Phillies’ nightmare: Facing Lee

It is the Phillies’ worst nightmare.

Not losing to the Giants in the National League Championship Series, though that certainly would be unpleasant.

Not losing to the Yankees again in the World Series, though that, too, would hurt.

No, the Phillies’ worst nightmare is something else entirely.

Losing to their former ace, Rangers lefty Cliff Lee.

We aren’t there yet, of course – the Phillies and Rangers first must reach the World Series. But we’re a lot closer than anyone thought possible when the Phillies traded Lee to the Mariners last offseason while simultaneously acquiring Roy Halladay from the Blue Jays.

No one was betting on a Phillies-Mariners World Series then. Then again, no one was betting on the Mariners losing 101 games and trading Lee at midseason.

But as the league championship round continues, the circle’s nearly complete, and not just for the Phillies.

The Yankees thought they had a deal with the Mariners for Lee in July, only to see the M’s hold out until the Rangers agreed to part with first baseman Justin Smoak.

Three months later, Lee could haunt the Yankees in the ALCS, triggering thoughts not only of what might have been, but also what will be.

Heaven knows how many tens of millions more the Yankees will offer Lee in free agency if he helps eliminate them – and they likely will be the high bidder regardless.

The Phillies, though, are in an even more uncomfortable position.

Unlike the Yankees, they actually had Lee last season. They traded for him. They went to the World Series with him. And then, they let him go.

Even now, nearly a year later, the trade of Lee remains a source of intense debate, both in Philadelphia and in the industry. The Phillies seemingly ended the discussion – and admitted their mistake – when they effectively replaced Lee by acquiring right-hander Roy Oswalt on July 29. But if Lee’s their opponent in the World Series, hoo boy.

The Phillies, mind you, had valid reasons for trading Lee. They wanted to recoup prospects after sending three to the Blue Jays for Halladay and four to the Indians for Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco the previous summer. Halladay also agreed to a three-year, $60 million extension as a condition of his trade. Lee, the team believed, wouldn’t sign long-term, and the Phillies didn’t want to be left without an ace.

The question, then and now, was this:

Why didn’t the Phillies simply keep both?

If payroll was the issue, the Phils could have traded right-hander Joe Blanton, who projected to earn nearly as much as Lee. If prospects were the issue, the Phils could have added two young players through draft-pick compensation when Lee left as a free agent.

The Phillies, though, weren’t enamored with either possibility.

Their return for Blanton likely would have been meager. The better of the two draft picks could have been at No. 25 or lower, and both would have been years away from the majors.

“The whole scenario of, ‘Let’s just go for broke and pick up the draft picks and that’s fine,’ that doesn’t serve the purpose of what we’re trying to do, which is put ourselves in position to win every year,” Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. told me in spring training.

“We’re going to have to start filtering in younger players for some of the guys who become less productive as they get older.”

Even now, it’s difficult to argue with such logic.

Problem is, the three players the Phillies acquired for Lee – right-hander Phillipe Aumont, outfielder Tyson Gillies and right-hander Juan Ramirez – all had disappointing minor-league seasons.

Amaro then went out of his way to justify his decision to keep Blanton, signing him to a three-year, $24 million extension.

Each of the prospects could recover. Blanton, 29, could rebound after going 9-6 with a 4.82 ERA in the regular season. And – this is the biggest thing – the acquisition of Oswalt on July 29 certainly cushioned the blow of losing Lee.

The Phillies obtained Oswalt for lefty J.A. Happ, whom they projected as a No. 4 starter, and two 19-year-old prospects. The Astros also covered nearly half of Oswalt’s remaining salary, including $11 million in the deal.

So, for a year-plus of Oswalt, who is signed through next season, the Phillies will end up paying approximately $12 million. Rival executives actually were disgusted that the Astros didn’t require Amaro to give up better players.

Oswalt was brilliant for the Phillies the final two months of the regular season, going 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA. He stumbled in the Division Series, but no matter what happens the rest of the playoffs, the Phillies know both Halladay and Oswalt will be part of their rotation next season – and in Halladay’s case, for two more seasons after that. Lee, on the other hand, might simply have departed as a free agent.

All’s well that ends well, and a third straight World Series appearance by the Phillies would figure to end most of the second-guessing.

Except, of course, if the opponent is Cliff Lee.