Why Philadelphia Phillies Would Be Wise to Hold on to Cliff Lee

Matt BoczarContributor IIIJuly 23, 2012

Why Philadelphia Phillies Would Be Wise to Hold on to Cliff Lee

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    Wouldn’t this be a familiar situation?  The Philadelphia Phillies sign one pitcher to a long-term contract extension and quickly trade another member of their starting rotation?

    Well, at least one team could have interest in seeing that happen.

    The Philadelphia Phillies would take the top starting pitcher off the market if they were to sign Cole Hamels to a long-term contract extension prior to the trade deadline.

    But that doesn’t mean the interest in their starting rotation would lessen.

    According to Danny Knobler on CBSSports.com, the Texas Rangers could turn their attention to Cliff Lee if Hamels were to be taken off the block.

    Knobler mentions that it’s a long-shot, but a recent tweet by Jim Salisbury also suggests that the Rangers could have interest in Lee.

    Lee’s soon-to-be yearly salary of $25 million is both a reason why the Phillies could explore trade options if they sign Hamels to an extension, and a reason why other teams might shy away. However, this is the same pitcher whose 17-8 record and 2.40 ERA led to his finishing third in National League Cy Young award voting last season.

    Yes, signing Hamels long-term could make trading Lee a good idea, eventually.  But trading him for the sake of shedding payroll, especially when he is currently 1-6, would not be a good idea this season.

    Here are five reasons why the Phillies would be wise to hold on to Lee at the trade deadline.

They Can Still Avoid the Luxury Tax

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    Regardless of whether the Phillies sign Hamels to a long-term deal, they are still likely to exceed the luxury tax threshold with their current payroll.

    And yes, trading Lee could help lower the Phils current payroll below the threshold of $178 million.

    However, according to a recent article by Matt Gelb on philly.com, trading players like Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton and Placido Polanco would also have the same effect.

    As Gelb’s article explains, teams over the luxury tax threshold will have to pay a 20 percent tax in 2012 and 30 percent tax in 2013.  However, teams who exceed the threshold for the first time in 2013 will only pay a 17.5 percent tax.

    If the Phillies trade Victorino, Blanton, Polanco and even Ty Wigginton, after already trading Jim Thome and Chad Qualls (two players with contracts over $1 million), they can avoid paying the tax this season and not use up their first time offender card.

    This means that, despite owing a ton of money to Lee, the Phillies can still keep him for at least this season without paying the luxury tax.

    Rather than trading him to the Rangers or, as Ken Rosenthal recently mentioned in a video on msn.foxsports.com called Full Count: Handling Hanley, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Phillies could wait until after the season if they felt that moving Lee’s salary was the right move.

    Instead of negotiating with two teams for Lee and his 1-6 record, the Phils could wait until after the season when more teams, including non-contending teams, could be interested in the Cy Young award winner.

    Moving Lee’s salary would greatly lower the Phils payroll, but doing so at the trade deadline with a limited amount of time and teams would not be wise, especially since other options exist for avoiding the luxury tax.

The Need Lee for Any Chance of Winning This Season

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    With the second-half of the regular season underway, the Phillies currently sit 10.5 games back in the wild card standings.

    And that number would likely increase if Lee were to be traded.

    The Phillies starting rotation’s ERA of 3.99 ranks eighth in the NL.  Following a rough June (6.12 ERA), Lee’s ERA in July is currently 2.05.  This month has also seen him strike out 17 batters while walking three, as he’s held opponents to a .217 batting average.

    With Roy Halladay only recently returning from the disabled list, and Vance Worley and Joe Blanton sporting July ERAs of 6.75 and 4.43, respectively, Lee’s presence in the rotation is even more important.

    After only giving up less than four earned runs in any game in June once, Lee has not allowed more than two earned runs in any game in July. 

    Since 2008, Lee has only had one season in which his ERA following the All-Star break was over 3.00.

    Each loss by the Phils makes it that much more difficult to even climb into contention in the wild card standings.

    And without Lee, even that goal may not be obtainable.

Roy Halladay's 2014 Contract Option

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    Halladay’s injury not only caused him to miss nearly two months this season, but it also brings his 2014 contract option into question.

    Halladay is signed through next season, and has a 2014 option that takes effect if he is not on the disabled list at the end of the 2013 season, pitches at least 225 innings during the 2013 season and pitches 415 innings combined between this season and next.

    Well, after spending almost two months on the disabled list, that last requirement could be difficult to reach.

    Halladay has thrown 77.1 innings this season, and has not thrown less than 220 innings in a season since 2005.

    If Halladay makes 14 more starts this season and pitches seven innings each time, he will have pitched 175.1 innings.  Although he can pitch more or less than seven innings in any start, this at least provides a rough estimate.  At 175.1 innings, Halladay would have to pitch 239.9 innings next season to reach 415.

    Halladay has thrown at least that many innings in a season three times.

    Halladay can still sign an extension with the Phillies, but his 2014 contract option is not guaranteed to kick in, which could make Lee’s presence crucial to solidifying the Phillies rotation past next season.

    With players such as Hunter Pence and Chase Utley eligible for free agency after next season, and the luxury tax threshold set to increase to $189 million during that same time, keeping Lee and his salary could be easier and a good decision.

Help Is Not Soon on the Way

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    As Paul Hagen’s recent article on the Phillies’ website explains, the team has multiple pitching prospects who have the potential to reach the major league level.

    The problem is that they’re only in Single-A.

    If the Phillies trade Lee at the deadline, a pitcher such as Tyler Cloyd could be called up to fill the rotation spot.

    But with Blanton set to become a free agent, a trade of Lee would also mean that the Phillies would have two rotation spots to fill for next season.

    A second starter to add to the rotation could be more difficult to find.

    Add in the uncertainty surrounding Halladay’s 2014 contract, and the Phillies could have to add a starter to their rotation in three straight seasons, including the current one, if they trade Lee at the trade deadline.

    However, by keeping Lee even if they sign Hamels to a long-term deal, the Phillies would only need to fill one rotation spot next season.  This means that the money potentially saved from transactions, or lack thereof, involving Victorino, Blanton, Polanco and Wigginton, could be used to improve the team’s bullpen and lineup rather than the rotation.

    Trading Lee in order to have more spending money during an offseason, or to avoid the luxury tax, could be a good decision at some point, but this is not the time to do it.

Teams Could Ask the Phillies to Pay Much of Lee's Contract

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    A recent article by Jon Heyman on CBSSports.com talks about the amount of money left on Lee’s contract.

    Heyman explains how, with Lee’s salary set to increase to $25 million starting next season, he is owed approximately $98 million on his current contract.

    Heyman also mentions another point in his article.

    Lee’s deal looked fair at the time, but with about $98 million to go through 2015, the Rangers (or any other interested team) would expect a major offset from the Phillies.

    If Lee’s deal seemed fair at the time, it must have seemed fair following a 17-8 season and third place finish in NL Cy Young award voting.  So why would the Phillies essentially pay much of his salary for him to pitch for someone else less than a year after posting such numbers?

    If the Phils would have to pay a large portion of Lee’s salary in a trade, now is not the time to trade him.

    During an offseason in which Lee’s entire career worth of performances can be analyzed rather than only his most recent season to determine his trade value, a team could be willing to take on more of his salary.  Trading him during a different season could also have the same effect.

    Or, of course, he can continue pitching well and post numbers similar to last season, and the Phillies could be glad they held on to him.