Cliff Lee is performing. His team has a losing record. The trade deadline no longer seems far away. The rumors are starting.
It happened in 2009, when he went from Cleveland to Philadelphia. It happened in 2010, when he went from Seattle to Texas.
You wonder if Lee is thinking, “Here we go again.”
In fact, he is.
“Yeah, pretty much,” Lee acknowledged Friday, during an interview at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. “Nothing I can do about it, so I’m not going to get too caught up in it.”
That’s not entirely accurate: Lee can do something about it. His contract with the Phillies includes a 20-team no-trade clause. Only nine teams can acquire Lee without his permission. So if the Phillies make him available in the days leading up to the July 31 deadline, he could limit his market to roughly one-third of the major leagues.
In resetting the list of clubs before this season, the 34-year-old and his agents structured the clause such that it would have maximum impact. While Lee didn’t want to discuss specific teams with FOXSports.com, major league sources say most of the 20 teams subject to the provision are projected trade-deadline “buyers.”
The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles are among the 20 teams that would need Lee’s permission to acquire him, the sources told FOXSports.com.
Of that group, the Rangers and Orioles are of particular interest.
The Rangers remain focused on winning the World Series, after falling short in 2010 and 2011, and the starting rotation is their most obvious area to upgrade. Texas has three starting pitchers on the disabled list — Matt Harrison, Alexi Ogando and Colby Lewis — and it’s unclear what each will be able to contribute this year.
The Rangers have been thrilled with the contributions of right-handed starters Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm, but neither has pitched an entire season in the major leagues. And the Rangers are well aware of what Lee can do in October, having watched him dominate the American League playoffs for them in 2010 before losing twice in the World Series.
The Orioles, meanwhile, have enough offense to win the AL East — and more (They are second in the majors with 287 runs scored). But their starters have managed an ERA of only 4.85, and the team has lacked a true ace for years. The Orioles made the playoffs last season despite having just one pitcher start more than 20 games; they probably can’t rely on their lineup and bullpen in quite the same way this year.
The Orioles have cycled through 11 starters already this season. The active roster includes only one pitcher — 36-year-old Freddy Garcia — who has made at least six starts this season with an ERA below 4.00. For those reasons, the acquisition of Lee might do more to transform the Orioles’ chances at a championship than any other team’s.
Of course, the Phillies must decide to trade Lee before any of this happens. So far, they haven’t. The Phillies are a disappointing third in the NL East at 28-30. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. probably will wait awhile before deciding on the franchise’s direction, since he has a large payroll and a number of players in the final years of their contracts: Roy Halladay, Chase Utley, Michael Young, Delmon Young and Carlos Ruiz.
Lee has two guaranteed years and a minimum of $62.5 million left on his contract after this year, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. The Phillies could have escaped from that financial obligation last August when the Dodgers claimed him on waivers, but Amaro pulled him back.
Lee’s been traded three times — including an offseason deal from Philadelphia to Seattle — and understands the Phillies are arriving at a critical juncture that could affect him.
“There’s a lot of season left, but we definitely have to figure out a way to be more consistent across the board,” Lee said. “The Braves aren’t slowing down. The Nationals have struggled as well, but with the talent they’ve got you can’t expect them to continue to play the way they have.
“The way we played last year, the way we’ve started out this year, it’s getting close to do-or-die time. . . . Management is going to have some decisions to make when we get closer to the trade deadline, if we continue to play the way we have. I want to do everything I can to make sure they’re not forced to make some of those decisions. I’m just going to try to pitch and do everything I can to help the team win.”
When he signed with the Phillies after the 2010 season, Lee said he “definitely expected this team to be in first place and contend every year, no doubt about it.” But the Phillies became deadline sellers last year and missed the playoffs with an 81-81 record. Now they — and Lee — face the potential distraction of not knowing their long-term course.
“I can’t sit here and come up with the what-ifs,” he said. “If (a trade scenario) presents itself, I’ll have to look at the situation and figure it out. Right now, I’m a Phillie and I want to do everything I can to help this team win.”
But Lee’s a realist, too. He knows how quickly he could be gone.
“Every time I’ve been traded, before that every organization would say, ‘You’ll be the first one to know if we’re ever going to move you,’” Lee said, recalling that he learned of each trade while watching television. “I was the last one to know every time.”