Cliff Lee tossed a complete game in his first start with the Philadelphia Phillies on July 31, 2009 in San Francisco. He again pitched the entirety of the game in his first postseason start, allowing just six hits and one run in a complete game against the Colorado Rockies in Game 1 of the 2009 NLDS. And all he did in his first World Series start was turn in one of the most iconic performances in the history of the team, striking out 10 batters in a complete game at Yankee Stadium.
Lee’s first stint with the Phillies only lasted a few months, but he forever etched his name into the franchise’s lore during that period. That made it shocking when the Phillies traded Lee to the Seattle Mariners less than two months after his postseason heroics.
However, while the Phillies really liked Lee, Toronto Blue Jays RHP Roy Halladay had been the team’s No. 1 target at the 2009 trade deadline. When the opportunity presented itself to acquire Halladay again that offseason, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. pounced, completing one of the most important trades in team history. Acquiring Halladay, though, came with the caveat that Amaro had to move Lee in a corresponding move.
In Todd Zolecki’s new book “Doc: The Life of Roy Halladay,” Amaro Jr. admits that he didn’t want to ever move Lee.
“It’s something I didn’t necessarily want to do,” Amaro said in the book. “That was kind of part of the deal. If you’re going to keep dumping some of this talent out of the system, you better replenish. We had to answer to some people. It wasn’t that we didn’t want Cliff on our club and it wasn’t that I didn’t want a super rotation.”
The book suggests that the late David Montgomery, the team’s president at the time, pushed Amaro to make a move to restock the system if he was going to give up a package of young talent for Halladay.
The return that the Phillies got for Lee – RHP Phillippe Amount, RHP J.C. Ramirez and outfielder Tyson Gillies – ultimately proved to be a disastrous return. Amaro admits in the book that he regrets how quickly the Phillies moved Lee, but suggests – probably correctly – that if the team didn’t trade Lee as part of a corresponding move with Halladay, it would have given fans time to envision a super rotation, only for the rug to be pulled out from under them when he was eventually traded.
Even if the Phillies had netted a return for Lee that would have ended up helping them in the future, trading Lee would have been a nearly impossible sell after his 2009 postseason run. It became even harder to swallow when Lee had one of the most efficient seasons in MLB history in 2010, posting a staggeringly low 0.76 walks per nine innings in a season that he split with the Mariners and Texas Rangers. After a regular season that saw him post a career-high 7.3 fWAR, Lee helped the Rangers to reach the World Series for the first time in franchise history.
Halladay – who once admitted he wasn’t sure Phillies fans would like him after the trade of Lee – more than held up his end of the bargain in 2010. The future Hall of Famer won the National League Cy Young Award, tossed the second perfect game in franchise history and recorded just the second postseason no-hitter in MLB history in his first postseason start.
Still, it became apparent as Lee turned in an incredible 2010 season that it probably didn’t need to be an either/or situation with him and Halladay. Before trading him, the Phillies exercised a $9.5 million option on Lee’s contract that would keep him with the team through the 2010 season. Could they have financially afforded to keep both? Yes. There would have been an admission that the Phillies may have some lean years ahead in the future, but perhaps it would have been worth it for such an opportunity.
Of course, Lee would return in free agency after the 2010 season for a much higher price, signing a five-year/$120 million deal. Who knows if the Phillies would have re-signed Lee if they hadn’t traded him in the first place. They almost certainly wouldn’t have acquired three-time All-Star Roy Oswalt from the Houston Astros in July of 2010 if they hadn’t traded Lee prior to the season.
However, for as excellent as Oswalt was for the Phillies in 2010, he wasn’t as good as Lee would have been. Halladay and Lee formed one of the greatest one-two punches in MLB history in 2011, but Halladay fell off physically after that season. So while they were teammates for three seasons, Halladay and Lee were only really teammates during their respective peaks for one season. Even though that season didn’t end how the Phillies hoped it would, they did win a franchise-record 102 games during the 2011 regular season. Maybe if the Phillies had kept Lee for the 2010 season, he and Halladay could have helped them to win their second World Series title in three years.
As is, we’ll be left to wonder what the 2010 Phillies season would have looked like if Lee was still in pinstripes. The Phillies would still likely be having a number retirement ceremony for Halladay, but it wouldn’t have been No. 34, because Lee wore that number in 2009 and likely wouldn’t have been asked to give it up if he remained on the team.
Todd Zolecki’s tremendous book “Doc: The Life of Roy Halladay” is currently available on all e-readers and will become available in hard copy on May 19. You can order it here.
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