Cliff Lee's elbow injury really fouled things up.
Lee's last start for the Phillies was on May 18, suffering a flexor strain in his left elbow. Since then, he's been rehabbing and made three starts for the Clearwater Threshers, the last of which wasn't so hot.
But now, with his rehab behind him and an elbow that he says is causing him no discomfort whatsoever, Lee will make his first start for the Phillies on Monday in San Francisco. That will give him two starts before the July 31 trade deadline to audition for potential suitors looking for a front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher.
Of course, two starts is not enough time to show anyone anything, unless he goes out and throws two eight-inning, one-run ballgames and looks un-hittable. And I don't think anyone is expecting anything like that. That takes us into August where, if he remains healthy, Lee should get five or six additional starts before the August 31 waiver deadline.
The Phillies are steaming towards a full-on sale. Anyone and everyone, save perhaps Cole Hamels and Chase Utley, would eagerly be dealt given the right package, with even Utley and Hamels not out of the conversation either.
Last year, Lee was the Phils' best trade chip at the deadline. In the first half of the season, he was 10-3 with a 2.86 ERA, striking out 8.1 batters per nine with a WHIP of 0.995, 125 strikeouts and 21 walks in 138.2 innings. He was the best hurler on the market, but also came with a huge price tag attached.
He was not dealt, either because the franchise still believed it could win, or because the offers weren't good enough. Probably a combination of both.
One year later, an elbow injury has clouded everything, and despite a contract that now has $25 million and one year fewer on it, the potential return the Phillies could get for Lee is certainly much smaller than it would have been last year. Even if Lee gets seven starts ahead of the August 31 deadline, it makes more sense for the Phils to wait until the winter to trade for Cliff Lee.
Certainly, there are compelling reasons to do it now. First, there is the very real concern the injury could flare up again. He's 35 years old, after all, and every pitcher breaks down at some point. If that is happening to Lee now, maximizing return in the next month-and-a-half would be prudent.
Second, there are a slew of teams desperate for high-end starting pitching. The Yankees, Blue Jays, Orioles, Angels, Mariners, Red Sox (looking ahead to 2015), Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates all need a starter, and aside from David Price and Ian Kennedy, Lee would be the next best arm available.
That is, of course, if that arm is healthy.
And there is the rub. Unless there is a team that is more desperate than we think, no general manager is going to offer the kind of package that they could offer in the winter, after Lee has presumably proven he's healthy and another $10-12 million is off his contract.
If the Phils truly want to maximize their return for Lee - and that is what this whole thing is all about, after all - they should wait until the winter. Sure, there may not be as many suitors, but the ones that are there will have more of a guarantee about his health and won't have to pay him quite as much.
If Ruben Amaro trades Lee now, he might be able to get a B-level prospect in return. And hey, the Phils could use a slew of B-prospects, that's not chump change. But if they wait - and waiting IS a gamble - it's more likely they could snag an A-minus prospect from another ballclub.
That is unless some GM loses their mind in the next six weeks and offers the farm for Lee.
Just remember, the Phillies do not HAVE to trade Cliff Lee, and should not feel the urgency to do so until they get the right package in return.