Phillies Trade Chips: Mercenary Pitchers Edition

Hunter Martin

The Phillies could offer the best starter and closer on this year's trade market. Should they?

In the week since our first installment of the Trade Chips series, the Phillies have gone 4-2 against two first place teams, the Pirates and the Braves. That’s good. They’ve also lost Ryan Howard to the disabled list for at least two weeks and quite possibly a lot longer. That’s bad. So they’re a little bit closer to relevance, but lacking a guy who’s shown the ability to carry the offense for a stretch. And the calendar pages continue to flip. Anything less than five wins in the next seven games, against the Nationals and White Sox, and the Sell sign probably lights up.

At the same time, we’re starting to see the 2013 trade market take shape, and early indications are that this might prove a good year to be a seller. Last Tuesday, the Cubs flipped Scott Feldman, a 30 year-old righthander with a 46-50 career record and 4.65 ERA, to the Orioles for inconsistent but talented power arms Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop, plus catcher Steve Clevenger. Over the weekend, the Marlins dealt Ricky Nolasco, also 30 with slightly better career numbers, to the Dodgers for three pitching prospects who’d rated among the club’s top 30 minor leaguers. Neither Feldman nor Nolasco has a profile even close to the guys the Phillies are expected to discuss if and when they make a final decision to trade major league veterans for younger talent.

Last week we looked at four position players, three of whom—Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins—are lifelong Phillies who starred on the 2008 championship team. (Along with Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels, they’ve become known as the Final Five, a term prompting serious unease for those of us who loved and ultimately were let down by the mid-2000s remake of Battlestar Galactica). The two guys we’ll consider most closely this week are of more recent vintage, though in terms of fan-level emotional attachment, or at least this fan's, they’re pretty much opposites.

Once again, we’ll consider, in as Vulcan a manner as possible, these questions three:

  • What kind of return could this player bring?
  • How would the Phillies replace him for 2014?
  • Are there other considerations—attendance, clubhouse morale, etc.—that should come into play in making this decision?

At the end, I’ll give a score of 1 to 5, with 1 being an absolute "keep" and 5 meaning a no-brainer "trade."

SP Cliff Lee

The Basics: Lee has been a central character in four signature moments of recent Phillies history. GM Ruben Amaro made his first, and by far best, Big Deadline Deal when he acquired Lee in July 2009, and the laconic lefty helped bring the team within two wins of a second straight World Series title. Less than two months later, Amaro unwisely sent Lee to Seattle as a counterpart move to the acquisition of Roy Halladay. A year after that, the Phillies outmaneuvered the Yankees and Rangers to bring back Lee as a free agent and cement a starting rotation for the ages. But in October 2011, with a chance to a put a stranglehold on the NL Division Series, Lee couldn’t protect a 4-0 Game Two lead and the Phillies ultimately fell to the Cardinals in five games. He hasn’t appeared in a playoff game since. He has, however, put up a 33-19 record, 2.75 ERA, 140 ERA+ and 6.2 K/BB ratio since rejoining the Phillies, and just made his fourth all-star team and second in the past three seasons.

Return: You want to say "massive," but Lee is the living embodiment of "seller beware": he’s been traded three times, for ten players, and none have panned out. Some were big names at the time of the deals: Carlos Carrasco, Philippe Aumont, Justin Smoak. None of them has been worth more than about 1.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Lee meanwhile has been worth 23.4 WAR since the first 2009 trade.

Lee cannot demand a trade, and the Phillies can afford to pay him. So there’s no sense in considering a deal unless you’re overwhelmed with both quantity and quality: probably one top 10 prospect in baseball, with 2-3 other guys either in the top 100 or already contributing at the big league level. There are a handful of teams—the Rangers, Cardinals and Red Sox—who have both the financial means and prospect inventory to make such a deal. But they didn’t get good by carelessness or profligacy.

Replacement: This is the other reason to exercise extreme caution in a Lee deal. You’re talking about a guy who’s among the five or ten best starters in the game, whose absence likely will make it difficult for the Phillies to compete in 2014. The best free agent pitchers this winter include guys like Matt Garza, Hiroki Kuroda, and Josh Johnson, all of whom have concerns around age, injury, and/or consistency. It could be possible to trade for a younger ace: the Tigers might not be able to afford Max Scherzer along with their other big-dollar commitments, the Rays might have to part with David Price, and so on. But you can’t count on that, nor on the quick or steady emergence of a Jesse Biddle or anyone else currently in the system.

Other Factors: Trading Lee certainly would be read by a large portion of the fan base as waving a white flag, with a possible resultant drop in gate and TV ratings. But two considerations should have Amaro open to discussions. First, it’s becoming clear that Lee would prefer not to stick around for a rebuild. Second, and more important, the Phillies owe Lee about $75 million through 2015, including a $12.5 million buyout for 2016. If you’re getting the 2008-2013 Lee, that’s just fine. But the Roy Halladay experience shows just how quickly a veteran pitcher can succumb to injury and accumulated wear and tear, and Lee will turn 35 later this season. His value will never be higher.

Verdict: Somewhat to my own surprise, I’m calling this a high 2. Maybe Lee will continue as an ace for the duration of his contract, and combine with Cole Hamels to win 35 games next year as the Phils return to the top of the East. But maybe he’ll get hurt, or just lose a fraction of his immaculate command. For a guy who’s always in the zone, that’s the difference between called thirds and home runs. The risk of keeping him plus the potential return obligates the Phillies to listen hard.

RP Jonathan Papelbon

The Basics: Let’s just put it out there: I can’t stand Jonathan Papelbon, even beyond my disdain for closers as a brood. Hated him in Boston, hate him with us. He’s a loudmouth who’s losing fastball velocity and, like Lee, his contract seems reasonable now but could look awful if he slips even a bit. All that said, he’s been probably the second-best closer in baseball since reaching the majors in 2005, and his postseason experience with the Red Sox will help his appeal.

Return: Few big-name closers have been traded in midseason these last couple years. Though he wasn’t a closer, Koji Uehara went from Baltimore to Texas two summers ago; he brought back Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter, now mainstays for the Orioles. You probably need a top 100 prospect back for Papelbon, plus one or two nice complementary pieces: someone from a team’s top 10, and/or a major league contributor. What I worry about is that Ruben Amaro, in his Wade-esque closer fixation, will insist upon getting back whoever Papelbon will be replacing just to have a "proven guy at the back end." Ugh.

Replacement: You can always find closers. Yes, the immediate successor will represent a downgrade, but even this winter there will be some viable free agent options—Edward Mujica, Grant Balfour—that won’t cost a pick, and they’re easy to trade for in the offseason. It’s also possible that a hard-throwing starter prospect like Ethan Martin could take to the role.

Other Factors: I can’t imagine Papelbon will be missed in the clubhouse, the stands or the media—though he is an easy if often imbecilic quote. Yes, he’s the One Veteran in a bullpen filled with IronPigs alums, and Antonio Bastardo. But if his experience and leadership has made anything like a positive difference in their performance, God help us all. And again, he’s owed something like $32 million yet.

Verdict: 4. We know Amaro overvalues closers--that whole ex-player thing--and I fear he will wait too long and blow an opportunity to add talent for a guy who, even if he’s Brad Lidge 2008, isn’t necessary for a non-contender.

Other Guys?

David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News suggested last month that the Phillies shop Kyle Kendrick. It makes a lot of sense: Kendrick is in the Nolasco class of starter, but he’s younger, cheaper and has a better recent track record. He’s under team control for one more season after 2013, and to keep him beyond then probably would require a commitment of 3-4 years in excess of $30 million. Kendrick’s come a long way, but such a deal for him would entail considerable risk. To this point, though, there’s been no sign he’s under consideration. The Phillies aren’t moving Cole Hamels, and rightly so. It’s difficult to see circumstances under which any of their other non-young arms would have much appeal.

Conclusion

If the Phillies sell—and I still think there's much more reason for them to do so than to stand pat or buy; this is not a team that's one player away from title contention—the two guys they almost have to move are Michael Young and Papelbon. Frankly I’d trade Young even if they won 20 games between now and July 31. The return for those two likely would add a top 5 prospect in their system, plus one or two more players in the organization’s top 30. If they opted for more radical reconstruction and got irresistible offers for Utley or Lee, you could imagine a vastly improved system as well as enough money saved to add payroll through trades or go big into the free agent market this winter.

As JoeCatz likes to point out, "sell" strategies have a high fail rate. The Lee trades aren’t the only ones that have backfired on the sellers: think about the Indians’ 2008 trade of CC Sabathia or the Braves’ shipping out Mark Teixeira that same year, among many others. Then again, when they work, they can transform a team’s fortunes. The Rangers’ Teixeira deal a year before brought them Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, setting the team up for their recent dominant stretch. And the first "Lee trade" probably remains the greatest successful sell deal in history: the 2002 Indians traded Bartolo Colon to the Expos for Lee, Brandon Phillips, and Grady Sizemore.

It should be an interesting next few weeks.

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