While we heard yesterday from ESPN’s Buster Olney that the Phillies have finally informed teams a certain number of their veteran players are on the trading block, Cliff Lee was apparently not on that list. But in his Fox Sports column today, Ken Rosenthal reports that the Phillies have discussed their All-Star lefty with other clubs. Rosenthal acknowledges that the Phils are unlikely to trade Lee, in large part due to their insistence on receiving a huge haul in return for the former Cy Young winner:
“One rival executive on Sunday night acknowledged the Phillies’ willingness to trade Lee but said the team would do it only “for a lot!!!” — meaning, a steep package of talent.”
The Phils have every right to start the bidding for Lee sky high. He is an elite pitcher and has a track record of dominance come October. He is likely the most coveted player that has any chance of changing teams before Wednesday’s 4pm trade deadline. But Rosenthal outlines several other things that may preclude a Lee trade, as paraphrased below:
– Lee’s contract includes a 20-team no-trade clause and has about $70MM left on it ($9MM left in 2013 and a $12.5MM buyout for 2016). Lee’s $120MM contract has essentially worked out for the Phils, especially when compared to some of the other nine-figure deals given to free agents in recent years. Lee is still a stud, but the no-trade clause and the money narrows down the list of teams that’d be willing to take on the money and fork over premium talent in return.
– The trade deadline is 54 hours away, giving Ruben Amaro Jr. limited time to find the right deal. Rosenthal reports that, despite the front office’s ridiculous lip service in June, the Phils have done their homework on teams that may have interest in Lee. Still, the offseason would be the ideal time for the Phils to move Lee, when teams have a better understanding of their own financials.
– “Ruben has always been a buyer,” one rival executive said. “He doesn’t know how to sell.” This is one of the more interesting quotes in Rosenthal’s story. Trading Lee the first time was a disaster, but Amaro did gain the experience of a semi-sell last year when he moved Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton and Hunter Pence, albeit for what (so far) looks like limited returns.
– Unlike the first go round with Lee, the Phillies are under no financial pressure to move Lee. They can afford him, and with their new TV deal looming, they can afford a couple more guys like him in the near future.
– As we know, Lee was scratched from his start on Saturday with a stiff neck. With the type of package he would require, any injury is likely to be disconcerting for his suitors. Working in the Phillies favor, however, is Lee’s stellar record of health. He is one of the most durable starters in the major leagues, which may alleviate concerns.
This is a tough spot for Ruben. If he is to trade the guy that he gave $120MM to just two-and-a-half years ago, he absolutely must get a legitimate haul in return… something he didn’t do when he traded him to Seattle after the 2009 season. But should he have to be “blown away” in order to pull the trigger? That is certainly what it sounds it will take, per Rosenthal’s reporting.
To me, the answer is no. As currently constructed, I don’t believe the Phillies can put together a contender while Lee is still good enough to contribute. Just because they can afford him isn’t a reason that should prevent them from moving him. They have too many gaping holes and with free agency the way it is these days, all the TV money in the world isn’t enough to fill them… not in two years at least (they have a club option on Lee in 2016). The only way to turn this thing around is to stock up on young, near major-league ready talent to go with Domonic Brown, Cole Hamels and (hopefully) Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. With Papelbon’s struggles and word that Chase Utley may be brought back, Lee is the only plausible piece on their roster that can bring that back.