Posted May 22, 2013

With Phillies falling apart at the seams, Lee could be dealt sooner rather than later

Philadelphia Phillies, Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard
Cliff Lee, Phillies

Cliff Lee has already been traded four times in his career. (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

Roy Halladay is out, perhaps for the season. Carlos Ruiz is out. Ryan Howard is ailing. Chase Utley is headed for an MRI. The offense has been so lousy that it has left Cole Hamels speechless. Now Cliff Lee has admitted that he’s open to a trade. Add it all up and the Phillies appear even further from retaking their spot among NL East contenders than they did last year, when their run of five straight division titles ended. No matter how brave a face he puts on the situation, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. may need to dismantle his team for the second summer in a row.

Lee, who’s in the third year of a five-year, $120 million deal he signed in December 2010, has been one of the few bright spots for the Phillies. The 34-year-old lefty has been typically excellent, with a 2.83 ERA and a 2.93 FIP through nine starts, seven of them quality. Nonetheless, even after winning six of their last nine, Philadelphia is just 22-24, third in the NL East, 5 1/2 games out of first place and the same distance from a wild card slot. Given a bloated payroll, an aging roster and a depleted farm system — not to mention a lame-duck manager — dealing Lee later this summer may make more sense than keeping him.

Asked about the possibility of a trade, Lee told CBS Sports, “I definitely want to win. I want to be on a winning team… That should be what it’s all about… That’s completely out of my control. I’m a Phillie until they tell me otherwise.”

The reality is that Lee does have some control of the matter, as his contract includes a 21-team no-trade list. It’s not clear which teams are on it and which aren’t, but come July, many a contender is sure to take an interest. Lee knows the drill, as he’s been traded four times in his career, twice to contenders in July; both times he helped his new team win the pennant. On July 29, 2009, the Indians sent him to the eventual NL champion Phillies in a six-player deal. After being moved to Seattle in a four-player deal that December, the Mariners traded him to the eventual AL champion Rangers in another six-player transaction on July 9, 2010 once their own bid for contention fizzled.

When Amaro faced the reality that 2012 wasn’t Philadelphia’s year, he traded away Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence and Joe Blanton within a four-day span, and briefly put Lee on the block last summer as well. The Dodgers claimed him on waivers in August, though discussions between the two teams never got very far. The Phillies were 45-57, 12 games under .500 when the July 31 trading deadline passed, but they rallied to go 36-24 the rest of the way to finish right at 81-81.

At the moment, there’s not a whole lot of reason to think that the current team can reach even that level. Though they’re just two games below .500, the Phillies’ -34 run differential is the third-worst in the league, and they’re three games ahead of their Pythagorean record. The offense is limping along at 3.57 runs per game, the fourth-worst mark in the league, while the pitching is allowing 4.30 runs per game, tied for the fifth-worst mark in the NL, and both the lineup and the rotation are showing more than the usual wear and tear.

After starting the year with a 25-game suspension for using a banned stimulant, the 34-year-old Ruiz has played in just 16 games, hitting .235/.286/.275. He went on the disabled list on Tuesday with a Grade 2 strain of his right hamstring, which will knock him out for three or four weeks; meanwhile, backup Erik Kratz is hitting just .213/.268/.337. The 33-year-old Howard is flirting with the DL as well; on Monday, he was diagnosed with inflammation in his left knee, as well as a possible tear of a meniscus, problems that may be linked to his mechanics in the wake of his Achilles injury that kept him out for the first three months of the 2012 season. He’s hitting .256/.292/.436 with six homers, a performance only superficially better than last year’s .219/.295/.423.

Elsewhere in the lineup, the 34-year-old Utley is off to a decent start (.272/.339/.475), but he and 36-year-old Michael Young (.296/.389/.388) are the only two regulars with an OPS+ above 100. After being limited to 83 games last year and an average of 100 for 2010-2012, Utley had played in all but one game prior to Tuesday night, but he was scratched 30 minutes before game time due to discomfort in his right side, and will undergo an MRI on Thursday.

Jimmy Rollins, also 34, is hitting just .260/.307/.395, which is right in line with the .253/.316/.410 he hit over the previous four seasons. As for the youth movement in the outfield, while five of the six contributors are under 30, they have combined to hit .238/.290/.362 en route to the lowest OPS of any outfield in the league. Domonic Brown leads the team with eight homers, but the 25-year-old is hitting a meager .248/.291/.435. Ben Revere, also 25, is hitting only .260/.302/.298 with eight walks and four extra-base hits in 142 plate appearances; he was even worse than that in the leadoff spot, and has since been bounced all around the lineup by manager Charlie Manuel. Delmon Young, 27, is hitting .214/.292/.393 in 65 PA since returning from offseason ankle surgery, and providing high comedy in rightfield as well.

There is some good news. The rotation leads the league with a 67 percent quality start rate, but its 4.07 ERA and 6.9 strikeouts per nine rank just ninth. Lee and Kyle Kendrick (2.82 ERA) have both been very good and rookie Jonathan Pettibone (3.00 ERA) has outpitched his less-than-flattering peripherals in six starts filling in for the injured John Lannan. Hamels, who’s carrying a 1-7 record and a 4.45 ERA, hasn’t pitched up to his usual standard, but a closer look shows that he’s allowed three runs or fewer in seven of his 10 starts, yet the only time the Phillies have won a game he’s started this year was on April 28 against the lowly Mets.

Hamels’ frustration appears to be mounting. On Monday, he set a season high with 10 strikeouts against the even more lowly Marlins, walking none while allowing seven hits and two runs. The Phillies mustered just one run of their own, and after the game, he refused to speak to reporters. He did so again before Tuesday’s game. Manuel stood up for his 29-year-old southpaw, telling reporters, “I’m sure it’s confusing to him when he pitches like he did last night and it’s hard for him to win… That’s the competitor in him, that’s the part that was upset. He probably thought it was best that he didn’t talk.” While understandable in the heat of the moment, that’s not the kind of behavior that a manager or teammate can cover for indefinitely, and if anything, his lack of words calls even more attention to the slumping offense than a standard canned response.

As for the third member of the team’s pitching triumvirate, Halladay underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder last week. While Dr. Neal ElAttrache found no detachments or major tears, the 36-year-old righty did have an inflamed bursa removed as well as repairs to both his rotator cuff and labrum. Dr. Michael Ciccotti, the team physician, called it a “best-case scenario” and said Halladay could begin throwing again in six to eight weeks, which could mean a late August return.

Even so, there are no guarantees that Halladay will regain his range of motion or velocity that quickly, and the data regarding older pitchers with shoulder injuries is daunting. In a recent study for FanGraphs, Eno Sarris found 62 pitchers age 35 and older who went on the disabled list since 2002. Just over half the group (32 out of 62) never pitched in the majors again, and the group as a whole averaged a mere 59 major league innings for the remainder of their careers, with only six starters topping 100 innings total: Orlando Hernandez (438 1/3), Tim Wakefield (424 1/3), John Burkett (181 2/3), Kenny Rogers (173 2/3), Pedro Martinez (153 2/3), and John Smoltz (106).

In conjunction with last year’s seven-week DL stint, Halladay’s injury will prevent him from reaching the innings thresholds (225 in 2013 or 415 in 2012-2013) that would have triggered his $20 million option for 2014. Even without him, the Phils have more than $100 million committed to six players for next year — Lee ($25 million), Howard ($25 million), Hamels ($23.5 million), Jonathan Papelbon ($13 million), Rollins ($11 million) and Mike Adams ($7 million) — and $86.5 million committed to four players (Lee, Howard, Hamels and Papelbon) for 2015. While their current payroll of $159.5 million is their lowest since 2010, it’s still the third-highest in the game behind the Yankees and Dodgers, and far more money than a noncontender should be spending. So if the team fails to pick up the pace, Amaro could look to deal pending free agents Utley, Ruiz and Young, health permitting.

Utley, Hamels and Howard all have similar no-trade protection to Lee, but all are homegrown products to whom Amaro and the rest of the organization are more attached. Nobody’s talking about trading Hamels, who signed a six-year, $144 million extension last summer, and nobody’s going to take Howard, who has $85 million guaranteed on his deal beyond this year ($25 million a year through 2016, plus a $10 million buyout of his $23 million option for 2017), in his current condition. That doesn’t mean Amaro has to trade Lee, but given the dearth of top flight free agent pitchers on the market, moving him may be necessary to restock a farm system that Baseball America ranked 23rd out of 30 prior to this season while noting a lack of immediate help in the upper levels.

With the 69-year-old Manuel in the final year of his contract and the well-regarded Ryne Sandberg waiting in the wings as the team’s third base coach after six seasons of managing in the minors, the time would appear to be ripe for the Phillies to make a change if things don’t improve. Amaro lacked the will to undertake rebuilding last winter; he may have no choice but to do so this summer.

15 comments
Michael10
Michael10

Phillies should trade Howard and Utley for Juan Samuel and Von Hayes. They be good for fewer strikeouts and injuries--even at 52 and 54 years old.

pvs
pvs

Maybe a little premature with the tailspin of the Phillies. They are almost at 500 and 7-3 in their last ten games. Should revisit their plight at the allstar break.

DanielM
DanielM

Where did this author get the idea that this team is falling apart? They could be in second place by the weekend.

themekons
themekons

Look, all of you posters who are complaining about this writer's admittedly ridiculous suggestion that the Phillies, just a few games out of first place, should sell off their premier pitcher have got it all wrong.  You've obviously taking this writer seriously in terms of his baseball acumen.  He doesn't know anything about baseball or baseball history - he's just a writer with too much time on his hands and no good ideas about what to write about.  Did I say he's a writer?  He's not even that.  As Truman Capote once said about Jack Kerouac (unfairly, I think, in that case): 'he doesn't write, he types.'  This guy is a typist and I have no idea why SI pays him a living wage (if it does).


this is not a serious article and it should be ignored...so now I'll go back to ignoring it.

Nutinpa
Nutinpa

Love my Phitin Phils like some fellow posters but I suggest some of us are living in the past.  Yes, this team historically has been an August-September team, but "historically" is the operative word.  This team is what it is, trite cliche aside. It is aging and going nowhere.  It may need to go into an abyss for a couple of years and completely rebuild.  I think Sandberg is the guy to do it.  I don't want to run Charlie out of town, but his time, along with the veterans on this team, has come and gone.  Lots of great memories, but that is what they are.  Too early to pack it in?  Maybe.  But I suggest the signs are more than telling.  It's time to end the denial.

cjeberly
cjeberly

One game under .500 and it's still May.  Why even think about writing this article?

Evan8
Evan8

Why are there so many articles talking about who the Phillies could trade when they are 4-5 games out of 1st and less for the wildcard?  Oddly, I haven't seen 1 article on whom the Angels or the Dodgers could trade?  Do these writers even follow the sport?  The Phillies are a notorious 2nd half team, having the best 2nd half record for the past 5 years.  They made a hell of a push last year in the 2nd half too and that was AFTER they traded some key pieces so I don't expect any moves to be made this year, at least not selling.

I'm optomistic but it's not like it's impossible either.

jfink69
jfink69

Sorry, not ready to give up on these guys yet. They are traditionally a much better second half team, and they've been known to hover around .500 until the All Star Break and then take off in the second half. The other teams in the division have plenty of flaws themselves, and I expect the Phillies offense to pick it up soon.

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

Ryno will come aboard a sinking ship as manager and everyone will regard him as a bad manager...  A tough situation, he still has to grab the reins as he's wanted to manage at the MLB level for a while now but it will be a rough beginning for him...

Solomon
Solomon

Phillies aren't very good- I think that much most would agree on. But I'd say the greatest fear among Phillies fans is that Rueben Amaro would be the one to attempt the tear down and rebuild. You know, the guy who inherited a WS winning team and ran them into the ground in 5 years- all while spending $160 mil a year or so. But hey, he was a Phillie ball boy as a kid so I'm sure Uncle Monty will hang with him another 5-6 years before thinking about possibly considering the thought a new GM might be needed.

Roncappesq
Roncappesq

Instead of trading team leaders such as Utley, Ruiz, and Lee, the Phillies Management should finally accept that Manuel is just not a good Manager and they should just have him sit out the rest of the season, If the Phillies could get a top-notch manager, with the styles of a LaRussa or Torre, that may make a huge difference

Michael10
Michael10

@themekonsNow I'm even more convinced the Phillies are in trouble and will eventually move Lee this summer...

ken.raining
ken.raining

Yeah, the thought of Amaro being in charge of a full-fledged rebuilding campaign is scary.  He already traded Cliff Lee once, for a mediocre return. 

LennyDiWilliams
LennyDiWilliams

@Solomon, couldn't have said this better - or as well - myself.  As true a post as there could possibly be on this subject! 

LennyDiWilliams
LennyDiWilliams

@Roncappesq in our dreams, my friend, in our dreams.  One would think that this would be the path of least resistance, to have Amaro finally relinquish this dopey manager he continues to hold onto while allowing this highly-paid veteran group another chance to put it all together, but the next time Amaro does the logical thing, let me know, will ya?