Lee's trade value hangs in balance

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - Ruben Amaro Jr. walked into Charlotte Sports Park yesterday morning flanked by head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan and media-relations staffer Craig Hughner. Most combinations of people hold little meaning to be derived, but spend enough time watching baseball's rhythms from field level and you'll learn there are some that portend news. So when Amaro summoned reporters to the Phillies' dugout, there were only two questions left to ponder: Who is it? How bad is it?

The answer was one that should not come as a surprise to anybody who followed the pattern of Cliff Lee's battle with a flexor pronator tendon strain last summer. Pitcher develops soreness, pitcher expresses optimism, days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, pitcher returns to the mound and looks like a shell of himself, pitcher returns to the disabled list. The offseason is always supposed to be the magic tonic for these types of situations. Rest, rehabilitation and caution. Really, the Phillies had no choice but to believe it, just like Amaro now has no choice but to hope that the recurrence of pain in Lee's pitching elbow is a minor step backward in the healing process.

The reality, though, is that there are two types of injuries. There are those that are caused by trauma to an otherwise healthy body part that has the capability of returning to peak condition. And there are those caused by the exposure of once-routine stress to a weakened body part that can no longer perform the physiological movements that it once executed with ease. There is a reason no pitcher has pitched into his 90s, or his 80s, or his 70s, or his 60s. A pitcher's body is made out of the same stuff as all of our bodies, and that stuff always reaches a point at which its properties begin to diminish - durability, pliability, strength - and no amount of legal medical science can pause or reverse that process. We are young and then we are not, and when we are not, our physiological trajectory heads in one direction.

In a dugout question-and-answer session, somebody asked Amaro if he agreed that the fate of Lee's left arm was a significant unknown in the Phillies' quest to rebuild their roster. Amaro agreed, but he did so with a hint of reservation that was evident throughout the offseason whenever the Phillies discussed the future of their veteran ace. While yesterday's news will be billed as a setback, the words of Amaro and Co. have always betrayed an understanding of the aging curves that suggest Lee will never reclaim the value he possessed when he could have been traded for a return significant enough to accelerate their rebuild. Everything that we have heard about Lee's injury suggests that it is not an injury at all. Rather, it is a 36-year-old elbow behaving the way 36-year-old elbows are supposed to behave. For the Phillies, that means accepting the reality that any value they end up realizing out of Lee will be a bonus. Chances are, Lee will simply have to make the best out of the physiological realities he faces. Maybe that means a little less life on his fastball, a little less bite on his cutter, six innings where he once pitched eight or nine, 95 pitches where he once threw 110.

"He may have to pitch through it and see what happens," Amaro said.

For those who entered the spring thinking that the Phillies had two blue-chip pitching assets at their disposal, for those who thought it was only a matter of time before Lee was the Lee of old, well, this is reality. The Phillies knew they were hanging on to a ticking bomb when they decided against trading him 2013, and the bomb ended up blowing. At the same time, none of what has happened with Lee should change the way they approach their dealings with Hamels. Hamels is 5 years younger, with several years left of his physical prime. A pitcher his age could undergo Tommy John surgery in July and still be back on the mound with an elbow in peak condition and have a year or 2 of top-of-the-rotation dominance to offer a needy contender.

The Phillies are playing the Hamels situation the way it needs to be played. The bomb is not yet ticking. The reason that Amaro was unable to secure his desired return for the 31-year-old lefty this offseason was the intersection of supply and demand. There were too many top-of-the-rotation starters available, and too few teams with the motivation to part with high-end prospects to add such a player. But markets are dynamic things, and while the folks at FanGraphs.com have invested an inordinate amount of time in telling you why Hamels isn't worth the kind of package that Amaro is believed to be seeking, their models fail to incorporate two of the market forces most responsible for hastening the conclusion to a negotiation: utility, and irrational exuberance. They can forecast the number of wins that Hamels can add to a team, and they can assign a dollar value to those wins, but no amount of publicly available data can tell us the utility that a team projects itself to receive from the addition of those wins or the expenditure of those dollars. Nor can it tell us a team's motivation to add that utility, and, as a result, whether that team's motivation is rational.

Markets are volatile things, and in a market as lacking in breadth as a 30-team sports league, it is particularly susceptible to dramatic swings in supply and demand. Right now, Hamels is the supply, and we are at a time of the year when demand can spike in a hurry. The Rangers are facing the potential of life without Yu Darvish. You only need two teams for a bidding war, but more can enter the fray. If Texas ends up losing the wins it was expecting out of Darvish, then the aggregate demand for wins will have increased by a significant factor. If the Cardinals have concerns about Adam Wainwright, it could increase even further. The supply, at the moment, is constant.

"There's been one club I guess that's stepped up and has shown more particular interest," Amaro said. "But there's teams that have been interested and will continue to be so."

Market valuations assume efficient markets, and efficient markets require perfect information. This is less a market than a zero sum game. If one team adds the wins that Hamels projects to provide, then all of the other teams don't add those wins. Which team has the greatest need for those wins? What utility does that team project itself to gain from those wins? What is that utility worth in dollars?

No amount of spreadsheet wizardry can answer these questions, because no spreadsheet can quantify information that it does not possess.

"We're keeping open-minded," Amaro said. "We're open-minded on everything. The transition, the rebuild, all that stuff doesn't stop on Feb. 25. It's going to continue."

The information that the Phillies revealed about Cliff Lee was not positive information. But for the long-term future of the franchise, the most important information is that which has yet to reveal itself.

 


On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy

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