Cliff Lee for Justin Upton Blockbuster Would Change Everything for Phillies

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 31, 2012

CINCINNATI, OH - JULY 18:  Justin Upton #10 of the Arizona Diamondbacks swings at a pitch during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on July 18, 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The 2012 Philadelphia Phillies are a shining testament to the fact that nothing ever goes according to plan in baseball. 

It was widely expected that the Phillies would be well on their way to a sixth straight NL East title by now. Instead, they find themselves in last place in the NL East at the trade deadline.

That's not a shock in retrospect. The Phillies had to play roughly half the season without both Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Roy Halladay finally broke down. Cliff Lee has struggled. Their bullpen has struggled. The list of problems goes on and on.

For the first time in a long time, the Phillies find themselves selling at the deadline instead of buying. Shane Victorino has been traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com and others have reported that Hunter Pence has been traded to the San Francisco Giants. Joe Blanton could go next. Ty Wigginton might also be sent packing.

And now the unthinkable, Cliff Lee might also join the fire sale.

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Being traded at the deadline would be nothing new for Lee, and it would make a ton of sense for a Phillies team that needs to dump a lot of payroll after signing Cole Hamels to a $144 million extension.

There aren't many teams who can trade for Lee. The Texas Rangers are a fit, but the New York Yankees don't have the financial wiggle room to take on Lee's contract, the Boston Red Sox don't want to deal their top prospects and the Dodgers don't have top prospects to deal.

That leaves...the Arizona Diamondbacks?

Apparently, yes. 

Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com dropped a surprise report on Tuesday claiming that the Diamondbacks were looking to land a "premier starting pitcher" at the deadline. It wasn't clear who they were trying to land, but the two names Rosenthal floated as possibilities were Felix Hernandez and Mr. Lee.

Between the two of them, Lee is far more available. He's also without a doubt the best starting pitcher on the trade market. To that end, this rumor has some legs.

The Phillies would no doubt prefer to keep Lee, as they could easily contend in 2013 with a starting rotation featuring Halladay, Lee and Hamels. Indications are that they're only going to deal Lee for a young, star-caliber player who's going to be around for years to come.

You know, somebody like Justin Upton.

Rosenthal's report claims that the Phillies and Diamondbacks have discussed a Lee-for-Upton swap. Naturally, those negotiations are "unconfirmed," and there's no denying the obvious financial obstacles that would exist even if the Diamondbacks and Phillies agreed to such a swap.

Lee's contract has $75 million remaining on it after this season through 2015, with a vesting option for 2016 worth $27.5 million. Per USA Today, Arizona's entire payroll for this season is right around $75 million. They're clearly not a club that can afford to take on what's left of Lee's deal.

The Phillies would have to eat some of Lee's contract in order to deal him to the Diamondbacks. A lot of it, in fact, and that's problematic seeing as how the organization's primary goal right now is to save money. 

So maybe this is all nonsense. And if you believe Bob Nightengale of USA Today, it is:

The #Dbacks say that Justin Upton is def staying and no truth to rumors of Cliff Lee or Felix Hernandez

— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) July 31, 2012

Also, Rosenthal found out that the Diamondbacks are one of the teams on Lee's no-trade list, and it's no secret that he loves it in Philadelphia.

Yeah, it's complicated. 

That's why it's very, very, very hard to believe that an Upton-for-Lee swap will actually get done before Tuesday's 4:00 p.m. ET trade deadline. There are too many variables beyond the players themselves to take into account, and those variables can't be addressed in a matter of hours.

That's why these two clubs would be better off trying to get this deal done during the offseason. They'll have more time on their hands to figure things out, and it helps that there will be a little bit less money owed to Lee with the 2012 season over and done with.

It would still be a complicated deal to put together, to be sure, but it wouldn't be impossible because an Upton-for-Lee swap is a trade that makes sense for both clubs.

The Diamondbacks want an ace pitcher exactly because they need an ace pitcher. They have plenty of talented youngsters at their disposal and solid starters in Ian Kennedy and Trevor Cahill, but no true ace. If they want to hang with the Dodgers and Giants in the NL West in the immediate future, it's in their interest to go out and acquire a pitcher who can match up with Clayton Kershaw and Matt Cain.

The Diamondbacks have also made it fairly clear that they're no longer interested in a long-term relationship with Upton. He's young and he's talented, but his regression this season isn't sitting well with the organization and there have been rumblings of bad blood between him and the powers that be.

Nightengale wrote a few weeks ago that it's just a matter of time before Upton is dealt, and the idea still doesn't sound unreasonable. The organization is no longer in love with him, and Upton himself clearly needs a change of scenery.

As for the Phillies, it's hard to imagine them getting a better player than Upton in a Lee trade. He makes sense for them for a lot of reasons.

Citizens Bank Park may as well be custom-designed for a player like Upton. He's got loads of raw power, especially to the left side of the field. The Phillies' home park just so happens to have one of the most hitter-friendly left fields in the major leagues, and the park's deep center field fence opens up gaps not unlike the ones that Upton is used to seeing at Chase Field.

And with Pence supposedly out of the picture, the Phillies need a long-term answer in right field. They won't be able to do any better than Upton.

For starters, Upton is young. He's 24 now, and is going to turn 25 in late August. And though he's made two All-Star teams and finished in the top five in the NL MVP voting, Upton has yet to reach his prime. The best is yet to come, and that's a scary thought seeing as how Upton already has a career OPS of .833 and 99 home runs to his name in just five-plus seasons.

Just as important as Upton's youth is his contract, which is very team-friendly. He signed a six-year contract worth $50 million that keeps him under control through the 2015 season. His salary will max out at $14.5 million in 2015, and that's the kind of money the Phillies would have had to pay Pence had they chosen to extend him.

Upton is a better player than Pence, make no mistake about that. He also has considerably more upside. 

The other thing that can be said about Upton that can't be said about Pence is this: Upton is a player the Phillies could build around. Given the current state of the organization, they should be looking for a player like that.

Utley is old and literally on his last legs. He's probably gone after the 2013 season, the final year of his contract. Howard, the other key component of Philly's lineup all these years, is also getting older and  less effective as a hitter. Same goes for Jimmy Rollins, and Carlos Ruiz has hit a peak this year that he won't hit again as he progresses into his mid-30s.

What the Phillies need is a new superstar, a cornerstone player that they can wrap a quality team around. If they do that, they'll be able to continue chasing championships. They need an "out with the old, in with the new" transition, and it's in their interest to make sure this transition appeals to their massive fanbase.

If they swing Lee for Upton, not a single Phillies fan would complain.

And that, my friends, would be a first.

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