Bizarre Moves from Seasons Past: The trading of Ted Lilly

Welcome to the latest installment of Yankeeist’s “Bizarre Moves from Seasons Past” series. We previously covered the trading of Mike Lowell, the non-signing of David Ortiz, the non-signing of Andy Pettitte after the 2003 season, the non-signing of Vladimir Guerrero and the non-signing of Carlos Beltran.

On July 5, 2002, the Yankees were 54-31 and in first place, two games up on Boston. Though the team started the year with a rotation of Mike Mussina, David Wells, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Orlando Hernandez, injuries to both Pettitte and El Duque pressed 26-year-old lefthander Ted Lilly into starting duty in the 19th game of the season. Lilly stayed in the rotation for nine straight starts, followed by two relief appearances in mid-June, and then two more starts — the first of which was a complete game three-hit shutout of the Padres on June 22 — before being shipped to the A’s (along with Jason Arnold and John-Ford Griffin) in which the the Yankees received Jeff Weaver from Detroit and the A’s sent Franklyn German, Carlos Pena and Jeremy Bonderman to the Tigers.

Weaver, of course, turned out to be a spectacular failure in pinstripes, with his worst moment coming in Game 4 of the 2003 World Series against Florida. With a chance to take a commanding three games to one series lead, Joe Torre called on Weaver to preserve the tie in the bottom of the 12th (mind you, Mariano Rivera had yet to enter the game, being “saved” by Clueless Joe to protect a lead that would never come), and Weaver — who hadn’t pitched once in the playoffs up to that point — gave up a game-winning walk-off home run to Alex Gonzalez. The Yankees went on to lose the next two games (Game 5 was the David Wells one-inning start; Game 6 was the Josh Beckett shutout masterpiece) and the series, falling to the Marlins four games to two.

However, at the time of the trade, I recall having conversations with people who felt like it was a good deal for the Yankees (unfortunately this trade predates blogs). Weaver was a year younger than Lilly and had a more impressive track record. But the numbers for 2002 are closer than you might think: in 17 starts for Detroit, Weaver racked up a 133 ERA+; Lilly had a 130 ERA+, albeit in six fewer starts. Lilly was also more adept at keeping runners off base, with a 1.06 WHIP compared to Weaver’s 1.20. Let’s take a quick look at their respective career statistics pre-trade:

Weaver ERA+ Lilly ERA+ Weaver FIP Lilly FIP
1999 89 59 5.22 6.13
2000 108 86 4.47 3.88
2001 104 83 3.87 4.79
2002 133 130 3.17 4.25

What really jumps out at me is Weaver’s 3.17 FIP for the Tigers in 2002. Based on this relatively limited data set, dealing Lilly for Weaver does seem like an upgrade.

And here are their seasonal numbers following the trade:

Weaver ERA+ Lilly ERA+ Weaver FIP Lilly FIP
2002 109 94 4.19 5.23
2003 73 102 4.26 4.19
2004 102 119 3.89 4.5
2005 97 80 4.47 5.32
2006 78 106 5.47 4.79
2007 71 121 5.07 4.16
2008 N/A 112 N/A 4.41
2009 108 145 4.07 3.65
Car 93 107 4.40 4.45

The career FIPs are closer than I would have guessed, but on the whole Ted Lilly — with the exception of the remainder of the 2002 season and 2005 — has been a superior pitcher to Jeff Weaver. I also had no idea Lilly had as good a year as he had this past season.

Moving on from what ended up being an unfortunate trade, back in the ’06-’07 offseason there were some who thought the Yankees should’ve re-signed the free agent Lilly. The Cubs wound up inking Lilly to a four-year, $40 million deal — it’s kind of amazing that a pitcher coming off a 106 ERA+ season was able to command such a pact (even Carl Pavano at least had the decency to have had a 137 ERA+ season in his walk year) — and so far have actually gotten $43.5 million of value out of him (according to FanGraphs) with a year still to go on the contract. It’s impossible to say whether Lilly would’ve lived up to his deal in the considerably more challenging AL East, but given his familiarity with both the Yankees and the division, it’s a decent possibility.
While nowhere near as head-scratching as the trading of Lowell in 1999, it’s interesting to think about how things might have been different for the pitching-challenged Yankee teams of 2004 and 2005 (not to mention Game 4 of the ’03 World Series) had Lilly remained in the Bronx.

One thought on “Bizarre Moves from Seasons Past: The trading of Ted Lilly

  1. Probably my least favorite trade of the past decade. Weaver certainly had more "name" recognition at that point, but Lilly had probably been the team's best starter up until the time of the trade. The Yankees should never trade good left-handed starters without good reason. Jeff Weaver wasn't reason enough.