So Shapiro did what no general manager has ever done. For the second consecutive summer, he pulled the trigger on a trade shipping a reigning Cy Young Award winner out of town.
After weeks of speculation about his fate, Lee was on the move Wednesday, and he took outfielder Ben Francisco with him. The Indians traded the pair to the Phillies for a package of four prospects -- Class A right-hander Jason Knapp and Triple-A right-hander Carlos Carrasco, catcher Lou Marson and shortstop Jason Donald.
It was a blockbuster deal that gave the defending World Series champs a No. 1 starter with a year and two months remaining on his contract. And it signaled that this Indians team, which could still ship off veteran catcher Victor Martinez before Friday's 4 p.m. ET Trade Deadline, is in reload mode. The Tribe cleared $9 million off the 2010 books by moving Lee's contract.
"The value was compelling," Shapiro said of the prospect haul. "It had to be compelling. We received three players who can contribute [soon] in a meaningful way, as well as one player with high upside. We had some lack of conviction with the team's ability to be a definitive contender next year. If felt we could contend with zero additions, we definitively would not have made this deal."
Lee and Francisco, getting text messages from friends and watching TV in the clubhouse, learned the deal was going down upon their arrival to Angel Stadium before Wednesday's game. They weren't officially informed of their fate until manager Eric Wedge called them into his office after the Tribe's 9-3 loss.
"Obviously, I'm going to miss all these guys here," said Lee, who is 7-9 with a 3.14 ERA this season. "But it's an opportunity for me to help a team that's in first place and is the defending world champion. As far as that goes, I'm excited."
Francisco echoed that sentiment.
"I'm surprised," he said. "I woke up this morning not even thinking about it. I got to the field and obviously heard everything. It's definitely a shock, but I'm excited to go to a team that is the defending champion."
Lee and Francisco have plenty to look forward to in the coming months. As for those following the Indians, Shapiro knows this is a tough sell to an already frustrated fan base, particularly in the wake of losing CC Sabathia last summer.
"I understand and sympathize with the fans' focus, and their desire is always in that moment and that juncture in time," Shapiro said. "What I'd say is that like any other decision we make, we have one eye on the immediacy of the moment and one eye on building a team that's going to win a championship. Had I just one eye on the moment ... I would have been hoping, rather than believing, we're building something special [for 2010]."
Shapiro pointed to the 2002 trade that brought Lee into the organization -- the famous trade that sent Bartolo Colon to the Expos -- and said the Indians are in much better shape now than they were then, in terms of the depth of talent in the upper levels of the farm system. Hence, he views this as a reload, not a rebuild.
"We've been through it before in a much worse situation with much less in the player-development cabinet and much less [talent] under [contractual] control on the Major League team," Shapiro said. "Ultimately, we provided fans with two contending seasons [after that trade]. We hope to get back into it for a longer period of time [following this trade]."
The Indians' well-documented goal before the deadline was to acquire, in Shapiro's words, "pitching, pitching and more pitching." In this trade, the Tribe received pitching, pitching and a couple position players, fueling speculation that another deal involving Martinez -- who, like Lee, is under control through '10 -- might be in the offing.
Knapp appears to be the key acquisition for the Tribe. He was the Phillies' second-round pick in last year's First-Year Player Draft, and he won't turn 19 until Aug. 31. Listed at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, Knapp has an upper-90s fastball and a large frame. He was starting for Class A Lakewood in the South Atlantic League, where he was 2-7 with a 4.01 ERA in 17 starts, striking out a whopping 111 batters while walking 39 in 85 1/3 innings.
Knapp was recently shut down with right shoulder soreness. He hasn't pitched since July 11. The Indians don't feel the injury is serious.
The 22-year-old Carrasco had been discussed internally by the Tribe last year, when the club was shopping Sabathia. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Carrasco was with Triple-A Lehigh Valley, where he was 6-9 with a 5.18 ERA in 20 starts. He had struck out 112 with 38 walks in 114 2/3 innings.
"He's a guy we feel has a chance to, in a short order, be a core part of our starting rotation," Shapiro said.
Marson is one of the game's top catching prospects. His acquisition could make Martinez more expendable, as it's clear the Indians are cutting costs and Martinez is due to make $7 million if and when his '10 option is exercised.
The 23-year-old Marson has hit .294 with a homer, 13 doubles, 24 RBIs and a .751 OPS in 63 games at Lehigh Valley this season. He appeared in seven games with the Phillies, going 4-for-17 at the plate.
"We're really impressed with his receiving, game-calling and leadership skills," Shapiro said. "Combined with his bat, he could be at least an average everyday Major League catcher."
Donald, 24, was batting .236 with a homer, 15 doubles, one triple, 16 RBIs and a .629 OPS in 51 games at Lehigh Valley. He just recently returned to action after surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee.
Shapiro said Donald complements shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and second baseman Luis Valbuena well and could compete with Valbuena to be the starting second baseman next spring. It's also possible Donald slots in as the utility man, replacing impending free agent Jamey Carroll.
The trade of Lee leaves the Indians without an ace and with plenty of questions about their rotation, both now and looking ahead to 2010. For now, Fausto Carmona, who was ousted to rookie ball in early June and has been reinventing his delivery in the Minors ever since, will be back this weekend, and veteran Jake Westbrook is nearing a return from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery.
As for the outfield, Trevor Crowe will be called up on Friday to take Francisco's spot, seeing time in left and backing up Grady Sizemore in center.