In an interview with CSNPhilly.com’s Jim Salisbury earlier this week, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. intimated that trading Cliff Lee is not part of the Phillies’ plans – that keeping he and Cole Hamels atop the Phils’ rotation gives them the best chance to win both now and in the future.
Still, it’s impossible to ignore Lee’s immense trade value. He’s a top-five pitcher in the game who has two years of control left after 2013, and will be coveted by any contending team. His salary is high – he’s owed $62.5 million after this season, but that’s the cost of dealing. It may be a lot of money, but if Lee were a free agent today most teams would jump at the chance to sign him to a three-year deal worth between $62.5M and $77.5M.
Plus it’s not unthinkable that the Phillies would take on some of his money if it meant getting a better return. That is, IF they decide to shop Lee.
Lee has a no-trade clause that we examined on Sunday (see story). He can block trades to 21 teams, including the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles and Rangers. Typically, big-market teams are included in these no-trade clauses because A) They tend to be the teams capable of trading for a high-priced talent, and B) They are more inclined to exercise the buyout on a contract than a small-market team. The Pirates, for example, would be more leery of paying Lee’s $12.5M buyout in 2017 than Boston or New York, to whom issuing “dead money” is a common occurrence.
Now, if some sort of deal was worked out, the acquiring team could obviously make a commitment to Lee for that 2017 season to ensure he accepted the trade. But one team absent from his no-trade clause entirely that would be a perfect fit is the St. Louis Cardinals, according to FoxSports.com.
The Cards are not a $150 million payroll team, but they regularly spend over $100 million. They entered 2013 with their highest opening day payroll ever, at $116.8M.
St. Louis has the best record in baseball (41-22) and the best farm system in baseball. It’s almost unfair. The Cardinals just keep churning out top-notch talent from their farm system. A quick look at this year’s roster makes that abundantly clear – Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, David Freese, Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Jason Motte – all of these players are homegrown and most of them are studs.
The Cardinals have the top prospect in baseball in outfielder Oscar Taveras. The 20-year-old Dominican has hit .320 in four minor-league seasons, and last year in his first full season hit .321/.380/.572 with 23 homers, 94 RBIs and 37 doubles. He’s off to another hot start this year, and critics both inside and outside the organization are calling him the best prospect since Albert Pujols.
When thinking about dealing Lee, this is the type of player you must acquire. Lee cannot be sold for anything less than 100 cents on the dollar. Or even more. He has more trade value than any player in recent years because he’s a difference-maker who would affect not one, but three pennant races.
When the Brewers landed CC Sabathia in 2008, they sold the farm to go all-in for one year. Imagine that times three, and you have Lee’s value. It’s immeasurably higher than it was in the winter of 2009, when the Phillies traded him to Seattle for Phillippe Aumont and two players who will likely never make the majors (Tyson Gillies and J.C. Ramirez).
The Cardinals are one of many teams that would be in on Lee if he hit the trading block. St. Louis makes sense not just because it has a surplus of youngsters, but because it is one piece away from being the clear-cut World Series favorite in the NL. They were a game away from the World Series last season and won it the year before, so they’re already right on the precipice.
This isn’t an argument to say Lee should be traded only for Taveras or to St. Louis; it’s more so an example of the type of return the Phils would need to trade an ace with Lee’s track record and postseason experience.
The Cardinals would be obviously reluctant to deal a player like Taveras, and scouts would scoff at the idea. But that is how baseball works in this day and age. Wil Myers, a prospect in the exact position as Taveras, was traded in a package from Kansas City to Tampa Bay this past offseason for James Shields, a lesser pitcher under control for a shorter amount of time than Lee.
The Lee situation is as interesting as the Hamels ordeal of 2012. Yes, Lee is a supremely valuable player and would be difficult to part with for reasons on and off the field, but if it nets you a can’t-miss player that you can send out every day for a decade, you have to look past the here and now.
Amaro said Monday that “there’s no blowing up the Phillies.” Trading Lee would signify a blow-up. And unless the Phils plan on restructuring the roster this offseason to bring in a corner outfielder with actual talent, another starting pitcher and more bullpen help – plus figuring out what to do with a first baseman who is providing little value – blowing things up is the logical move.
Amaro mentioned the Red Sox as a team that retooled rather than blow things up. But Boston rid itself of terrible contracts to add valuable players this past winter. Plus the Sox kept Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz – four key cogs in their primes. The Phillies simply aren’t in that position and no team in baseball would take Ryan Howard’s contract the way the Dodgers took Adrian Gonzalez’s.
The Phillies have a lot of tough decisions to make over the next six weeks. Unless they go on some sort of a run that inspires hopes of a playoff berth, the decision can’t be to maintain the status quo.