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Would a Massive Cole Hamels Deal with the Phillies Make Cliff Lee Trade Bait?
Hunter Martin/Getty Images
Could Cliff Lee be on the move at the deadline again?

The whole world is waiting for the Philadelphia Phillies to trade Cole Hamels, and why not? He's due to become a free agent at the end of the year, he could fetch them a significant package of prospects and it's not like they need him anymore seeing as how they're 13 games under .500 and utterly without hope heading into the season's second half.

If Hamels was on any other team, he probably would have already been traded by now.

But the Phillies are the Phillies. They have lots of cash and a fan base that must be pleased, lest they stop filling every seat in Citizens Bank Park day after day. The Phillies are not about to let Hamels go without a fight.

Drew Hallowell/Getty Images
Hamels has upped his price tag by going 10-4 with a 3.20 ERA thus far in 2012.

According to ESPN's Jayson Stark, the Phillies are going to make one more last-ditch effort to sign Hamels before MLB's July 31 trade deadline. Stark has it on good authority that the Phillies are preparing a "substantial offer" for Hamels. In this case, the thinking is that the offer would have to be something similar to the five-year, $112.5 million extension Matt Cain got from the San Francisco Giants.

If Hamels rejects this offer, it's a virtual lock that the Phillies will deal him at some point in the next couple weeks. If he accepts this offer, he's not going anywhere.

Even if Hamels does re-up with the Phillies, there's some chatter about the team parting ways with another one of their star left-handers at the trade deadline: veteran lefty Cliff Lee.

Yup, him again. He was traded at the deadline in 2009 and 2010, and it's not outside the realm of possibility that he could be traded at the deadline in 2012 too.

Renowned MLB Network baseball guru Peter Gammons floated the idea to 94WIP’s Angelo Cataldi and the WIP Morning Show. Via CBS Philly:

I’m still, in the back of my mind, and I’m sure I’m wrong here. But I keep thinking Is there a possibility that they’ll see if they can, in the next couple of weeks, if we can get in an area, where we can sign Hamels and trade Cliff Lee, because you could get more for Cliff Lee than you can for Hamels.

Very interesting...But does this notion have any legs?

Yes and no.

No, because this is more a case of Gammons thinking out loud than anything else. He did the same thing when he floated the idea of the Boston Red Sox trading Jon Lester (see CBS Boston), and that didn't end up going anywhere. In fact, Lester himself took to Twitter to let the people of Red Sox Nation know that he is perfectly happy in Boston.

Sarah Glenn/Getty Images
Lee has a 3.98 ERA this year, but a 3.00 FIP. Luck hasn't really been on his side.

Yes, because Gammons isn't wrong in suggesting that the Phillies could get more for Lee than they could for Hamels. Lee is older than Hamels and he's had some slight injury problems in the last couple of years, but he's a former Cy Young winner who is under contract through 2015. Lee wouldn't be a rental, and he's a better pitcher than Hamels when things are clicking for him.

And believe it or not, Gammons is not the first baseball insider to pitch the idea of the Phillies trading Lee. Joel Sherman of the New York Post pitched it almost a month ago.

Here's the key part of Sherman's reasoning:

The Phils are in a tough spot. They are in the midst of the best stretch in team history (five straight division titles, two pennants, one title). They want to honor that run and the full houses they get each game at Citizens Bank Park by continuing to go for it. But to get there they have had to strip their farm system while elevating the age of their major league roster. They need a mechanism to get younger while still contending.

They could contend without Lee if Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Halladay get healthy/productive (remember, they won it all in 2008 with just one unquestioned ace in Hamels). And they can’t win even with Lee if that trio does not rediscover close to their peak form. But either way the Phillies would be best served with an injection of talented youth that Lee could bring in a trade.

So you can easily see where both Gammons and Sherman are coming from. Signing Hamels is in the Phillies' interest because he's still young, but keeping him wouldn't change the fact that they desperately need to do something to strengthen their farm system. In this scenario, Lee is without a doubt their best trade asset, one that they can afford to part with to boot.

Not that trading Lee would be easy, of course. He loves Philadelphia, and Sherman noted that Lee has a nine-team no-trade list. AND he's owed $25 million per year in 2013, 2014 and 2015, with a $27.5 million vesting option for the 2016 season. It's either that or a $12.5 million buyout.

Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Hal Steinbrenner is a lot more business-minded than his dad was.

This narrows the list of potential trade partners down considerably. The New York Yankees would seem to be an obvious suitor, but Sherman had a point when he noted that the Yankees have tried on multiple occasions to acquire Lee with no success. Plus, they're not looking to add payroll, and they mean it when they say that.

The Phillies could eat some of Lee's salary in order to make it easier to trade him, but why would they do that? You typically only see that when a team is trading away a bad player with a big contract, a la Carlos Zambrano. You don't see that when a team is trading away a good player with a big contract.

Besides, if the Phillies sign Hamels to a lucrative extension, they're going to want to get as much money off their books as they possibly can. Per USA Today, their payroll already checks in at around $175 million. The last thing they want is to climb too high above the luxury tax threshold.

To make sure we're all clear on this, Lee doesn't have to go if the Phillies do end up re-signing Hamels at some point in the next couple of weeks. The Phillies could easily choose to keep the Halladay-Lee-Hamels rotation trio intact for the purpose of contending in 2013 and beyond. 

But they'd be fools not to at least consider dealing Lee if they do re-sign Hamels, just as they'd be fools to not consider dealing Hamels if he isn't re-signed. They need to think about the team's future, which isn't all that bright.

Should the Phillies trade Cliff Lee if they re-sign Cole Hamels?

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The team's mound staff is fine, but just look at what the Phillies are dealing with in the field. Shane Victorino is a declining player who is due to become a free agent at the end of the season. Chase Utley is playing on two ruined knees, and it's not out of the question that he could be forced into an early retirement. Ryan Howard was on the decline as a hitter in 2010 and 2011, and then he ruptured his Achilles last October. Jimmy Rollins has come around after a slow start, but he's also getting older.

The Phillies need young players in place to take over when their aging stars are ready to be replaced. Right now, they don't have those young players, and at this point spending money on high-priced free agents should be out of the question.

Make no mistake about it, the Phillies must do something to add to their farm system. To that end, Hamels and Lee can help.

If the Phillies end up holding on to both of them, then they better win in 2012 and/or 2013. The current team's window to contend is closing.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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