If Phillies deal Lee, they need MLB-ready talent

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If Phillies deal Lee, they need MLB-ready talent

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.

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

There was no better story of personal triumph on the Phillies' roster than Tommy Joseph in 2016.

Dumped from the 40-man roster and passed over by 29 other teams on the waiver wire and in the Rule 5 draft in 2015, he reported to minor-league camp with his career on the line last spring.

Two months later, thanks to good health and a molten bat, Joseph's career began to spike upward.

But 4½ months in the big leagues and the promise of a starting job in the majors in 2017 hasn't changed Joseph's outlook or the mindset he will take into spring training camp next month.

He's still going to scrap and claw for everything, just like he did a year ago when he was fighting for his baseball life after a series of concussions put his career in jeopardy.

"I'm preparing the same way I did last winter," Joseph said during an offseason stop at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.

"The job is not given to me. I still have to win it. I'm not going to walk in and have it. Obviously, it's mine to take and I plan on going in and winning the job."

Joseph, 25, earned a significant slice of the starting first base job last year. But with Ryan Howard, the last piece of the 2008 World Series team, gone, Joseph has a chance to stake an even greater claim to the position in 2017 and establish himself as a serious building block in the Phillies' rebuild.

"Tommy came out of nowhere last year," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's something to be excited about there. He was off the map and he did enough to warrant a real strong look this year. And hopefully, he can improve and take baby steps toward being a final product."

Joseph pushed himself to the majors and cut into Howard's playing time last season by hitting .347 with six homers, 17 RBIs and a .981 OPS in 27 games at Triple A. He came to the majors in mid-May and hit .257 with 21 homers and 47 RBIs in 107 games. In the fall, Joseph briefly played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but right wrist tendinitis, now fully healed, cut the stint short.

Joseph's good showing at the plate in 2016 was partly the result of his finding good health. As he recovered from a fifth concussion in the summer of 2015, it was discovered that he had a series of ocular problems. They were addressed through therapy and ... well, it's amazing what a hitter can do when he can see the ball.

This year, Joseph will look to improve in the field. The converted catcher is looking to add quickness around the first base bag and that starts with better footwork. At the urging of bench coach/infield instructor Larry Bowa, Joseph has been jumping rope and doing box drills all winter.

Joseph also wants to improve his approach and mindset at the plate. Though he wants to drive the ball like his size — 235 pounds — and position dictate, he wants to improve his on-base percentage and thus his OPS, on-base plus slugging percentage.

Joseph struck out 75 times and walked just 22 times in 347 plate appearances in 2016 and his on-base percentage was just .308. But over the final month of the season, he made an effort to be more selective at the plate and he recorded a .327 batting average and .406 on-base percentage (while slugging .618) over the final 23 games of the season. He struck out 10 times but walked seven over that span.

"My whole career has been a battle when it comes to walking," Joseph said. "I started to listen and read more what veterans around the league were saying about on-base percentage and OPS. Slugging is important on the corners, but there are times you have to take your walks. It's relevant because the best players in the game have a high OPS."

Joseph needs to improve in this area for a couple of reasons. First, the front office is intent on building a long-term lineup around players who control the strike zone, i.e., those who don't chase bad pitches. And second, the Phils have a legitimate run-producing first base prospect in Rhys Hoskins set to take his game to Triple A in 2017.

Joseph knows all of this and takes nothing for granted.

"The only difference this year will be I'm on the big-league side in spring training, but everything still has to be earned," he said.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors — or "last in the world," as Mackanin said — with just 610 runs scored in 2016. The offseason additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders should help run production. So, too, should expected improvements from Maikel Franco and Joseph, two players who have the chance to be long-term building blocks.

"We've got guys at the big-league level that I choose to think are going to get better," Mackanin said. "Tommy Joseph is a perfect example."