The Phillies can be fixed without giving away their best player.
The Philadelphia Phillies probably need to sell, for real this time, as the 2013 version of the club bobs aimlessly around the .500 buoy.
But Cliff Lee should stay.
Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports has Lee at the top of the list of trade candidates in Philadelphia.
That makes some sense. Lee is the Phillies' best pitcher by any measure, and their best player outright (with apologies to Domonic Brown.)
And for a contending team, Lee's stellar postseason numbers (7-3, 2.52 earned run average, .927 WHIP and a strikeout ratio of almost 9/1) will make him very attractive to any team that thinks it can win the World Series this season.
So there will be a market for Lee at the trade deadline.
If the Phillies are smart, though, they will resist the urge to rid themselves of all vestiges of their glory years and keep Lee in Philadelphia to start 2014.
Here come five reasons why.
Cliff Lee is really good right now, and a precipitous drop-off seems unlikely in the near future.
It is said that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Fair enough, but the statistics on Cliff Lee are still pretty impressive.
Lee is 9-2 so far this season. His earned run average is a tick over two and a half, and his strikeout-to-walk rate is a tick under eight.
Maybe the most telling statistic with reference to Lee this season is that his Wins Above Replacement rating is 4.5. That is a shocking (in a good way) value for a player who only plays every fifth day.
On a team full of big name players with teeny, tiny production, Lee is the rare exception who is still delivering the output expected of him.
Lee's nonchalant excellence is a welcome respite from the nonchalant mediocrity his teammates exhibit.
The Philadelphia Phillies' days of "The Four Aces" are long gone, of course. The 2013 Phillies have only one ace, and that ace is Cliff Lee.
Of those four, only Lee and Cole Hamels remain on the active roster. Roy Halladay may return this season, per Mike Axisa of CBSSports.com, but only an insane person or a blind optimist could hope to see Doc regaining anything close to ace form following shoulder surgery.
Hamels used to look like an ace. Contract extensions for $144 million are not generally handed out to stiffs.
But Hamels is 2-11 in 2013. His earned run average is over four and a half.
Phillies fans want to believe that this awful first half of 2013 from Hamels is an easily corrected aberration.
At some point, though, Bill Parcells has to be right, doesn't he? You are what your record says you are.
And if you want to project ace status on Kyle Kendrick, who doesn't strike anybody out, be my guest.
No, the Phillies need to protect the only ace they have rather than deal him and hope for the best.
Even given his eye-popping contract, Lee is comparatively an affordable option.
The true value of any asset is what it costs to replace it.
For the Phillies, Cliff Lee has significant value because he is actually underpaid relative to what it would take to get a comparable starter on the free agent market today—if they even could.
Take a look at this (awful) list of probable 2014 free agent starting pitchers per mlbtraderumors.com.
Take a look at this Buster Olney piece from ESPN.com, detailing how even the big names on that list are all riddled with doubts.
Cliff Lee has two more guaranteed seasons at $25 million, with an option for a third season at $27.5 million if he pitches 200 innings in 2015 or 400 innings combined in 2014-2015.
Even assuming the option will vest, the Phillies have Lee locked down for three seasons at $77.5 million.
The Phillies could not realistically replace Lee's next three seasons' worth of productivity for that price with anyone else available in free agency.
See all those people behind Cliff Lee? They may go if he goes.
You do not need to remind me that the Phillies have, for the most part, sold the majority of the tickets they will sell in 2013. Even if the Phillies trade Cliff Lee, the fans who bought tickets hoping to watch him pitch are not getting refunds.
Paraphrasing the Shirelles, though, if the Phillies unload Lee for prospects in the name of rebuilding, will those fans still love the Phillies in 2014?
It is one thing to dump long-term fan favorites like Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz, both in the last year of their respective deals, for prospects at the deadline. Phillies fans love Chase and Chooch, but they can also read and understand the backs of their baseball cards and see the declining productivity.
And no one would ever miss Michael Young or Mike Adams, bandages for the 2013 Phillies that never closed the wounds they were acquired to heal.
If you get rid of those players but still have the likes of Lee, Domonic Brown, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels in red pinstripes, you still have a credible baseball team that people will pay to see.
Without Lee, though, the Phillies become a slightly more palatable version of the New York Mets.
The Phillies are not guaranteed to be average in 2014, especially if Lee is still around.
The mood in Philadelphia on the subject of the Phillies is largely undecided. Per Mandy Housenick of The Morning Call, you can argue buying or selling at the 2013 trade deadline where the Phillies are concerned.
What no one talks about, though, is the very real hope that 2014 could present for the Phillies if Ruben Amaro Jr. can pull the correct levers in the offseason.
The Phillies are still committed to paying Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Jonathan Papelbon (if he stays) more than $90 million in 2014.
But there is good news. The contracts of Roy Halladay, Chase Utley, Michael Young and Carlos Ruiz are all set to expire. That is an aggregate of over $45 million the Phillies will not owe next season.
That should free the Phillies up to chase the likes of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Hunter Pence (remember him?) or another impact bat if they so choose.
The Phillies can contend in 2014. It will be easier to do so if Cliff Lee is still on the roster.