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Sign An Ace, Deal An Ace

Posted by Eric Seidman, Wed, July 25, 2012 01:00 PM | Comments: 25
Acquisitions, Analysis, Free Agency, Rumors, Signings

Could Cliff really be dealt? (AP)

Though the Phillies have shown signs of improvement recently — especially in terms of coming back from deficits — they are still very unlikely to make the playoffs this season. While I’m not trying to Debbie Downer the situation after the last couple of wins, that type of sobering outlook is merited when the trade deadline is merely a week away.

Ruben Amaro and company are currently balancing the the odds of contending next season with many members of the current roster with the need to extract value from potential free agents or trade targets.

Cole Hamels has been the talk of the baseball world, but many executives and analysts figured he would eventually agree to an extension with the Phillies. Hamels and the Phillies agreed to a six-year, $144 million extension this morning.

Given the assumptions pointed towards Hamels, some insiders felt that it was never realistic for the Phillies to trade him, or that they would get never get anywhere near commensurate value for a player of his caliber with the new collective bargaining agreement in place — compensation picks aren’t received for players who leave after not spending the entire season with a team (IE, a rental player).

With that in mind, the idea was floated that the Phillies could instead look to deal Cliff Lee. The idea comes off a bit shocking, but that doesn’t mean it lacks merit. Removing emotion from the equation and putting the current and future needs of the organization at the forefront, would trading Lee actually constitute a wise business decision?

To properly answer, we need to explore where the team is headed, payroll ramifications of any such move or non-move, and a comparison of what is gained from dealing him to the loss of guaranteed production that accompanies such a transaction.

Could he be headed back to Texas?

Team payroll is the first area of interest here, and the Hamels extension looms large. With Hamels making approximately $24 million annually, the Phillies will have a hard time avoiding the luxury tax if the goal is to field a legitimately competitive team next season. If they manage to stay below the $178 million threshold, their ability to maneuver in-season will be greatly hindered. As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, the luxury tax calculable payroll is what matters here, not actual payroll, because the Phillies haven’t mandated an internal salary cap, and the only penalties they could incur come in the form of that tax. Luxury tax payroll is calculated a bit differently, and with a $24 million/year Hamels added to the mix, the Phils figure to stand at $143 million through just 10 players next season. Sure, minor leaguers or youngsters making the league minimum could fill out most of the remaining spots, but that goes against the goal of fielding a legitimately competitive team.

The main reason why it goes against that goal is that the Phils farm system ranks towards the bottom of the sport. While there are certainly solid players throughout — mainly starting pitchers — the system lacks offensive firepower. The best batting prospects were dealt for Hunter Pence, and other potential impact players are either blocked, years away from contributing, or both. Using a surplus of youngsters wouldn’t really help, because if they were performing better, the farm system wouldn’t rank as poorly.

With so much money tied up in so few players, the Phillies will have a difficult time making important and necessary moves. And they will likely enter the 2013 season without a centerfielder, without a full-time third baseman, and with a couple of questions in left field.

It stands to reason that trading one of those high-priced players could kill two birds with one stone. The Phils would free up money that could get allocated to a few different areas of need and bring back solid prospects that are ready, or close to being ready, for the major leagues. But not every high-priced player is viewed the same. Hamels isn’t going anywhere. Teams aren’t exactly flooding the phone lines to inquire about Ryan Howard. Chase Utley has a relatively expensive year left and numerous questions surrounding his health. Many teams are shying away from signing closers like Jonathan Papelbon to lucrative deals, and the Phillies have no motivation to move Jimmy Rollins. Pence might provide one of salary relief or a prospect infusion, but not both, as he is viewed as a non-elite player who makes a great deal despite being under team control.

That leaves Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay as two high-priced, elite players that could help the Phillies accomplish the stone-bird-killing metaphor. Since Halladay has one guaranteed year left on his deal after this one, and his current health status is up in the air, Lee is realistically the only player the Phillies could move that would afford them long-term salary relief as well as an infusion of talented prospects.

However, pitchers like Lee — both in talent and contractual status — aren’t dealt all that often. Lee still has 3.5 years left on his deal, and is owed roughly $97.5 million over that period, including the $12.5 million buyout of his 2016 option. The contract doesn’t include any stipulation about that option vesting automatically upon being traded, so the same vests would apply unless something was worked out with a new team. If he stays healthy and pitches effectively, it’s entirely possible that his deal has 4.5 years and $112.5 million remaining.

Only a few teams could even realistically acquire Lee and pay most, if not all, of his remaining salary, and it’s unlikely that those teams would also surrender a great deal to bring in a pitcher at the value he actually signed for, without any type of discount. The Phillies would have to include money in the deal to enhance the return package, and the amount they include would obviously eat away at the potential salary savings that could get allocated to center field, third base, and any other area in need of an upgrade or reinforcement.

The Rangers make the most sense as a trade partner for Lee, because they have a deep farm system, the motivation to acquire an elite starter, and the money to pay him without incurring the tax. When Hamels was linked to the Rangers, Jamey Newberg of The Newberg Report speculated that the Phillies could ask for third base prospect Mike Olt, righty pitcher Cody Buckel, lefty pitcher Victor Payano and shortstop Hanser Alberto. Others like second baseman Rougned Odor lefty starter Martin Perez were also mentioned as possibilities. That type of package always felt too rich for 2-3 months of Hamels, especially given the CBA rules regarding compensation picks and rental players. But that package makes plenty of sense for 3.5-4.5 years of Lee.

If the Phillies could bring in legitimate prospects at second base, third base and shortstop and add a talented pitcher or two, while saving $14-$16 million per season after accounting for the money thrown in for Lee’s salary, it becomes far more palatable to embrace a move. And since Olt is basically major league ready, the money freed up is about the same as it would have been if the Phillies weren’t footing some of the bill, because they wouldn’t need to spend anything other than the league minimum to upgrade at third base.

With $16 million available just from Lee next season, the Phillies could make a run at Michael Bourn or B.J. Upton to replace Victorino. They could potentially look to sign someone like Anibal Sanchez, Brandon McCarthy, Edwin Jackson or Shaun Marcum to bolster the rotation. The bench could be improved with the additions of David Ross and Jeff Keppinger. The Phillies could probably sign a combination of Bourn ($12 mil), Marcum ($9 mil), Ross ($2 mil) and Keppinger ($2 mil) for exactly what Lee stands to make next season. The dropoff from him to anyone else in the rotation is material, but the upgrades across the diamond would likely more than cover that rotational shift.

Losing Lee would be difficult from the standpoint that he’s an elite starter on a team built around pitching, but the Phillies can remain pitching-oriented while improving their offense if given the financial opportunities that moving him would provide. Lee is the only realistic option capable of giving the Phillies prospects and salary relief, so dealing him could represent a very wise business decision. At the same time, however, there are a number of contingencies in play. Will Amaro actually get two or more of Olt, Odor and Alberto from the Rangers? Will the Rangers accept $7-$8 million per year from the Phillies? Will Amaro wisely spend his savings in a manner described above, or will he allocate $7 mil per year to another reliever like Mike Adams, who while phenomenal, is still a reliever?

The Phillies have certainly gone through the whole acquire an ace, deal an ace situation before, when Lee himself was dealt in a move ancillary to the Roy Halladay acquisition. The return for one year of Lee at $8 million was quite poor, but the entire situation felt rushed, as if Amaro just wanted to make a move and that offer was sitting on the table. A whole heck of a lot needs to go right for a Lee deal to benefit the Phillies as much as it could, and skepticism directed towards the front office on that front is certainly merited. But, in isolation, and assuming the money could be allocated properly and that someone like Olt would come back in the deal, the Phillies would remain competitive next year by shoring up a couple of key areas and improve their odds of succeeding in the future by trading one player.

While the initial thought of dealing Lee might have come off as shocking, what’s truly shocking is just how much dealing him makes sense.

Avatar of Eric Seidman

About Eric Seidman

Eric Seidman has written 64 articles on Phillies Nation.

Eric offers his unique analytical perspective to Phillies Nation and is a regular contributor on FanGraphs.com.

 
 
  • Posts: 0 phil

    I love cliff lee like the rest of Philadelphia but at this point in their respective careers Hamels is the younger and better pitcher on a team that needs to get younger and better. I love the idea of trading lee to infuse youth into the team especially if it means getting back studs from the rangers. Furthermore our farm system is stock piled with pitchers and it isn’t too far into the future where biddle and may can make an impact in our rotation. I would send victorino to the rangers too to sweeten the prospect package considering they could use him. I would be trying to unload pence too. Next year they should sign bj upton who I think will thrive in the nl and on a team like the Phillies where egos are left at home and with a players manager like Manuel. Maddon is a better in game manager but Manuel is much better at managing his players and getting the most out of them. I could see Rollins and Howard being big mentors to upton too who is younger and cheaper than bourne. I would try putting together a package for his brother too. An OF of upton upton and brown doesn’t look too shabby and could be incredible. Then your IF would be Howard Utley olt Rollins and chooch and a rotation of Hamels halladay sanchez/marcum/greinke worley and kendrick looks great. The team would be significantly cheaper and younger and pretty awesome.

     
  • Posts: 0 Jeff

    Stupid article. Nobody will take cliffs contract. He is terrible. To many
    Homers. Vance sucks

     
    • Posts: 120 Dave P

      Avatar of Dave P

      Troll post of the year.

      Vance isn’t even mentioned in the article. And he far from sucks. He’s a cheap, solid starter. The kind of player you’d hold onto when you’re investing 100+ million in a handful of players.

       
  • Posts: 1190 Manny

    Avatar of Manny

    If the Rangers want to give you Olt and another guy (or two) plus eat 80% of Lee’s remaining salary, then by all means…

    But I doubt they’ll do that, especially since Lee is having a sub-par year. I think he’ll get better results in the second half and will be crucial for the Phils in their fight for a playoff spot this year and beyond.

     
    • Posts: 146 Eric Seidman

      Avatar of Eric Seidman

      Not 80%, but 50-60%, sure. It could even turn out to be something like Olt, Perez and Buckel, or Olt, Alberto and Matt Harrison. Teams know what Lee provides and won’t be scared off by his first half numbers.

       
      • Posts: 1190 Manny

        Avatar of Manny

        That would mean the Phillies would be on the hook for 9.6-12 million bucks per year, for 4 freaking years! That’s an insane amount of money. We’re better off with Lee on board if we’re gonna throw that kind of money to the trash can –with prospects or without.

         
      • Posts: 146 Eric Seidman

        Avatar of Eric Seidman

        Manny — that’s one of the reasons dealing Lee always seemed weird. You just don’t see pitchers with this much left on their deals dealt. They’re signed to those deals because they are elite and help the team they signed with. It’s just interesting to discuss what a potential deal could do for the Phillies in the short- and long-term.

         
  • Posts: 0 George

    I have read repeatedly (and as recently as this morning) that the Rangers have no intention of trading Olt. I also don’t think they’d include all of those prospects mentioned in a trade for God Almighty. And while the Phils “could probably” sign some of the players mentioned, that is by no means “definitely sign.” There are twenty-nine other teams to outbid.

    Your trade Lee/restock the team scenario seems overly optimistic to me.

     
    • Posts: 146 Eric Seidman

      Avatar of Eric Seidman

      Nowhere did I say they were definitely signs. That was just an example of what that type of money could buy on the market. As for Olt — don’t always believe what teams say. The Phillies were not going to trade Michael Taylor. They weren’t going to trade Kyle Drabek either. When the right price comes along, teams soften their stances. Maybe it’s overly optimistic, but the general premise is valid — Lee is the only guy that gives the Phils long-term salary relief and the potential to bring back an impact prospect or two.

       
      • Posts: 0 George

        I’ll grant that you didn’t say any of those people were definite “signs.” My point was only that you are being extremely optimistic, and that, therefore, trading Lee might not be as sensible as you make it appear.

        Perhaps I wasn’t very clear. I thought that pointing out a few potential difficulties would be sufficient and that saying something like “Any scenario looks good when you’re overly optimistic” could have been construed as an insult.

        I appreciate your thinking here, but in my opinion, trading Lee is not all that sensible.

         
  • Posts: 0 Dylan

    If the phillies trade lee they will never sign a big name free agent because they will just traded. Cliff wanted to be here. He is an ace trading him is a big finger to cliff and any player that loves our fan base. It would be a stab in the back to trade lee. The offense is finally picking up and so will his luck

     
    • Posts: 146 Eric Seidman

      Avatar of Eric Seidman

      Dylan — disagree. Lee has a no-trade clause that protects him from trades to all of 8 teams. When those types of clauses are negotiated, it’s usually with the understanding that a deal isn’t all too likely, but it’s possible, so the player can somewhat dictate where he goes without completely forcing the team’s hand.

       
  • Posts: 0 bacardipr

    I have to think if they trade Lee what kind of message it will send. He wanted to be here the Phils wanted him here, he gave up $$$ to be here only to be traded (especially so soon). In the same token this team needs a infusion of cheap(er), young talent. Something is going to have to be sacrificed along the way. We still have Utley on the books next year as well for 15 Mill.

     
  • Posts: 0 Zippy

    Cliff is really good, just catching a run of bad luck. Any other year we would be giving our left nut for him. PLUS he WANTS to be here!!! Get rid of Blanton, Kendrick, And 93% of the others too. Remember a guy named HAPP!!! Should have kept him and ditched most of the bullpen!

    KEEP CLIFF, it is hard to find someone who is willing to take less $$ to be here!!

     
  • Posts: 0 Ken Bland

    What i wonder is with the resources of Ryan and G Maddux in the Rangers fold, how those 2 highly knowledgable types would evaluate Cliff’s value at this point.

    I wonder if the Rangers might not be inclined to go Greinke at this point. But that isn’t a guess that Ryan and maddux don’t value Cliff enough to make a deal.

     
  • Avatar of The Original Chuck P

    You say that there’s $143 million tied up in ten players but there’s actually $163.5 million tied up in 25 players… here’s how I see it:

    Starting Rotation – Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Worley, Kendrick ($71 million)
    Bullpen – Papelbon, Bastardo, Diekman, Stutes, De Fratus, Savery, Horst ($16 million)
    Catchers – Ruiz, Kratz ($5.5 million)
    Infielders – Howard, Polanco, Rollins, Utley, Galvis, Wigginton ($55.5 million)
    Outfielders – Mayberry, Nix, Pence, Brown, James ($15 million)

    If you’re trying to stay below the $178 million and you’re willing to go to bat with the team you’ve got, you still have money to play with… Kendrick can be your fifth starter and I’d be ok with that. One of Polly/Wigginton/Galvis can play third… and I’m ok with that. Getting Stutes back will help and Justin DeFratus should be major league ready, too. If you feel like you need another arm, go ahead and get one but buyer beware (see Qualls, Chad). That brings me to the outfield… you have to go with Dom Brown in LF but at this point, don’t you have to anyway? You gave Mayberry a shot… he’s a pinch hitter/spot starter. Why not give Brown a shot? So the only hole is outfield. Jiwan James is Victorino, lite. Regardless, there’s still some wiggle room. Unless I’m missing something…

     
    • Posts: 146 Eric Seidman

      Avatar of Eric Seidman

      Chuck — what you aren’t accounting for are incentives and the fact that 1/30 of what teams pay for MLB benefits counts as well, and they typically account for $14-$15 million. So those have to be added to whatever figure you come up with. I wrote about it last week but didn’t go into all the details here. Your math isn’t wrong, it’s just missing a crucial element, which puts the Phillies at the threshold, though admittedly without as competitive a team as it can be, since Polanco is mostly done at this point and they really need someone better than Wigginton.

       
      • Avatar of The Original Chuck P

        I accounted for raises… Did not account for incentives. They’re up against the threshold but they can still piece it together, I think. Subtract Wiggy and Pollys money and you’ve got a nice chunk of change to allocate between a third baseman and a utility guy. I agree that Olt would be a great pick up but I’m not sure Texas is entertaining offers for Olt (or Profar) and I’d rather have Lee and slop that Olt and Marcum and a mid-tier veteran. I don’t think we are that far off that we have to trade Lee. The holes we have to fill aren’t as vast as people suggest… The biggest issue this season has been injuries. If we can head into the season with our guys healthy, this team is capable of winning. Thanks for the piece and the comment.

         
  • Posts: 0 Ryne Duren

    blanton and bastardo to the padres for headley and bring cloyd up! we have 4 lefty’s in the pen. you never know which bastardo is pitching so trade him. or subsisture blanton with kendrick. i’ll take an everyday player over a pitcher any day of the week! once your positions are set then go get the pitching you need.

     
    • Posts: 0 George

      The Padres might take Bastardo, but would never take Blanton. He’ll be a free agent and he’s currently highly paid for his limited abilities. The Padres aren’t looking for expensive rentals, they’re looking for prospects. Kendrick, though cheaper than Joe B, also isn’t a prospect, has limited abilities, and therefore is not a viable substitute.

       
    • Posts: 146 Eric Seidman

      Avatar of Eric Seidman

      Ryne — the Padres need MUCH more for Headley than a streaky LOOGY and a rental starter.

       
      • Avatar of The Original Chuck P

        One name that intrigues me is Peter Bourjos. The Angels have no place for him and they could use some help- I think they’d end up selling low on him. Blanton is probably not enough but maybe Blanton and either a pitching prospect or another complimentary piece. Thoughts…

         
      • Posts: 146 Eric Seidman

        Avatar of Eric Seidman

        I like Bourjos and think that would be a solid pickup, especially if it’s Blanton and X, where X is a lower-level prospect. Bourjos can’t hit all that well but he’s young and a terrific center fielder.

         
  • Posts: 522 Morris Buttermaker

    Avatar of Morris Buttermaker

    If there is one thing I can’t stand, it’s Loser Talk Do you think the Yankees sign a big free agent and then discuss who they are going to trade/cut so that they can afford it? Do you really think that Yankees fans have spent the past two days thinking who they should cut since they traded for Ichiro?

     
  • Posts: 0 Fan from Vienna

    If the Phillies trade Cliff Lee again that would be absolutely hurtful to so many of us fans and I think stupid for the near future of this franchise. I can make a best-case scenario for trading almost any player on the Phillies (or on any team in fact) but that doesn’t mean it should be done. There are worst-case scenarios too and other intangibles to factor in as well.

     
 
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