Phil Sheridan: Sagging Phils could use help - like Cliff Lee

Posted: July 08, 2010

Even as he was explaining his decision to trade Cliff Lee last winter, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. knew he was draping a bull's-eye across his back. It was one of those moves that define a GM.

Would he be bold for adding Roy Halladay to his pennant-winning club while flipping postseason hero Lee for some minor-league talent?

Or would he be a fool for squandering the rare opportunity to run Halladay, Lee, and Cole Hamels out as three-fifths of a dream rotation?

Even those of us who gave Amaro the benefit of the doubt in December were quick to acknowledge that doubt was part of the equation. Heck, even Amaro acknowledged the doubt.

"Is it going to be the right decision? " Amaro said at the time. "That remains to be seen. I do not know that. Is it risky? Yes, because we're moving a lot of talent out of our system."

Midway through the Season That Could Have Been, the Phillies are oddly out of sync. After they fell to six games behind Atlanta Wednesday night, manager Charlie Manuel expressed everyone's frustration.

"We've got to get that edge," Manuel said. "Something on our team is missing. It's that edge."

As injuries have mounted, so has public pressure on Amaro to do something. And that's where things really get interesting, because his rationale for trading Lee was the need for prospects that could evolve into players or be used in future trades.

Well, the future is here.

Amaro didn't help himself Tuesday, telling reporters pitching is the team's No. 1 need as trade season opens. Pitching? You mean like, say, Cliff Lee?

Would things be that much different with Lee? Hard to say. He missed the first three weeks of the season after a spring-training injury. If you take his 13 starts for Seattle and match them up with the Phillies' results on the same dates, you find nine games that probably would have had the same result.

If you could magically transplant Lee's performance into the other four games, three Phillies losses would become wins and one win - by the same logic - would have been a loss. So that's a net gain of two wins, which means the Phillies would still be in third place.

Granted, this is flawed. It doesn't factor in opponents, conditions, and other variables. The fact that Halladay is pitching brilliantly but has a 10-7 record supports the idea that Lee would not, by himself, have changed the course of the season's first half.

The better question is whether having Lee would improve the Phillies' chances of rallying with a strong second half. The answer there has to be yes. But it's also true these Phillies have a track record now of strong second halves. Amaro can't travel back to December and undo the Lee deal - even Pat Gillick couldn't do that - but he can follow through on the logic behind it.

If he was right, the Phillies should have some flexibility to get help now.

In a way, the Lee trade is a kind of lightning rod that shields Amaro from second guesses on other moves. He and Braves GM Frank Wren sought to rebuild their bullpens last off-season. Wren acquired Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito, while Amaro got Jose Contreras and Danys Baez.

Advantage, Atlanta.

It's hard to knock Placido Polanco, the veteran third baseman Amaro signed to replace Pedro Feliz. But the move does highlight the Phillies' inability to develop a homegrown third baseman since Scott Rolen. If it's any consolation, Rolen is even older (35) than the 34-year-old Polanco.

Executives like the relative certainty in signing older players - Raul Ibanez, Contreras, Polanco - but older players also decline and become more prone to injury. By giving Ibanez a three-year deal, Amaro is on the hook for $11.5 million for the leftfielder in 2011, when he turns 39.

That brings us neatly to Brad Lidge. The perfect closer from 2008 has begun to pitch pretty well of late, but his last year and a half has been a series of injuries and comebacks. Amaro's only Plan B there apparently was Ryan Madson, and that's not looking too good.

But the last few years, the Phillies have used the first four months to identify their problems, then addressed them for the pennant race. Under Gillick and then Amaro, they have been aggressive and effective as the trade deadline approached.

There are more problems this year. The bullpen needs help. Another starter really would make a difference. But injuries have made the lineup a higher priority this time around. It just hasn't been reliably productive, which is placing an even greater strain on the pitchers.

The Phillies would be better with Cliff Lee. That's understood. But if they aren't better positioned to be aggressive now, the bull's-eye on Amaro's back is going to be pretty hard to miss.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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