Analyzing the Potential Impact of a Phillies-Dodgers Cliff Lee Trade This Winter

Ian Casselberry@iancassMLB Lead WriterNovember 9, 2012

Cliff Lee is owed at least $87.5 million over the next four years.
Cliff Lee is owed at least $87.5 million over the next four years.Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Philadelphia Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. says he has no intention of trading pitcher Cliff Lee

He repeated that stance this week (via the Providence Journal's Brian McPherson) at MLB's GM meetings in California. 

But with Amaro's stated intention to get the team's payroll below the $178 million luxury tax threshold for 2013, shedding the $102.5 million on the remaining four years of Lee's contract would certainly create some payroll flexibility. (Lee would get $87.5 million if the Phillies buy out his 2016 option for $12.5 million, according to Cot's Contracts.)

Phillies fans don't want to hear any more about this. But with such financial considerations in mind, reporters and analysts covering MLB will continue to speculate that Amaro is looking to trade Lee.

There's probably only one team with an expressed need for starting pitching that's shown a willingness to take on $100 million: the Los Angeles Dodgers

Sure enough, ESPN Los Angeles' Mark Saxon listed Lee among five pitchers the Dodgers could pursue if they choose to steer clear of top free-agent pitchers, such as Zack Greinke or Anibal Sanchez.

The Dodgers already took a shot at acquiring Lee in early August when the Phillies put Lee on waivers following the July 31 trade deadline. By putting in a claim for Lee, Dodgers GM Ned Colletti essentially challenged Philadelphia to face three options.

The Phillies could have worked out a trade with Los Angeles, though they probably wouldn't have gotten the best prospects in return since the Dodgers would take on so much of his remaining salary. Amaro could also have decided to just let Lee go for nothing in return but financial relief. Ultimately, he decided to keep his prized left-hander and look toward next season. 

But did Amaro pull Lee off waivers and shoot down a trade with the Dodgers because he decided the Phillies were better with Lee in their rotation? Or did he figure that the offseason gave him more time to work out the sort of deal that he wanted, perhaps believing that Colletti would be more willing to trade top prospects at that time? 

Dealing off Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence at the July 31 trade deadline helped the Phillies avoid the luxury tax this season. But what about next year? Does Amaro have the wiggle room he needs to address the team's holes in the outfield and bullpen, as well as at third base? 

One possibility is that the Dodgers could include Andre Ethier in a deal with the Phillies. The money matches up almost exactly. Ethier recently signed a five-year, $85 million contract extension that could become a six-year, $100 million deal if he reaches a required number of plate appearances.

Ethier's career averages of about 20 home runs and 85 RBI, along with a batting average of .290 and OPS of .838, appear to be a good fit for the Phillies lineup.

That sort of production is presumably exactly what Amaro is looking for from a corner outfielder or center fielder this offseason. 

The only problem is that Ethier bats left-handed. Philadelphia already has plenty of left-handed pop with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, in addition to the switch-hitting Jimmy Rollins. The Phillies really need a right-handed bat to balance their batting order. 

But would trading Lee leave Philadelphia's starting rotation short-handed? The team still has Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels to lead the staff. Kyle Kendrick and Vance Worley would fill in the next two spots.

Who takes that fifth spot, though? Is Jonathan Pettibone ready after compiling a 3.10 ERA between Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley this season? Trevor May struggled at Double-A this season and probably isn't ready yet.

Perhaps Amaro would fill out his rotation with a lower-tier starter from free agency. Greinke might be the only star on the open market, but there is plenty of starting pitching depth to choose from. 

For the Dodgers, starting pitching appears to be a priority this offseason. Colletti wants another top starter to pair with Clayton Kershaw at the top of the rotation, especially while Ted Lilly and Chad Billingsley work their way back from injuries that could force them to miss time at the beginning of next season. 

A top three of Kershaw, Lee and Josh Beckett would give the Dodgers a chance to compete with the San Francisco Giants in the NL West.

The staff would also have depth with Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano, along with Lilly and Billingsley. One of those back-end starters could also possibly be included in a deal with the Phillies or traded elsewhere. 

With Greinke reportedly seeking a six-year, $150 million contract and rumors of Sanchez seeking at least a six-year, $90 million deal, according to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, Lee suddenly looks like a bargain—even if the Dodgers would have to give up top prospects or major leaguers in exchange. 

Getting Lee might also allow some resources to get another strong bat for the outfield, third base or second base. Though the Dodgers seemingly have an unlimited budget, they still have to assemble a proper roster. This past season, the team fell short of the playoffs because it just had too many holes throughout the lineup. 

But with Amaro's stated intention to keep Lee and build around perhaps the best starting three in MLB, Colletti will probably have to come up with an offer that can't be refused. Does he have the chips to pull off that kind of deal, or will he keep trying to appeal to Amaro's possible need for financial relief? 

Or is bringing back the talk of Lee going to the Dodgers just the sort of offseason speculation that we love to engage in at this time of year?


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