MLB

Question remains, why'd Phils deal Lee?

Hard to swallow
Roy Oswalt has been arguably the best of the pitchers on the trading block.
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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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Now that the Phillies have landed Roy Oswalt, the question again must be asked, even louder than before.

Why the hell did the Phillies trade Cliff Lee?

I don’t expect general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. to explain his impulsive decision on Lee — a coveted lefty ace the Phillies acquired at last year's trade deadline only to ship away to the Mariners in December — at a news conference introducing Oswalt.

But it’s time for the Phillies to admit their mistake.

Retaining Lee for one season would have been been better than acquiring Oswalt for two months of 2010, all of ’11 and possibly ’12.

Lee is the superior pitcher, the best in the sport. Roy Halladay, Oswalt and lefty Cole Hamels would be a terrific 1-2-3. Halladay, Lee and Hamels would have been even better.

So, why did the Phillies go through all this?

Because they got such great prospects for Lee? Doesn’t look that way.

Because they were unable to afford Lee in 2010? Doubtful if they add Oswalt without significant financial help from the Astros.

Because Lee would not sign a contract extension? Maybe, but the Phillies would have received two high draft picks if he departed as a free agent — not such a terrible outcome.

I’ve previously given the Phillies the benefit of the doubt on the Lee trade, understanding their payroll limitations and their desire to replenish their farm system.

The Oswalt trade, in a vacuum, looks good for the Phillies. The Astros agreed to pay $11 million of the more than $23 remaining on Oswalt’s contract, so the Phillies will owe him “only” about $12 million for a season plus two months – a relative bargain. They also can exercise their end of a mutual option in an effort to keep Oswalt for ’12.

Still, there is a price.

The Philllies parted with left-hander J.A. Happ and two 19-year-old prospects, center fielder Anthony Gose and shortstop Jonathan Villar, surrendering multiple young players for an elite starting pitcher for the third time in 12 months – and giving up arguably a better package than they obtained for Lee.

RISKY BUSINESS

Not all deals benefit both sides. Check out the 10 worst deadline trades in baseball history.

That’s right, the Phillies wound up with a lesser pitcher at probably a greater cost in prospects – and for comparable dollars.

Lee’s salary this season is $9 million. The Phillies could have created additional payroll flexibility for him by trading right-hander Joe Blanton. But no, they signed Blanton to a three-year, $24 million extension — and Blanton responded by starting this season 4-6 with a 5.85 ERA.

If the Phillies win a World Series with Oswalt, great. If the three prospects in the Lee trade rebound, even better. But those are two big ifs. And Oswalt, in his own way, is a big if, too.

Maybe not this season — Oswalt has been mostly outstanding, going 6-12 with a 3.42 ERA despite the second-worst run support in the National League. One scout from a team in need of starting pitching identified him as the best pitcher on the market, well ahead of Dan Haren.

But the Yankees, among other clubs, declined to pursue Oswalt, concerned by his history of back trouble. Oswalt, who turns 33 on Aug. 29, has been on the disabled list three times since ‘06 with back or hip issues, including each of the past two seasons. And back problems generally do not get better over time.

Lee, who is almost exactly a year younger than Oswalt, also is not a perfect specimen — he has a history of abdominal strains, and began the season on the DL with such an injury. Both pitchers have been mostly durable throughout their careers. But Oswalt, to most rival executives, is the greater risk; the Yankees, for example, fully intend to sign Lee in free agency.

The Phillies, meanwhile, are reaching a breaking point with their payroll; before adding Oswalt, they already had committed $129.6 million to 14 players for next season. The team’s farm system is flush with prospects at the lower levels, but the combination of trading so many younger players and overpaying so many older players can lead to a crash.

It won’t happen this season; the addition of Oswalt could help the Phillies advance to their third straight World Series.

Even then, the story might not end happily ever after.

The Phillies’ World Series opponent could be the Texas Rangers and Cliff Lee.

Tagged: Rangers, Astros, Phillies, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee, Joe Blanton, J.A. Happ

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