Red Sox should deal prospect for Lee

Red Sox won't trade top prospect for Cliff Lee -- but they should, Ken Rosenthal says.

The Red Sox should trade their top prospect, infielder Xander Bogaerts, to get Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee.

Trust me, Red Sox Nation wouldn’t crumble.

Trading a can’t-miss youngster for a starting pitcher who might help you win a World Series is hardly a radical concept, and the Red Sox know it.

Heck, they did it on Nov. 24, 2005, including two future stars, shortstop Hanley Ramirez and right-hander Anibal Sanchez, in a seven-player deal with the Marlins that brought Josh Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell to Boston – and, ahem, helped the Sox win the 2007 World Series.

Bogaerts would be the Ramirez of this deal. Right-hander Allen Webster or some other pitching prospect could be Sanchez. Lee would be Beckett, and – is this perfect? – Phillies third baseman Michael Young could be Lowell.

Alas, the Red Sox won’t make such a trade, even though I’m betting that the Phillies would agree in a heartbeat.

Teams value prospects like never before, hoarding them more and more each year. The game is skewing younger, thanks to drug testing. And the restrictions on both domestic and international amateur spending only add to the difficulty of acquiring young talent.

Well, how about winning the Series?

Isn’t that supposed to be the idea?

The Sox boast the sixth-best farm system in the majors, according to Baseball America. They’re in a dogfight with the Rays and Orioles in the AL East. Lee, 34, could prove the difference in that race, and potentially in the postseason as well.

I know what you’re thinking – why focus on the Red Sox? Why not make the same argument with the Cardinals, a contender that possesses even more young talent than the Sox, though is less of a financial powerhouse?

Because, according to sources, the Red Sox are the team most active in discussions with the Phillies heading toward the non-waiver deadline at 4 p.m. ET Wednesday.

And because the Cardinals, while engaged in a struggle with the Pirates and Reds in the NL Central, actually might be deep enough in young pitching to win the Series without Lee - a debatable point, I know.

Oh, the Cardinals could afford Lee, plugging his $25 million salary through 2015 into the slots currently held by two potential free agents, right-hander Chris Carpenter and right fielder Carlos Beltran.

Still, this is a team that reached the National League Championship Series last season after losing first baseman Albert Pujols (not to mention manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan). General manager John Mozeliak has traded only one highly regarded prospect since taking over as GM in October, 2007, infielder Brett Wallace in the Matt Holliday deal.

You can argue that the addition of Lee would make the Cardinals the favorites to win the Series. But taking on mammoth salaries, trading elite prospects such as right-hander Michael Wacha – that just isn’t the Cardinals’ style.

The Red Sox, of course, don’t want it to be their style, either. Every high-revenue team but the Dodgers, it seems, wants to be just like the Rays, spitting out youngsters, drawing praise for their shrewd management.

Yankees GM Brian Cashman seems to hate every high-priced acquisition his team makes, wishing he could be the Athletics’ Billy Beane. And the Sox’s Ben Cherington has spoken repeatedly about striking a balance between trying to win now and nurturing the team’s young.

Enough!

The Red Sox cleared more than $260 million in their blockbuster with the Dodgers last season to seize this very moment. Lee has about $70 million remaining left on his contract, but actually would fit the Sox’s newfound preference for shorter-term, higher-dollar deals. The Sox also can demand that the Phillies give up third-base prospect Cody Asche in a larger trade and/or include significant cash – the latter to reduce ownership’s burden and satisfy all of the bean-counting media analysts.

Lee, a native of Benton, Ark., is nine years older than Beckett was in 2005 – no small consideration. But Lee has proven that he can handle a demanding East Coast market by succeeding in Philadelphia, and almost certainly would waive his no-trade clause to Boston for the chance to win a Series (he lost with the Phils in 2009 and Rangers in ‘10).

Sox manager John Farrell knows Lee well – he was the Indians’ farm director when the pitcher was rising through the Cleveland farm system. Oh, and keep this in mind: There will be no better option than Lee in the upcoming free-agent market.

Of course such a trade would be painful for Boston; Bogaerts, 20, indeed looks like the real thing. The Sox, in fact, regard him perhaps even more highly than they did Ramirez in Nov. 2005. Ramirez, even in his youth, sparked makeup questions. Bogaerts, a native of Aruba, speaks four languages, “lights up a room,” according to Farrell.

The kid is wonderful. The kids are always wonderful. But winning a World Series is wonderful, too – yes, even more wonderful than rising to the top of Baseball America’s organizational talent rankings.

The Sox won’t do it. They should.

Hanley Ramirez for Josh Beckett. Xander Bogaerts for Cliff Lee.

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