Cliff Lee presents a huge dilemma for the Phillies

Starter Cliff Lee gave up 12 hits and six runs in 52/3 innings.
Starter Cliff Lee gave up 12 hits and six runs in 52/3 innings. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 22, 2014

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has a roster full of complicated decisions staring him in the face as the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline approaches and one of them reappeared on the mound Monday night at Citizens Bank Park.

It's obvious at this point that the Phillies need to be sellers in the next 10 days. The part that isn't as clear is who they should sell and what they should expect in return.

Cliff Lee, the guy who reappeared after a two-month stay on the disabled list with an elbow injury, provides the classic dilemma for Amaro and the Phillies' potential trading partners. A year ago, Amaro wasn't all that eager to move Lee and the price for any team that wanted him was exorbitant.

Given Lee's two-month absence, the price tag for his services has likely declined, but the demand doesn't figure to be nearly as high, either. There was a crowd of curiosity seekers seated behind home plate Monday night. Scouts from all the contenders were in attendance to see if Lee resembled the pitcher who has been coveted quite a bit at the trade deadline during the course of his career.

What they saw - besides more singles than you'll find at the Match.com dating website - was a shell of the pitcher who entered the game with a 3.50 career earned run average and extraordinary postseason resume.

Lee, coming off a shaky final minor-league rehab start at single-A Clearwater, surrendered a dozen hits and a half-dozen runs in 52/3 innings during the Phillies' 7-4 loss to the San Francisco Giants.

He had a 4-3 lead entering the sixth inning and surrendered a single to Michael Morse and a home run to Adam Duvall to start the inning.

The scouting reports being turned into general managers across baseball probably read something like this: Has lost a little on his fastball. Command not as sharp as it has been in the past. Worth watching again in his next start.

Lee's own scouting report was similar to that one.

"I wasn't locating that well," he said. "I was behind in the count more than I'd like to be. I mean, I spiked four fastballs in the first inning and I don't know if I've ever done that."

Rest assured the scouts will be out in force again when Lee returns to the mound Saturday night against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Maybe Lee will be better pitching on regular four-day rest rather than the extended six days he waited for this turn on the mound.

That's what manager Ryne Sandberg expects to happen.

"Yeah, I'd say so," Sandberg said. "Velocity was fine. That might improve a little bit along with the command with more outings underneath him."

Regardless, the trade discussions in the coming days about Lee are going to be difficult for all involved. Amaro can expect low-ball offers for a guy who may be perceived as damaged goods. Even before he landed on the disabled list in the month of May, Lee was not quite as good as he had been during his first three full seasons with the Phillies. Add in the elbow issue, the fact he'll be 36 next month and the nearly $60 million he could be owed through 2016, and you can see why trading Lee is not as easy as saying, "We'll take this guy for that one."

The Phillies' fan base is going to expect a high-level prospect in return for Lee and the team that gets Lee is going to expect the same guy who has been dominant at times in past postseasons. If the Phillies are not offered a high-level prospect because of what scouts saw Monday night and might see again Saturday, then Amaro's wisest move could be keeping Lee to see if time allows him to recapture the form the Phillies have become accustomed to during the lefthander's time in Philadelphia.

If he does recapture his past form before the end of this season, he would be worth more in the offseason than he is right now.

The team that figures to make the hardest push for Lee is the New York Yankees. They are a mediocre team in a mediocre division in desperate need of some starting pitching help.

The Yankees, of course, wouldn't even blink at the amount of money Lee is still owed. The problem is they might not have the high-level prospects the Phillies want to make such a deal. Remember, Amaro and the Phillies are not interested in dumping salary. In fact, they'd gladly eat some if it meant they could get quality players close to being big-league ready in return.

Catcher Gary Sanchez and outfielder Aaron Judge should be on any list of prospects the Phillies discuss with the Yankees, but landing such players for Lee could have become more difficult based on what we saw from the lefty Monday night.


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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