Forget the Cliff Lee trade talk

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee throws against the Milwaukee Brewers in the first inning of the MLB National League baseball game Sunday, June 2, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/H. Rumph Jr)
Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee throws against the Milwaukee Brewers in the first inning of the MLB National League baseball game Sunday, June 2, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/H. Rumph Jr) (H. RUMPH JR)
Posted: June 04, 2013

Baseball trade-deadline talk is like Christmas decorations at the mall. It starts earlier every year, and that is not a good thing.

Already, there is buzz about whether the sub-.500 Phillies will trade Cliff Lee in an effort to begin rebuilding a championship team. In Dallas, the talk-radio topic last week (in between jabs at Jerry Jones) was whether the first-place Rangers should bring Lee back. In Boston, the Globe's Sunday notes column led with an item about Lee's being the No. 1 name in the trade market, based on an informal poll of dozens of baseball people.

That part makes sense. Of course, contending teams would want a brilliant starting pitcher such as Lee or, for that matter, a proven shutdown closer such as Jonathan Papelbon.

The part that doesn't quite add up is the chatter here in Philadelphia. It is a sign of the times, but there is an absurd rush to declare a team out of contention and print up ads for the fire sale.

If you like baseball - and really, why would you care at all if you didn't like the game? - then you want Lee pitching for the Phillies for the rest of this season and beyond.

His performance Sunday afternoon was all the evidence necessary. He was terrific. Spotted a 7-0 lead and given some fine defensive play, Lee tormented the Milwaukee Brewers into the eighth inning. He struck out 11 and walked zero. If he hadn't cramped up in the early-season heat wave, he likely would have pitched a complete-game shutout.

As it was, he tried to gut it out, gave up a run, and had to leave. What he left behind was an exercise in what Phillies baseball would look like without him and without Papelbon, who was sick. It was ugly.

A half-inch and a replay review spared Justin De Fratus from surrendering a grand slam. Antonio Bastardo demonstrated exactly why he should never be brought into a save situation unless there is no other option.

"It was a little bit frustrating," Lee said, "but what can you do? I wanted to stay in there and keep pitching, but at the same time, I wanted to be smart and use my head a little bit. I'd rather be in control of every game, from the first inning to the last inning."

There are two reasons you might consider trading Lee. One is to set him free. He has wandered the baseball landscape for the last few seasons, looking for that elusive World Series ring. The second is to get a haul of young talent from some contending team.

Neither reason is compelling. Lee has been traded twice in the last four years. Cleveland traded him to the Phillies, and the Phillies traded him to Seattle. You could take all the other players involved in those deals, stack them up, and not get anywhere near the value Lee brings to a team.

It is pure fantasy to believe general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is going to produce a blockbuster deal that sets up the Phillies' next great era. So scratch that.

As for setting Lee free, well, what about the idea that he can be a key part of a winning Phillies team next year, or the year after?

Imagine if this current mania for leveraging players was the norm in the 1970s. There's no way the Phillies would have hung on to a luxury like Steve Carlton on a terrible team. In 1973, a year after he went 27-10, Carlton went 13-20 for a 71-win Phillies team. Half the everyday lineup - Schmidt, Bowa, Boone, Luzinski - also played in 1980, when Carlton was the ace of a championship team.

Carlton was 35 in 1980. For eight years before that, he was the one must-see player on bad teams or a truly great pitcher on teams that fell short.

If the Phillies had flipped him for prospects along the way, there's a good chance the Astros or Royals would have 1980 championship rings.

There's something soulless about watching Lee deal and concluding it's time to deal Lee. He and Domonic Brown are the most compelling reasons to watch the Phillies this season.

So maybe GMs in other cities will put Lee on their ever-earlier Christmas wish lists this summer. All Amaro has to say is humbug.


Contact Phil Sheridan at psheridan@phillynews.com. Follow @Sheridanscribe on Twitter.

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