As the clock creeps towards today’s 4pm trade deadline, die-hard Phillies fans are sure to be glued to their rumors source of choice. Last night’s report that Jake Peavy is headed to Boston put a sizable dent in the Phillies chances of moving Cliff Lee, leaving only the Tigers, Cardinals and Dodgers as plausible suitors for the prized left hander.
At this point, there is little doubt that Lee is available, and the reports that say so also indicate that the Phillies’ asking price for him is steep, as it should be. Many saw Boston as the frontrunner to pry Lee from the Phils, but in the end it sounds like the asking price (Xander Bogaerts perhaps?) was too high, so the Sox moved on to Plan B and the Phillies were left with little hope of a monster return for their most valuable trade asset.
Bogaerts wasn’t going anywhere for many of the same reasons that Domonic Brown was never available when the Phillies were hunting for aces of their own over the past five years. Prospects of that ilk are rarely moved, regardless of the stakes, and especially when surrendering them also requires picking up a $70 million tab in the process. Assuming Bogaerts, or even Jackie Bradley Jr., were the sticking points in negotiations with the Sox, it is safe to say that any team hoping to acquire Lee’s services today will have to submit an offer that blows Amaro away. Which leads to the question, has Amaro set the bar for Lee too high?
Trading established stars for prospects is risky business. No one knows that better than Amaro, who has acquired Lee, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt in recent years for packages that have yet to yield much at the major league level. He also traded Lee before the 2010 season for a haul bad enough that he’s since admitted it was a mistake. But in the Phillies current situation, that shouldn’t be an argument not to move Lee. Quite simply, that is because one could argue the risk of not trading him is greater than the risk of again moving him for a flawed return.
This is not to suggest that the Phillies dump Cliff Lee. Amaro should be asking for the moon for him. What he shouldn’t be doing is refusing to move the lefthander if he doesn’t get it. While his contract may prohibit the Phillies from acquiring top 10 MLB prospects, Lee can still undoubtedly fetch an impressive package. This Phillies team, with Lee, is going nowhere fast and he is their most coveted asset. Without a youth infusion, they’re going to be right back here next year – stuck between bad and good with a farm system too weak to get the arrow pointing skyward.
Sure, with a huge TV deal looming, the Phillies have bottomless pockets. But free agency has changed. Teams have smartened up, locking up their stars young and leaving the free agent market with only a few aging impact players per offseason, sure to get drastically overpaid due to supply and demand (think Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols). There are still deals to be found for under-the-radar types, but let’s face it, this Phillies team, as currently constructed, needs to add elite talent, and a lot of it, if it wants to return to contention. Let’s pretend it’s a perfect world, and the Phillies stand pat and then land Shin-Soo Choo and Matt Garza this offseason. Does that get them to the playoffs? Not in my eyes, and that is in a perfect world.
With that in mind, isn’t holding onto everyone (except Michael Young presumably) – and in turn assuring themselves of mediocrity – riskier than taking a chance on a very-good-but-not-great package for Lee? Or, for that matter, for any aging player on their roster with value?
Look at what the Rays did with James Shields this offseason. They knew they had little hope to keep a pitcher like him after his deal expired in 2014, so they capitalized on his value and landed top prospect Wil Myers, who has an OPS of .900 and has been pivotal to their rise to the top of the AL East. The teams and situations are very different – Lee won’t fetch a Wil Myers and the Phillies have plenty of money – but the rudimentary philosophy is similar. The innovative Rays recognized their situation, and acted accordingly. The Phillies should learn from an organization much smarter than they are, and do the same.
Regardless of the haul the Phils would get for Lee, it’d be impossible to predict the outcome on the spot. Sometimes teams get burnt, like the Phils did with Curt Schilling. Sometimes teams get immediate returns, as we saw this year with the Rays and Myers and the Brewers with Jean Segura (acquired in the Zack Greinke deal). And sometimes, as Jonathan Villar showed us last night, it can be somewhere in between.
What isn’t impossible to predict, is that the only way this team will return to relevance anytime soon is for the front office to get creative. Improving the farm system by moving valuable-but-aging assets, and then spending the money saved intelligently in free agency (the opposite of giving a closer $50 million) qualifies as creative. Stubbornly refusing to recognize that your roster is flawed, and doing nothing, does not. Maybe Amaro can keep everyone and pull a rabbit out of his hat and we’ll be talking playoffs a year from now, but I wouldn’t put my money on it. Would you?