Over the next two weeks, in conjunction with the run-up to the July 31 trade deadline, Phillies Nation will be presenting the Top 10 Trades in Phillies History. Consideration was given to the performance of the players traded with their new club v. the performance of the players acquired with the Phillies in addition to heavily weighing the success of the Phillies once the trade was completed.
This series will be immediately followed by the Top 10 Worst Trades in Phillies History, starting approximately on July 7.
If you looked only at their record, you wouldn’t have guessed the 2009 Phillies necessarily needed any starting pitching. Heading into the July 31st trade deadline, 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels was seemingly turning his season around, winning his last three decisions and the Phillies had just wrapped up a ten-game winning streak and had won four in a row headed into their July 29 match-up against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
But a look at the names that figured into the decisions certainly told a different story. The Phillies were relying on Hamels and a whole lot of offense to dispatch of their opponents. The 2009 Phils would use 12 different starting pitchers that season and had been ravaged by injury to the point that their rotation became Hamels, Joe Blanton, rookie J.A. Happ, and Rodrigo Lopez, while, for a spell, Chan Ho Park, Antonio Bastardo, and Kyle Kendrick held down the back end of the starting totation.
The Phillies were looking to defend their World Series crown and take advantage of their NL-best offense; the Phillies would lead the NL in homers, runs, homers, and slugging while ranking second in stolen bases in 2009. In effort to bolster a return trip to the playoffs for a third straight year, the Phillies knew they had to upgrade their starting rotation. The Phillies had just taken a flyer on former Cy Young winner and future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez in July but Martinez would not be ready until August. Additionally the Phillies had more than one opening in their starting rotation.
The rumors, at the time, suggested that Roy Halladay may have been on his way to Philadelphia. A perennial Cy Young contender, and former Cy Young winner himself, had made overtures toward the Phillies by way of acknowledging rumors during All-Star week press conference questioning. “I think Philadelphia is a great city,” Halladay said. That was all it took for the rumor mill to start churning.
The Phillies, reportedly unwilling to part with Domonic Brown, could not pry away Halladay away from the Jays but they would not let the trade deadline pass empty handed. No, the Phillies would acquire outfielder Ben Francisco and 2008 Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee for pitching prospects Carlos Carrasco and Jason Knapp, catcher Lou Marson, and infielder Jason Donald.
The move wasn’t necessarily seen as a slam dunk at the time of its completion. The Phillies, up seven games in the NL East and in the middle of a four-game winning streak, were seemingly fine with the hulking offense they took the field with each night. And Lee was no sure thing, either: Lee had won 22 games with a 2.54 ERA in 2008 for Cleveland but was omitted from Cleveland’s 2007 playoff roster after a demotion during the season. Sure the Phillies were acquiring a relatively young former Cy Young winner seemingly in his prime but there were several outstanding questions as to whether or not his prime performance was a fluke.
Thankfully for the Phillies, it wasn’t.
Lee provided more than just a standard reliable arm for a team seeking reinforcements. Lee would go 7-4 for the Phillies in 12 starts with a 3.39 ERA with a 1.130 WHIP with a then-career-high 8.4 K/9 IP, helping the Phillies cruise to a 93 win season, out-performing the second-place Marlins by six games.
Lee’s value increased multiple times over as he piled up playoff victory after playoff victory. Looking to avenge their NLDS loss of 2007, the Phils sent Lee to the mound for Game One of the 2009 NLDS against the Colorado Rockies. Lee scattered six hits, struck out five, and allowed just one run. Lee took the mound next in the fourth and deciding game of the NLDS, picking up a no decision, allowing just one earned with five strikeouts, scattering five hits.
The lefty seemed to get better as the playoffs continued, throwing eight innings of shutout ball with ten strikeouts in Game Three of the NLCS in front of a sold-out Citizens Bank Park while picking up a single and run of his own in the eighth inning of a 11-0 thrashing of the Dodgers. The Arkansas native stymied the Yankees in Game One of the World Series at Yankees Stadium, striking out ten again, allowing only one unearned run while scattering six hits and making one of the Phillies all-time most memorable fielding plays. In a do or die Game Five, Lee bent but did not break, earning his fourth win of the postseason, matching Cole Hamels’ club record for wins in a single postseason set the year before.
But, just like that, with the blink of an eye, in a flash, Lee was gone. With an opportunity to acquire Halladay right in front of him, General Manager Ruben Amaro, who brilliantly engineered the trade to acquire Lee, sent him packing for a package of pitchers Phillippe Aumont and J.C. Ramirez and outfielder Tyson Gillies.
For the purposes of this list, all trades are viewed in a vacuum. In Lee, Amaro acquired a slightly risky arm with a brilliant previous season but not much of a track record beyond that. The gamble paid off in spades and the Phillies acquired a much needed starting pitcher that not only helped them maintain their division lead but also helped them win the 2009 pennant. And I’d be remiss to not include any mention of Francisco: Francisco was solid in the fourth and fifth outfielder role for the Phillies from 2009 through 2011, posting a .259/.332/.420 line and a go-ahead, pinch-hit homer in Game 3 of the 2011 NLDS against the Cardinals off of Jaime Garcia.
What helps this trade is that none of the players that were acquired for Lee became anything more than regular Major Leaguers at best while one never made a Major League roster.
The most successful of the group, Carrasco, reached the Majors in 2009 but posted an 8.87 ERA while averaging an uncharacteristically-low 4.43 K/9 IP. Carrasco improved but has only pitched more than 100 innings in the Majors once (2011) while posting a 5.08 ERA. Knapp succumbed to elbow issues and was out of professional baseball from 2010 until this year when the Rangers signed him and stashed him in High-A Myrtle Beach. Marson, believed at one point to be the Phillies’ power-hitting catcher of the future, became a career .219/.309/.299 Major League hitter and has not played professional baseball in 2014 after being a Spring Training casualty of the Phillies while Donald, projected to be a second-division regular, has spent most of the five-plus seasons since the trade in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Texas’ Triple-A clubhouses. Donald is a career .257/.309/.362 Major League hitter.
In acquiring Lee, Amaro used pieces that had no immediate use to a competing team and turned them into a top-flight starting pitcher. The pieces went on to middling Major League careers despite being Major League-ready at young ages at the time of the trade. The Arkansan southpaw put the Phillies on his back and took them all the way to the pennant in 2009 and may have been called upon on short-rest to start Game 7 had the Phillies been able to stretch the series any longer.
This trade could have ranked number two, possibly even number one, had the Phillies actually kept Lee for the 2010 season at the $9 million price tag his contract commanded. A 2010 pairing of the NL Cy Young Halladay and AL Cy Young contender Lee could have been lethal and would have likely negated the necessity to deal midseason for Roy Oswalt. Lee would win three games for the Texas Rangers in the 2010 playoffs before dropping two in the World Series.
Let’s stop before we get too far into the trade that sent Lee out of town to Seattle. I’m sure that will end up on another list.