Saturday, June 22, 2013

Trade Winds Blow, but Lee is Anchored in Philly

Now that the first year player draft is over for 2013, General Managers can get back to improving their major league rosters and getting set for possible post season runs. (If you missed the draft, don't worry. Most players are years away from really impacting your team.) Deciding to be active in the trade market is an important decision for each team. Whether buying or selling, the decision puts a very public light on each team's thinking. Selling off prime players usually indicates punting this season, something not always well received. For teams looking to win now, starting pitching is always a rich topic for trade debate and the current top prize is Cliff Lee. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe is the latest to tout him as the #1 pitcher available on the trade market. While I do not doubt Mr. Cafardo's sources, I just cannot figure out the logistics of Cliff Lee being offloaded this trade deadline.

The object of player transactions in major league baseball is centered around talent acquisition and financial considerations. A team looking to win now will acquire a player and his salary in the short term and are willing to sacrifice longer term prospects to get it. Recently, teams have included cash in a trade in order to get better prospects. The addition of an extra wildcard in each league has upped the number of buyers, increasing the price sellers can extract. Neither of these factors supports the idea of a Cliff Lee mid-season trade.


For Ruben Amaro Jr and the Philadelphia Phillies, trading Cliff Lee would present a potentially great opportunity to replenish a barren farm system. Due to years of trading prospects for talent, including Cliff Lee back in 2009, the farm system has largely been stripped bare of top tier talent. At the beginning of the season Baseball America ranked the Phillies farm system 24th overall. With an aging core in Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Carlos Ruiz; the Phils need to decide whether or not they have one last push in them.

If available-- and with the state of their farm system, few players should be untouchable-- Lee would be the top trade target. To date, he sports a 9-2 record with a 2.53 era and a sub 1.0 whip. As a dominant lefty it doesn't take a vivid imagination to see him atop several contending teams rotations. For his part Lee has stated his desire to win a championship. Lee has been traded three previous times and I would not expect his 21 team no-trade clause to be an impediment to his acquisition. Any trade involving Lee would likely center around young, top-tier arms in return.

Were it just Cliff Lee and just for this season this would be a no-brainer acquisition for just about any contending team. No doubt the Phillies will be seeking a Zack Grienke-esq return that Milwaukee received last season. However, he is currently 34 and has at least $78 million coming his way through the 2016 season, which really complicates matters. In his article, Cafardo states that the Phillies could trade Cliff Lee and not have to cover any of his salary while still getting top prospect(s) in return. With $78 million still owed, I just don't see it happening.

Teams would be paying (and hoping) that Lee did not decline too rapidly over the life of the contract, and that he stays healthy. The modern trend of teams seeking younger, more affordable pitching is at odds with Lee's status and affects his trade value. The Orioles are one potential trade team, but they are not going to give up Dylan Bundy's 6 cost-controlled seasons for Cliff Lee. The top players are likely off the table for any team unless the Phillies toss in $25-35 million. The best the Orioles might offer in return are good MLB-ready pitchers who may benefit from a change of scenery and a fresh look as starters such as Brain Matusz or Jake Arrieta. Not terrible names, especially if they parted with both players, but hardly the restocking haul the Phillies are seeking. If you want to mention the Yankees because they have deep pockets that is fine, but their farm system is equally devoid of MLB ready impact players.


Shedding salary is actually not quite the issue it might have been. Every team gets increased television revenue from national contracts starting next season. Given that, payroll relief is less important for next season than it has been previously. If necessary, the Phillies could pick up a portion of Lee's remaining salary and still come out ahead depending on the players sent back.

Teams looking to add the veteran, however, are less inclined to pay for veterans. Veteran players seem to have more traction on as a one year rental or a 1.5 season player (which allows the potential for draft pick compensation to be attached) recently. Zack Wheeler for Carlos Beltran and Jean Segura for Zack Greinke are recent trades supporting this. The longer a veteran is tied to his contract the greater the risk of injury or a production drop off. Most teams have hesitated to take on longer contracts for fear of them becoming albatrosses rather than aids. This increases the salary chip-in while still lowering the prospect returns. Consider A.J. Burnett to the Pirates as an example.  

Additionally, the Phillies have a new local television contract to consider. Their current deal is set to expire after the 2014 season and dumping one of their best players would not aid the Phillies in those negotiations. Given that the deal will run into the billions of dollars and for up to 25 years, the lasts thing teams want to do is hurt their negotiating position. I cannot say how much of an impact Lee's presence will make, but it is not insignificant in the short term.

Due to the size of his remaining contract and his age, I do not see the Phillies finding a trade that will offset losing a bonafide ace when faced with the looming television deal. Throw in that the Nationals are under-performing this season and the Phillies might convince themselves they can put together a run at the NL East this season. The Phillies would love to replenish their farm system and starting pitching is always in demand at the trade deadline. However, with Lee's contract diminishing the return and a looming contract deal tossed into the mix, expect to see Lee remain anchored in Philadelphia this summer.

Can you see a trade being made? Am I missing something, or overlooking a desperate team? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.