Cliff Lee (right) is under contract through at least the end of the 2015 season. (AP)
Updated: 5:02 p.m.
With Jake Peavy in Boston, the top suitor for Cliff Lee’s services no longer requires them. It diminished the chances that Lee and his roughly $70 million remaining salary would be dealt by Wednesday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline, which came and went without the Phillies making a single move.
The one wild card to watch was the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cards have lost six straight games and are 1½ games back of the Pirates in the NL Central. St. Louis is having a great season but will want to avoid having another wild-card playoff that could potentially end its season in the span of three hours. Adding a piece like Lee would make sense because it would allow the Cardinals to make a World Series run not only in 2013 but also in 2014 and 2015.
The Cardinals could also use a catcher with Yadier Molina expected to hit the DL with a knee sprain. Carlos Ruiz, perhaps? To make a deal with the Cardinals at this point, the Phillies would need to place their player(s) on waivers and have them go unclaimed by the 13 teams with worse records than St. Louis.
If the Phillies and Cardinals do end up discussing Lee, the Phillies should shoot for nothing less than top prospect Oscar Taveras, whom the Cards see as their most talented youngster since Albert Pujols. Baseball America and MLB.com each deemed Taveras the third-best prospect in all of baseball entering the season. He’s followed up last year’s breakout season -- .324 BA, 23 HR, 94 RBIs, 37 doubles –- with a .310 batting average this year.
The Red Sox refused to give up top prospect Xander Bogaerts in a Lee trade, for good reason. Many scouts see Bogaerts -– who plays short but might end up at third -- as the next Manny Machado, but with even more power. Instead, the Red Sox dealt away current slick-fielding shortstop Jose Iglesias to the Tigers in a three-team deal to acquire Peavy, hitching their wagon to Bogaerts for the future.
Ruben Amaro Jr. was wise not to bend to the Red Sox's will and accept anything less than the enormous upside of Bogaerts. If he were offered a package of say, Iglesias, Jackie Bradley Jr. and pitching prospect X for Lee, that wouldn’t have been enough. Even if you substituted third baseman Will Middlebrooks in for Iglesias, it still wouldn’t have been enough. For Lee, you need either huge upside or major-league ready talent that fills various holes. Iglesias, Middlebrooks and Bradley all play positions where the Phillies have other options. Ben Revere is inexpensive and young in center, Freddy Galvis is a lesser-hitting but similar version of Iglesias, and third base is the Phillies’ most well-stocked spot, with Cody Asche up and Maikel Franco continuing to develop.
The Phillies do not need to trade Cliff Lee. There is no worst-case scenario here. If Lee stays, the Phillies head into the offseason having the option to keep him and try to contend in 2014 behind what will almost certainly be an improved rotation, or they could shop him again in the winter, when many more teams will be looking to acquire him.
The Phillies are the ones with leverage here. It’s not as if Lee’s contract is up after the season. He is due $25 million in 2014 and in 2015, and has a $27.5 million option (that can be bought out for $12.5 million) in 2017. That’s pricey, but pretty much every contending team in baseball would pay that annual average value over the remaining years of Lee’s deal if he were a free agent. It’s not as if he has five or seven years left on the contract.
So if the Cards enter the picture, any Lee deal should begin and end with Taveras. There is precedent for it –- the Royals traded Wil Myers, a similar prospect in many ways, to the Rays last December for James Shields. Shields is younger than Lee but isn’t as productive and isn’t under team control for as long as Lee.
“You want Cliff Lee? Make it worth my while.” That should be, and appears to be, Ruben Amaro Jr.’s position. Good for him.