Inside the Phillies: Trading Lee would hardly guarantee a big return

The three previous trades involving Cliff Lee have not yielded any star players from prospects. RON CORTES / Staff Photographer
The three previous trades involving Cliff Lee have not yielded any star players from prospects. RON CORTES / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 21, 2014

ATLANTA - The last time the Phillies were pressured into trading Cliff Lee, they emerged with Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, and J.C. Ramirez. There is no such mandate to jettison Lee at this moment, not when the lefthander languished for two months with a strained left elbow.

But that disturbance in Lee's elbow creates an unsettling dynamic. The Phillies need not hasten a Lee trade because he would hold value this winter; then again, what if Lee returns to the rotation and his flexor tendon or ulnar collateral ligament bursts? The Phillies would eat $37.5 million on a 36-year-old pitcher in 2015 with nothing to show for it.

Lee, who proclaimed himself healthy ahead of his scheduled start Monday at Citizens Bank Park, is well aware of the fragility that confronts his every movement henceforth.

"That's just the nature of the business," Lee said. "Anytime you've had an injury and you go back to doing what you did that probably created the injury, then there's potential that could happen. That's just the way it is.

"Your body tells you. Obviously, I feel strong enough and healthy enough to go out there and start pitching."

There will be interest in Lee, maybe even after just two July starts. That may not be enough to persuade teams to surrender a package the Phillies deem fit for a pitcher of Lee's caliber. But Lee, for the first time in his career, now comes with a caveat. And that should affect how the Phillies approach trade negotiations.

They could deal him in August, either to the claiming team on waivers or any interested party if he passes unclaimed. Contenders could be daunted by the level of prospects required to land Tampa Bay's David Price and, instead, turn their attention to Lee.

It will be difficult for the Phillies to procure a worse return than what Lee fetched in three previous trades. The Indians, Phillies, and Mariners acquired 11 prospects in three separate deals, each completed more than four years ago. A recap:

Carlos Carrasco: The 27-year-old Venezuelan with a career 5.00 ERA has survived, albeit as a long man with Cleveland. He's allowed just two runs in his last 24 innings, and maybe someone provides a chance this winter to compete for a rotation job.

Jason Donald: He is a veteran of 170 major-league games, none since 2012. Texas purchased him from Kansas City in May and stashed him at triple A.

Jason Knapp: The New Jersey native returned to pro baseball in 2014 after a three-year absence because of major shoulder surgeries. Texas offered him a minor-league shot. They sent Knapp, 23, to high-A ball, where he had a 2.78 ERA in 17 games but has been on the disabled list since July 7.

Lou Marson: The Phillies invited him to camp for a tryout this spring. He was among the first cuts. A concussion last season derailed his big-league career. Marson, 27, is at double-A Pensacola as depth for Cincinnati.

Phillippe Aumont: The reliever now back at triple-A Lehigh Valley will keep receiving chances because of his stuff. A lack of command - and poise - could prevent Aumont from ever attaining a stable role in the majors.

Tyson Gillies: The Phillies waited and waited for him. Their patience ended in June, when Gillies was released. The 25-year-old Canadian has not yet found a new employer.

J.C. Ramirez: He should have never pitched for the Phillies in 2013, let alone in 18 games. He has bounced around Cleveland's minor-league system in 2014 after the Phillies waived him.

Blake Beavan: He made one start in April for Seattle before succumbing to shoulder tendinitis. The 25-year-old has a career 4.61 ERA. He could return sometime this season.

Matt Lawson: The minor-league second baseman was a throw-in on the third Lee trade. He retired from baseball after 2013 and is coaching a summer-league team in Branson, Mo.

Josh Lueke: He has a career 6.16 ERA in 72 major-league games, but keeps finding work as a low-leverage reliever.

Justin Smoak: He holds the distinction of being the best of "The Lee 11." His 74 homers - 54 of which have come in the last three seasons - vault him to that status. But Smoak is a career .225 hitter with a .692 OPS in the majors, and he has regressed in 2014.

That is 11 players, with just one (Smoak) who could be categorized as a regular in the majors. This is a cross-section of three prospect trades and not enough to serve as a representation of all such deals. But Lee was traded three times in his prime. The returns were a lesson in how hard it is to judge another organization's young talent.

The Phillies' challenge, this time, is the right evaluation of their own trade asset. Lee has pitched to a 2.83 ERA since re-signing with the Phillies. When healthy, he is one of the game's best lefties. But that is no longer a guarantee, and it creates a conundrum for team executives.


mgelb@phillynews.com

@MattGelb

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