Sunday Insider: The rent-a-pitcher plunge

If Seattle dangles Cliff Lee, the Twins have the motivation and the resources to swing a deal. But it's not without risk.

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Cliff Lee has found his groove lately for the Mariners, throwing three complete games in his past four starts.

Photo: Elaine Thompson, Associated Press - Ap

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In 1995, the Yankees were on the hunt for a starting pitcher and found one in former Cy Young winner David Cone. They landed him from Toronto for pitchers Marty Jansen, Jason Jarvis and Mike Gordon.

Who, who and who? I'm guessing that Toronto fans were left wanting as Cone re-signed with the Yankees and became a vital player.

In 1998, the Astros coveted former Cy Young winner Randy Johnson. They landed him from Seattle for righthander Freddy Garcia, infielder Carlos Guillen and lefthander John Halama. While Mariners fans wound up with two good regulars, Johnson went 10-1 for Houston and helped them to the playoffs, where they were eliminated by the Padres. Johnson was the classic rent-a-player and signed with Arizona during the offseason.

Keep this in mind as the Twins consider going where they have never gone before and trade top prospects for a rent-a-player who could put them over the top.

In this case, it's Mariners lefthander Cliff Lee. Like Cone and Johnson, he's a former Cy Young winner in the final year of his contract who could be had for the right price. That price could be steep, as in one of the Twins' top prospects, a pitcher off their current staff and a lower-level prospect. The Mariners might seek more than that as they try to maximize the return on Lee, who is 6-3 with a 2.39 ERA with a ridiculous four walks in 86 2/3 innings.

When Cleveland traded Lee to Philadelphia before last year's July 31 deadline, it cost the Phillies their second-, third-, fourth- and 10th-best prospects, according to Baseball America's preseason rankings.

But all indications are that the Twins are willing to make such a deal. They are also willing to look at Houston righthander Roy Oswalt if they can't swing a deal for Lee -- if they don't have to give up too much (Oswalt is guaranteed about $24 million through 2011 with a $16 million option for 2012 or a $2 million buyout).

Seattle is expected to sit back and let the market build. It also gives the Mariners more time to see if they can climb back into the AL West race. Even with other suitors, the Twins can woo Seattle with a package led by catching prospect Wilson Ramos (a National League scout told me last weekend in Philadelphia that Seattle's catchers aren't very good).

The team that has Lee at the end of the season will receive two compensation picks (a first-rounder and a sandwich pick) that come when Lee hits the free agent market this offseason (he's a lock to walk). That influences the asking price, too. A red flag could pop up if Seattle has one of the 15 worst records in baseball. The first-round pick then becomes a second-rounder, which could influence what the Twins will give up, because they can use those picks to replenish what they lost. Just like Houston did when they watched Johnson leave after 1998.

Their compensation picks that year: outfielder Michael Rosamond and catcher Jay Perez.

What we've learned here is: 1. The Twins could fleece Seattle as much as the other way around. 2. Lee might not guarantee success, as Houston saw in 1998. 3. The Twins could whiff on the draft picks.

Happy hunting, Twins.

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