If Phillies deal Lee, they need MLB-ready talent

If Phillies deal Lee, they need MLB-ready talent
June 24, 2014, 7:00 am
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The Phillies can't afford to swing and miss on another Cliff Lee trade like they did in December of 2009. (AP)

The release of Tyson Gillies on Sunday was the latest reminder of just how poor the Phillies' return was in the December 2009 trade that sent Cliff Lee to Seattle.

Two of the three players the Phillies acquired have since been released, and Phillippe Aumont has failed three different times to hold a spot in the major-league bullpen.

The timing of the release was interesting, because the trade deadline is approaching and Lee again could be on the move. The Phillies' 5-2 road trip briefly dimmed the cries to sell-sell-sell, but there's still a very real possibility that the Phils fall back out of contention before the All-Star break if they fail to perform in their slew of divisional games.

If the Phillies do decide this summer to move Lee -- who has aged well aside from the recent elbow injury and is still considered an ace -- they must bring back a better package of prospects. And they must acquire a young player who is also major-league ready and somewhat proven. They cannot opt for pure upside again as they did in December 2009 when they obtained three players who still hadn't even played a full season at Double A.

With that said, let's take a look at some potential fits and packages the Phillies should eye in a deal for Lee, who will be owed about $65 million through the end of 2016 if the option on his deal triggers. (And because Lee has a limited no-trade clause, it's likely that he'd need a guarantee that the 2016 option would be exercised before accepting a deal.)

Keep in mind that the players highlighted below are not the only ones the Phils should seek in a Lee trade, but ones who should be the centerpieces of legitimate offers.

Yankees
The Yankees have wanted Lee for five years now. They tried and failed to acquire him at the 2010 deadline. A last-minute offer by the Rangers that included Justin Smoak was enough to end the Lee-to-New York talks.

The deep-pocketed Yankees would obviously prefer to pay the entirety of Lee's remaining salary if it meant parting with lesser prospects, but that doesn't jive with the Phils' intentions. The Phillies also have money and would be glad to pay Lee over the next few years if they don't find the offer they want.

So, going along with the theme of needing a major-league-ready youngster, the player I'm eying is reliever Dellin Betances.

The 6-foot-8 right-hander was once one of New York's top starting pitching prospects, but he fell out favor in 2012 when he walked 99 batters in 131 1/3 innings and posted a 6.44 ERA.

He eventually made his way to the Bronx as a reliever, and boy has it worked out. Betances has a 1.50 ERA in 31 appearances, with 70 strikeouts and just 11 walks in 42 innings. If he doesn't make the AL All-Star team, it'll be a travesty.

A bullpen of Betances, Jake Diekman, Ken Giles, Justin De Fratus, and maybe Antonio Bastardo and Jonathan Papelbon makes the mouth water. It would also give the Phils the flexibility to move Papelbon and have enough depth -- young and inexpensive depth, at that -- behind him.

But a starter for a reliever -- that's not enough. The Phillies would also need one of the Yankees' top prospects, and that's where catcher Gary Sanchez comes into play.

Sanchez is the Yankees' top prospect, a 21-year-old catcher with a strong arm and a power bat. Sanchez has hit 58 home runs since 2011, and Baseball America rated him the 35th-best prospect in the game prior to 2014.

Sanchez's last 82 games have been at Double A Trenton, where he's hit .256/.338/.409 and thrown out 41 percent of base-stealers.

Teams always require catching depth, and Sanchez would provide the Phillies insurance in case Tommy Joseph doesn't develop into an everyday backstop. It would also give the Phils the flexibility to move one of those players to a corner infield position or trade one of them for another prospect or a veteran.

The Phillies would probably still need more. Think about how much they gave up for 2 1/2 years of Hunter Pence in 2011.

Few writers have a better pulse on Yankees prospects than Mike Axisa of RiverAveBlues.com and CBS Sports' Eye on Baseball. I reached out to him for his thoughts on this potential deal.

"Sanchez and Betances sounds like a bargain to me," Axisa said. "Betances is awesome, but he is only a reliever. Maybe the Phillies think he'll be able to start again at some point, but the Yankees have already said that won't happen here. He's a reliever going forward and they have the late-inning bullpen depth to absorb the loss.

"The Yankees are enamored with Lee and have been for years. I'm not sure if they're willing to take on a third $20M-plus per year pitcher, but if they are, Lee is the guy they would do it for. I think they'd move Betances and Sanchez for him in a heartbeat even if it involved taking on all the money, assuming Lee's elbow checks out OK."

Blue Jays
Toronto still leads the AL East by 1 1/2 games but will need to make additions to continue its playoff push, especially if Jose Bautista's recent hamstring injury lingers.

The Blue Jays' main weakness is their starting staff, which right now includes Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, Drew Hutchison, J.A. Happ and rookie Marcus Stroman.

Stroman is where a Lee-to-Toronto deal would have to begin.

Stroman is a 23-year-old right-hander who sped through the minor leagues by striking out 10.6 batters per nine and walking just 2.4. He's very short in stature for a right-handed pitcher, standing just 5-foot-9. In fact, if Stroman makes 30 starts in his career, he'll be just the third right-hander under 5-10 to do that since 1960.

He'd be a young piece the Phils could slot into their rotation, but it would take more than just Stroman for Toronto to acquire Lee. The Blue Jays might even feel some pressure and overpay just to prevent the Yankees or Orioles from trading for Lee.

Aaron Sanchez, the Jays' 2010 first-round pick, would be another pitcher to target. Sanchez is 21, and his progress through Toronto's system hasn't been as struggle-free as Stroman's. But Sanchez has a mid-to-high 90s fastball, and MLB.com profiles him a frontline starting pitching prospect.

If you trade Lee for a young pitcher who's already made the majors and an even younger one who is currently in Triple A, that's a pretty good return.

Angels
While the Angels could certainly use Lee to move past the A's in the second half, they're not a clear fit. The Halos lack the top-end prospects of some other teams, and their most major-league-ready young hitter is slugger C.J. Cron, who is a first baseman/DH. With Ryan Howard still in the fold another few years, Cron would be held back until at least his age-26 or age-27 season.

Not worth it.

Orioles
Would Baltimore trade Dylan Bundy, the fourth overall pick in 2011?

You'll hear he's untouchable, but again, it takes big-time prospects to land big-time pitchers like Lee at the deadline.

Bundy is the Orioles' unquestioned top prospect even after having Tommy John surgery last summer. He's made just two starts this season and allowed one run in 10 innings at Class A while striking out 15 and walking one.

Bundy doesn't fit the major-league-ready description, but he has enormous upside.

The Orioles would probably prefer to keep fellow pitching prospect Kevin Gausman since he has already helped and will continue to help the MLB rotation this year. But you can't keep all of your top guys when you try to land a whale like Lee, so the Phillies will probably ask for Bundy. Maybe that immediately ends the conversation. But the Orioles need to find an ace one of these years, or else they risk wasting the primes of Chris Davis, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis.

Last year's first-rounder, right-hander Hunter Harvey, is another name to keep in mind.

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