EARLIER THIS WEEK, we broke down the various reasons the Phillies should be spending the next month soliciting offers for Jonathan Papelbon and Cliff Lee. The biggest: It's their best, and maybe only, chance at acquiring the kind of near-major-league-ready hitters with significant upside that they need to rebuild their aging lineup on the fly. We've already labeled the trading of Papelbon a no-brainer, for the same reason the Phillies have all but ruled out acquiring a veteran reliever to bolster their putrid bullpen. It costs a lot. The poster child here is Chris Davis, the 27-year-old breakout star for the Orioles who leads the majors with 28 home runs and a .709 slugging percentage to go with his .330 batting average and .440 on-base percentage. Baltimore acquired him 2 years ago for closer Koji Uehara, who was far less accomplished than Papelbon. Davis is an exception, but scroll through the past few trade deadlines, and you will see that closers command premium prospects at this time of year.
Lee is a different story, and while the Phillies cannot afford to pass up a socks-knocking offer, there is a case to be made for holding on to Lee.
1. He's pretty damn good: The Phillies have already had much more success with Lee than a lot of teams have had with big-money contract extensions for pitchers. Assuming he finishes 2013 as he has started, Lee's first three seasons of the 5-year, $120 million deal he signed before 2011 will all be elite-level seasons. In 78 starts since, he is 32-19 with a 2.71 ERA, 8.8 K/8, 1.4 BB/9 and 0.8 HR/9, and he has shown no signs of slowing down. The Phillies' top realistic scenario for a quick return to contention includes Lee teaming with Cole Hamels at the top of the rotation. They showed in 2007 and 2008 that a team can rebuild a bullpen on the fly (Chad Durbin, Brad Lidge, J.C. Romero, Scott Eyre). If they can find a way to add a hitter who gives them in 2014 what Domonic Brown is giving them this year, then all of the sudden, you can make a case that they are right back in the thick of things, particularly if they can add another middle-of-the-order bat through free agency (although the pickings are slim beyond Shin-Soo Choo). That case will only be strengthened if Maikel Franco continues on his fast track to the big leagues.
2. The Phillies can afford it: They have a new local television deal on the horizon (the current one ends after 2015) that should provide plenty of cash. Besides, the free-agent market does not offer too many options for spending boatloads of money. Lee is not a salary dump.
3. He might be worth even more in the offseason, when teams have fresh budgets to work with, and wannabe contenders such as the Royals are more likely to part with top prospects such as Wil Meyers for top-of-the-rotation starters signed to multiple seasons. Remember, the Angels gave up Jean Segura for a half season of Zack Greinke.
Of course, all of this assumes that Lee remains healthy and productive. As Roy Halladay, Dan Haren and Chris Carpenter have shown, pitchers in their mid-30s can go from Cy Young candidacy to untradability before a front office has time to react.
In a perfect world, the Phillies are able to parlay Papelbon and soon-to-be free agents like Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz and Michael Young into enough promising talent that holding on to Lee becomes the smart move. I'd argue that they should look to trade Kyle Kendrick before Lee, since Kendrick is at peak value, doesn't have a no-trade clause, is about to become a lot more expensive after the season, and is more easily replaced through free agency than Lee.
Long story short, the Phillies have plenty on their list of priorities ahead of dealing Lee. Even if they cannot rule it out.