The Cliff Lee Effect: Acquiring That Elusive Right-Handed Slugger

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The Cliff Lee Effect: Acquiring That Elusive Right-Handed Slugger
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Cliff Lee has been fabulous for the Philadelphia Phillies, both this year and in 2009 when the team acquired him from the Cleveland Indians

Lee undoubtedly will be named the National League’s Pitcher of the Month for June after going 5-0 with a 0.21 ERA and finishing the month throwing three consecutive complete-game shutouts. He’s also third in the league in wins (and while many feel it is an overrated statistic, it is not completely useless) and leads the major leagues in shutouts. 

Other than not demanding the ball in Game 4 of the 2009 Fall Classic, nothing Cliff Lee has done for the Philadelphia Phillies has been anything less than spectacular.

However, his mere presence---and how it came to be---on the 2011 version of the Phillies has potentially cost them their ability to acquire the right-handed bat they need to hit behind Ryan Howard.  

Not that any of it is Lee’s fault.  

From day one Lee has been a stand-up guy, insisting that he wanted to spend the rest of his career in Philadelphia. 

When he made that statement after being dealt to Seattle, it could have been simply what any player in his position would have said.  When he happily smiled at the Phillies demise to the San Francisco Giants in the 2010 NLCS---while his Rangers were still alive---there is no question most of us in his situation would have done the same.  (Of course Lee probably would have been more satisfied had the Phillies reached the World Series and he beat them to capture the title.)  

But when Lee spurned higher and better offers from the Rangers and Yankees to return to Philadelphia, there remained no question Lee was sincere in his words after the Seattle trade.  

Cliff Lee truly never wanted to leave, and he never should have been shown the door by Phillies management. The argument that they needed to “replenish the farm system” was a valid one, but became obsolete the moment they dealt more prospects for Roy Oswalt only eight months later. 

No one except Philadelphia management knows if the motives for dealing Lee to Seattle were anything but what the team said they were. My hunch is it had something to do with finances, but with two straight World Series appearances and all those consecutive sellouts at Citizens Bank Park, there was no way they could sell that to the fans.

 

Penny Wise and Dollar Foolish

With the Phillies behind in the NL East race in 2010---and with Jamie Moyer, who’d been pitching as well as he had in years, lost for the season, and perhaps ever---the Phillies needed to another starting pitcher. 

They needed Cliff Lee (and probably tried to get him back).  

Instead they settled on Roy Oswalt, who pitched fabulously down the stretch and helped turn the Phillies' season around.  They easily won the NL East and were poised to return to the World Series for the third consecutive season.  (No need to relive what happened next, is there?) 

However, the Oswalt trade cost the Phillies prospects and money—both of which could have been used to acquire the offensive force they now need.

What would you rather have?

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Had the Phillies kept Lee all along, they would not have needed to trade for Oswalt. Who knows what an extension for Lee would have cost the team if he never reached free agency? 

Perhaps the Phillies would not have realized the mistake, and not gone to five or six years on his deal, and he would have left anyway.  Maybe he’d be a Yankee right now and the Phillies would have only Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels as their aces instead of their current four-headed monster. 

Or maybe it would have cost them less money and fewer years to get something done earlier, and they could have enticed Jayson Werth to stay (although not with the kind of money he received from Washington).  

Either way the Phillies would have more cash in their budget (whatever it actually may be) and enough prospects to get an offensive threat, like a Michael Young from Texas. 

Without Lee the Rangers would have liked to add another starter, and perhaps the Phillies and Rangers could have built a package around young lefty J.A. Happ (please don’t bring up his 2011 record—as of February it didn’t exist) or any of the other prospects Philadelphia dealt for Oswalt. 

Of course without trading Lee to Seattle, J.C. Ramirez, Tyson Gilles or Phillipe Aumont—who as early as next year may be closing games in Philadelphia—wouldn’t be with the organization. 

However, the trade in itself was flawed, and the Phillies easily could have gotten better by shopping Lee around. 

What would Minnesota—who has/had a fabulous farm system—have traded for Lee a year ago?  How about Boston?  Or Oakland? Billy Beane’s never scared to make a dramatic move, even from a big-money player in the last year of his deal. 

Or maybe Tampa Bay would have been willing to put together a package that rivaled or bettered what Seattle gave Philadelphia in order to make one last run at the New York/Boston-dominated the AL East before losing a significant portion of their veteran club.

Instead of making a “hush-hush” deal with Seattle—one that was probably easier to get accomplished quickly due to Philadelphia's upper management’s ties to the Seattle front office—the Phillies could have either kept Lee or gotten a better return for their prized left-hander.

We know now it wasn’t about budget, that the Phillies could have afforded to retain Lee.  We don’t know if they believed it at the time, however, and can’t make judgments either way without all the facts---something we fans will never have access to.

Of course, even if the Phillies had kept Lee and had a lead in the division at the trading deadline last year, they may have dealt for Oswalt.  After all, with the cash the Astros are paying to help subsidize Oswalt’s contract and the marginal prospects Houston required in return, it’s not out of the question that the Phillies would have made the move anyway.  Getting Oswalt was too good of a deal to pass up, regardless of his injury this year.

Hindsight is 20/20, however, and there were better ways for it all to play out.  The Phillies may or may not be able to acquire an impact hitter during the season, and that may or may not affect them come October.  

If they win the World Series, all will be forgotten. 

However, if they come up short; if they cannot get that clutch hit that propels them to another parade and ensures that another banner hangs aloft in Citizens Bank Park, fans and management are going to be left questioning whether the moves made in December 2009—and what they led to over the next several months—were the correct ones.

If it were my choice all along—and the budget is what it is—I’d have kept Lee and still dealt for Oswalt, regardless of offensive holes. 

The Phillies are going to play in October, and they’re better off with Halladay, Lee, Hamels, and Oswalt to pitch in a series than they are with Michael Young or Michael Cuddyer paying left-field. 

But we shall see.  Again, hindsight is 20/20.

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