As the Philadelphia Phillies turned aggressive in the trade market Monday, the obvious question — again — was whether they would move left-hander Cliff Lee.
“Anything is possible,” one club official said.
The Phillies were indeed willing to consider offers for Lee, major-league sources said. But the chances of a deal before Tuesday’s non-waiver deadline at 4 p.m. ET appeared slim.
The Phils’ sudden willingness to trade Lee is the logical outgrowth of the team’s struggles this season and recent signing of left-hander Cole Hamels to a six-year, $144 million extension.
The team now has $134 million committed to 10 players for 2013 – not including right fielder Hunter Pence, another player whom the Phillies are talking about in trades.
The problem with trading Lee is that it would be difficult to obtain a significant return unless the Phillies contributed a significant portion of the whopping $87.5 million remaining on his contract between 2013 and ’15. The Dodgers and Yankees found that the amount of money left on Lee’s deal was too much even for them.
And if the Phils kicked in a massive sum, they essentially would be paying Lee to pitch for another team at a time when club officials still plan to contend every season.
Right-hander Roy Halladay’s contract with the Phillies will expire after ’13 if he does not meet his vesting option. So Hamels could be the team’s sole remaining ace starting in ’14 if the Phils trade Lee.
The Phillies won the 2008 World Series with just Hamels, but their offense was much stronger then. Hitters such as first baseman Ryan Howard and second baseman Chase Utley were healthy and in their primes.
Lee, 33, is particularly valuable to the team in light of the injury-plagued season of 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.
There are other issues as well.
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.
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 101, meaning he’s barely above 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, would be the most obvious suitor.
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, for a player who is signed beyond this season – but only if the Phillies paid a huge chunk of Lee’s remaining salary.
However, sources have said that talks with the Rangers haven’t gained momentum because the Phillies aren’t willing to pick up most of the tab on Lee’s salary. The Rangers also looked into a possible deal for Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett, but that also went nowhere. Texas had discussed a deal for Beckett before acquiring Yu Darvish last year, but didn’t feel comfortable with him.
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 Yankees would not be interested, however; they are trying to get under the luxury-tax threshold by 2014.
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 recently that he would be “surprised” if the Phillies traded him this month.
Hamels said at a news conference last week 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."