Ruben Amaro Jr. cut off the question in mid-sentence.
Given your intense trade-deadline pursuit of pitching . . .
"Is this a Cliff Lee question?" the Phillies' general manager asked, bristling at a reporter over the weekend in Chicago.
As a matter of fact . . .
"I'm done," Amaro said, walking away from the visitors' dugout and toward the solace of the batting cage at Wrigley Field.
It really is a simple question, and one that Amaro answered during a radio interview earlier this season. At that time, he said, "We could have kept Cliff Lee, but we wouldn't have Roy Halladay."
That is different from the answer he provided the day the Phillies acquired Halladay from Toronto for four minor-league prospects and shipped Lee to Seattle for three others.
"We could have kept both of them, but it was a baseball decision for me and our organization," Amaro said. "We could not leave the [minor-league] cupboard bare. If we had just acquired Roy and not moved Lee, we would have lost seven of the best 10 prospects in our organization. That is not the way you do business in baseball."
In truth, the Phillies lost seven of their 10 best prospects anyway in the two trades for Lee and Halladay. Nearly four months into this season, the three players they got for Lee - Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, and J.C. Ramirez - look more like projects than prospects.
And still the cupboard is not bare.
Baseball America just came out with its midseason prospect report, and Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown topped the list. Lakewood pitcher Jarred Cosart and first baseman Jonathan Singleton also were among the top 50. The Phillies were listed as one of four organizations on the rise.
All of this leads to a number of points.
The first is that the farm system could have survived without the Phillies' using Lee as a chip to restock the teams at Clearwater and Reading. It's still possible that Aumont, Gillies, and Ramirez will help the Phillies in the future, but not this season.
The second point: Amaro would not be searching for a top-notch starting pitcher such as Houston's Roy Oswalt if the Phils simply had decided to keep Lee and his $9 million salary. The Phillies' top three starters - Halladay, Lee, and Cole Hamels - would be the best trio in baseball.
It has been suggested that money is the reason the Phillies did not keep Lee, but $9 million for one year would have been a discount compared with what it could cost to acquire Oswalt. The Astros' ace would be due $4.6 million the rest of this season even if he only pitched the final eight weeks in Philadelphia. He also is due $16 million in 2011, with a $16 million club option or $2 million buyout in 2012.
If Lee were still around, Amaro's focus could be on a problem that's equally glaring as the deadline approaches. Without second baseman Chase Utley, the Phillies' offense is not the intimidating force it had been in the three previous seasons. But when Amaro talks about trades, he always mentions pitching as the priority.
Maybe Brown can come up from triple-A Lehigh Valley and help the offense, but that will happen only if Jayson Werth is traded or the Phillies decide that Raul Ibanez is no longer the answer in left field. The former scenario seems more likely than the latter, given that Ibanez is due $11.5 million next season and is untradeable.
The third and final point: If Amaro is successful in his pursuit of Oswalt or another quality starting pitcher, he probably will have to deal some prospects - and we're pretty sure that no team is showing a great deal of interest in Aumont, Ramirez, or Gillies.
J.A. Happ has been mentioned as a pitcher who could interest the Astros, and Jarred Cosart is considered the team's best pitching prospect, but he is by no means the only pitching prospect in the organization. If the Phillies have to surrender more prospects because they did not keep Lee, they really will have outsmarted themselves.
Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577 or firstname.lastname@example.org.