Paul Hagen: Phils should have just kept Cliff Lee

If Cliff Lee still were a Phillie, Kyle Drabek & J.A. Happ might be, too.
If Cliff Lee still were a Phillie, Kyle Drabek & J.A. Happ might be, too.
Posted: July 30, 2010

IT'S ALL RIGHT to be unhappy with the trade that sent Cliff Lee packing last December. There were good, sound arguments for pairing him with Roy Halladay at the top of the Phillies rotation and going all in to try to win a second world championship in 3 years.

What the zealots refused to acknowledge, though, was that there was also a plausible rationale for doing what general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. did. Whether they agreed with it was a separate issue, but the reality is that it was right in line with the organizational philosophy of not getting too far out over its skis.

So, make no mistake: Getting Roy Oswalt yesterday was a drastic lurch in the opposite direction.

And, no matter how they try to spin it, it's a tacit admission that well, er, gee, they probably should have just held onto Lee in the first place.

They can say that they didn't anticipate the injuries to J.A. Happ, Joe Blanton and Jamie Moyer that prompted them to acquire a top-shelf starter to go along with Halladay and Cole Hamels. Really? Pitchers get hurt? Who could have seen that coming?

They can say, as they did at the time, that it was necessary to restock a farm system that had been depleted by earlier deals to obtain Blanton and Lee and Halladay. But they ended up losing even more minor leaguers to get Oswalt. And if they had stuck with Lee, they'd presumably still have Kyle Drabek and Happ.

There has always been the suspicion, still denied, that when the deed was done, money was a factor. Lee is making $9 million this year. Oswalt makes more. And, as good as he is, Lee is better.

The only possible benefit to the Phillies is that they didn't think they could sign him when he becomes a free agent at the end of the season. Oswalt, though pricey, is controllable through 2012.

But what is this really all about? Applaud the decision to go for the jugular now, if you like, but please remember that there really is no such thing as a free lunch. This move gives the Phillies a terrific 1-2-3 top of the rotation and exponentially improves their chances of becoming the first National League team in nearly 70 years to make three consecutive World Series appearances.

It also increases the odds that, in the not-too-distant future, they will have a roster choked with costly older players on the downside of their careers and no reinforcements down on the farm to replace them.

It's difficult to figure out exactly what the Phillies believe in right now. They had already taken out a second mortgage on their future. It's like they've added a third and a fourth.

Amaro has demonstrated an ability to produce deadline wizardry. He's been on the job 2 years and two times has acquired a premier starting pitcher at the deadline. Getting Oswalt is particularly impressive considering all the possible ways the deal could have fallen apart. Astros owner Drayton McLane could have decided he didn't want to part with one of his favorite players. General manager Ed Wade could have decided he wasn't getting enough in return. Oswalt could have shot the whole thing down.

For the next 3 months, it's all good. After that, we'll see. No team can keep adding high-priced veterans and subtracting promising young players and expect to sustain success indefinitely. Even the mighty Yankees, with a seemingly limitless budget, learned that lesson the hard way in the 1980s.

If the Phillies have decided that winning this year is the priority, getting Oswalt is a nifty maneuver.

Keeping Lee would have been even better.

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com

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