It's Monday, and the last-place Phillies are officially open for business. There are some 26 hours until the trade deadline and just about every rumor you can imagine will be floated in that time.
In all likelihood, the Phillies will trade Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton and Juan Pierre. They are free agents this winter and have been scouted extensively by contending teams.
But Ruben Amaro Jr. is hardly predictable this time of year, as evidenced by an exchange with reporters Friday. The general manager was asked if he planned on keeping his expensive starting rotation — Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay — intact.
"Plans can change," Amaro said, "but that's what the plan is right now."
Which players should the Phillies deal before Tuesday's 4 p.m. trade deadline?
It was a sly answer from a man chock full of them. But that is Amaro's job this time of year; to broadcast misinformation and hide his true intentions as best he can.
Do the Phillies want to trade Lee? That remains to be seen. They are at least listening on offers, according to an ESPN.com report Monday. It would be stunning if the Phillies dealt Lee before 4 p.m. Tuesday.
A potential deal makes sense. The Phillies are lacking payroll flexibility and want to acquire younger, major-league-ready prosepcts. Lee, despite an off season and large contract, is a valuable trade chip.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of something actually happening. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Lee can be traded to only eight teams. Lee, like other Phillies stars, has a no-trade clause inserted in his contract. That clause, according to a source, allows the player to submit a list annually of 21 teams he cannot be traded to without consent.
The identity of the eight teams in play is unknown, but reports say the Texas Rangers are one option. A deal between Texas and Philadelphia is conceivable; the two discussed a potential Cole Hamels trade earlier this month. The Phillies covet third baseman Mike Olt and outfielder Leonys Martin.
The Rangers, meanwhile, are engaged in an arms race with Los Angeles. The Angels just acquired Zack Greinke and trail Texas by five games in the American League West. Texas is familiar with Lee; he pitched in a World Series for them. They have the prospects. They have money.
But what if the Rangers decide the price is too steep for Lee? Well, that leaves seven other unknown options. Any Lee trade would be quite complicated and it's difficult to see something materializing with a new suitor in 24 hours.
That, of course, does not preclude a trade this winter.
2. How many promises can be broken? Lee's wife, Kristen, famously told Amaro that he broke her heart the first time Lee was traded. It was rectified when Lee signed a five-year, $120 million deal. The family bought a condo in Rittenhouse and quite enjoys living in Philadelphia.
Indications are Lee was told he would not be dealt this summer. When Hamels signed his megadeal, he said one of the reasons for staying was to pitch with Lee and Halladay. Halladay said he spoke with Amaro, who told him he foresees keeping the rotation together.
Other players take note of such things. If Lee is twice traded by Amaro, especially after recent assurances he would not be, it will reflect negatively.
Then again, it is a business.
3. There is no good read on Halladay's health. Let's say the Phillies deal Lee only to discover in a few weeks Halladay's lat strain is actually a more serious issue. Halladay insists it is not. Charlie Manuel, though, left the door open to shutting down Halladay later this season. He will be 36 next May. Only 13 pitchers who started their careers in the last 30 years have thrown more innings than Halladay by age 35. If he finishes the season, it will be 10 pitchers.
Halladay will be a free agent after 2013 because he will not reach the conditions for a vesting fourth-year option. Even if Halladay is healthy and Lee is traded, that would leave Hamels and four question marks for 2014.
4. Lee is still owed a ton of money. Rival GMs will have to ask themselves this question: Would they sign a 34-year-old pitcher to a three-year, $87.5 million deal this winter? Lee is due about $7 million for the rest of 2012, $25 million per season from 2013-15, and has a $12.5 million buyout or $27.5 million option for 2016.
The Phillies would almost certainly have to eat money in any deal. If he's traded in the next 24 hours, he is owed at least $95 million. The more money the Phillies eat, the better the prospect haul. And the more money the Phillies eat, the less financial flexibility is achieved.
How willing are the Phillies to pay a significant amount to a pitcher who will not be throwing for them? The objective of the trade will have to be clear: Either the Phillies do it to become younger, or they do it for salary relief.
This could all be a ploy to test the market now as due diligence for this winter. The Phillies must clear payroll somehow and nowhere is it written that it must be done immediately.
Lee is scheduled to start Tuesday against Stephen Strasburg in Washington. For now, his name is reduced to a trade rumor, but it's much more complicated than that.
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