Now that Cole Hamels has an extension in Philadelphia and Hanley Ramirez is a Dodger, the baseball industry has latched onto the latest trade deadline fascination.
Will the Phillies trade Cliff Lee — again?
Four general managers of other clubs told FOXSports.com Wednesday that Lee is not yet formally available, but other executives expect Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. will consider offers for the left-hander leading up to next Tuesday’s non-waiver deadline.
Rival team officials believe Amaro has little choice but to at least explore the market for Lee, who has three years and $87.5 million left on his contract after this season. Given the Phillies’ high payroll and poor performance this season, the opportunity to save money — and acquire a low-cost replacement of comparable ability — appears too enticing to pass up.
Yet, it’s not that simple. Lee is known to be a favorite of John Middleton, a prominent member of the Phillies’ ownership group. Middleton may have enough influence to thwart any trade.
There’s also the issue of the Phillies’ apparent desire to contend in 2013. After signing Hamels to a six-year, $144 contract extension, wouldn’t it seem odd for the team to trade away its other top left-handed starter?
Lee, 33, is particularly valuable to the team in light of the injury-plagued season of Roy Halladay, 35. Even with Hamels, it would be difficult for the Phillies to win the National League East next season if Lee is gone and Halladay’s struggles become more than a one-year aberration.
On top of that, 2013 is the final guaranteed season of Halladay’s current contract. If Lee is dealt and Halladay departs after next year, Hamels could be the lone holdover from the Four Aces rotation by the 2014 season.
Then there is the matter of Lee’s performance: One could argue he’s not worth the $21.5 million salary he’s earning this year. Lee’s ERA+ this year is 100, meaning he’s a league-average pitcher. His 3.95 ERA is his highest over a full season since 2007, when he was sent to the minor leagues by the Cleveland Indians at the low point of his career.
In particular, Lee has struggled pitching out of the stretch: Opposing hitters have a .900 OPS against him with men on base, compared with .635 when the bases are empty.
Still, GMs are aware of Lee’s postseason pedigree — 7-3 with a 2.52 ERA in 11 starts — and value his presence down the stretch. The Texas Rangers, whom Lee helped to the World Series in 2010, dispatched top scout Don Welke to watch one of his recent starts.
Texas GM Jon Daniels is believed to prefer Lee to Hamels; after all, Daniels offered Lee well more than $100 million as a free agent two offseasons ago. The Rangers would be more likely to trade minor league third baseman Mike Olt for Lee, than a two-month rental such as Milwaukee’s Zack Greinke.
Lee’s no-trade clause allows him to block trades to 21 teams, according to a major-league source. The Rangers and New York Yankees are among the eight teams to which he can be assigned without his permission.
The possibility exists that Amaro will measure Lee’s market value now and trade him after the season, when (in theory) more teams could become involved. Lee told FOXSports.com over the weekend that he would be “surprised” if the Phillies traded him this month.
Hamels said at a news conference Wednesday that one reason he signed with the Phillies was to remain teammates with Lee and Halladay.
"Having Doc and Cliff is a big part of why I wanted to be here," Hamels said. "To have two of the best pitchers in baseball, you can learn a lot from them and feed off them. When we get rolling, I feel no one can stop us."