them that every team has a shot in the playoffs. That builds interest and finances for a franchise that needs it. And for those of us who are going to watch anyway, it's just plain fun to see something special.

And even if the Rangers are already more likely to make the postseason than miss it, there's something to be said about stomping the competition out instead of calling merely "likely" good enough.

There are very legitimate reasons to both love and hate this trade. Justin Smoak will most likely hurt in the future, but for the next three months, Cliff Lee makes the Rangers a better and more exciting team. As long as the reasoning is good, no one should easily dismiss anyone who would rather have kept Smoak and rolled with the team as-is. And by the same token, as long as the argument is sound, no one should easily dismiss anyone who wants to see the Rangers go hard for it now after ten years of missing the playoffs and an entire existence without championships. Adding Cliff Lee does not guarantee success, but losing Justin Smoak does not destroy the future.

Whether for or against the trade, though, it's done. Right now, worrying about if it should have been made accomplishes nothing. Instead, embrace the fact that you'll probably get to watch maybe the best pitcher of 2010 throwing for your team every 5th day. Get excited about knowing the offense doesn't even need to be average to win a game when Lee is on the mound. Think about how Colby Lewis, who has pitched like a legitimate Top of the Rotation Pitcher in 2010, will be the No. 2 starter in a short series.

Lee makes his first start at 7:05 (CST) today, and it deserves all the fanfare it gets. If you can, go. If you can't go, watch. A dominant ace the likes of which most fans of this team has never really seen will be starting a game in a pennant race before going to the All Star Game to wear their colors.

The Rangers most thrilling season in years is now complimented with the best caliber of pitching anyone could ever hope for. It's time.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.