Wednesday July 29th, 2009

Unable to land this year's leading contender for the American League Cy Young Award, the Phillies did the next-best thing on Wednesday by acquiring last year's AL Cy Young winner.

In a deal that demonstrated the trade deadline at its best, the defending world champs picked up lefty starter Cliff Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco, while the Indians acquired four of the Phillies' Top 10 prospects, according to Baseball America's preseason rankings (No. 2 Carlos Carrasco, No. 3 Lou Marson, No. 4 Jason Donald and No. 10 Jason Knapp).

It is a trade that gives both teams exactly what they were seeking. The Phillies get a front-of-the-rotation starter to keep the rest of the NL East at arm's length and bolster a potential run at a second straight World Series title, while the Indians restock with a bevy of talented young players, at least three of whom could be ready to make an impact at the major league level as early as next season.

This is just the latest sign that the Phillies intend to be annual contenders for the world championship that eluded them for all but one of their first 125 seasons. Not only do they get Lee this year to help defend their crown, but because of his extremely reasonable 2010 club option of $8 million, they can re-load for another championship push next year as well, and all the while get first crack at signing the 31-year-old to an extension.

Though he has been unable to duplicate the success he had in 2008, Lee is enjoying what may be the second-best season of his career, despite his 7-9 record. Along with ranking seventh in the AL with a 3.14 ERA and leading the league with 152 innings pitched, his HR/9 ratio is nearly identical to what it was a year ago (which will come in handy in the bandbox that is Citizen's Bank Park) and his ERA+, BB/9, K's/9 and K/BB ratios are all better than any season of his career except for 2008.

As much as the Phillies would like Lee to be the pitcher he was while leading the league in wins and ERA last year, they don't really need that to solidify their status as a top title threat. With a battle-tested Cole Hamels -- who won both the NLCS and World Series MVP awards last year -- the acquisition of Lee gives the Phillies a 1-2 punch atop their rotation that is as good as any in the National League. The Phillies don't need Lee to win their third straight division title -- they have a seven-game lead over the underwhelming Marlins and Braves at the moment -- but it was hard to envision them repeating as world champs without upgrading their rotation in some manner. The acquisition of Lee not only improves the top of their rotation but it gives them additional strength for a short series. One area of concern might be how they stack up against a team like the Dodgers if the two were to meet for a postseason rematch. With Hamels, Lee and J.A. Happ, the Phils' three best starters are all left-handers, and the Dodgers have feasted on lefties this season, with a .290 batting average (third in the majors) as well as a .375 OBP and .444 slugging percentages.

That is a concern for October. In the meantime the Phillies not only improved themselves this year, but they also managed to hang on to both of their top starting pitching prospects, Happ and Kyle Drabek, to help ensure that they will be a contender for years to come. It is a sign of the strength of their farm system that they remain stocked with quality young talent even after dealing away four of their Top 10 prospects.

Those four players should quickly help the depleted Indians retool in what has been, along with the NL West, the most mediocre division in baseball in recent years (both of those divisions have placed four different teams in the postseason over the past three years). Marson, who was named the top minor leaguer in the Phillies system last year, has had a cup of coffee in the bigs but has spent the majority of his year at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, where he was batting .294/.382/.370 in 63 games. Though he hasn't shown much power in the minors yet, he is a high on-base guy (he had a .433 OBP in 2008 at Double-A, the highest by any player at that level -- and is .388 for his minor league career). And despite being in his sixth minor league season, he just turned 23 last month. He has received rave reviews for his handling of pitchers and will be increasingly valuable if the Indians follow through on their rumored trade of All-Star catcher Victor Martinez. Should that occur before Friday's deadline, the only catcher on the Indians' active roster would be .199-hitting Kelly Shoppach.

Along with Marson, Donald had long been considered a bright part of the Phillies' future. Though his path to the majors had been blocked by the presence of Jimmy Rollins, Donald impressed by batting better than .300 with double-digit home run totals in the minors in 2007 and 2008. He has struggled somewhat at Triple-A, batting just .236 with a .297 on-base percentage and only one home run. He had played shortstop exclusively until this season, but has received some spot time at both second and third base, perhaps in an effort to either find him a home in Philadelphia or make him more attractive to potential trading partners. Positional versatility out of Donald is a nice bonus for Cleveland, especially in an infield with Jhonny Peralta and Asdrubal Cabrera (both players have been effective at shortstop this year, with Peralta also playing 52 games at third base and Cabrera logging 28 games at second). Donald gives the Indians several options for playing time, and could even open up further trade possibilities for general manager Mark Shapiro.

While Marson and Donald are nice, it is pitching where the Indians were really hurting, and this deal helps them greatly. Unlike last year, when they dealt CC Sabathia at the deadline but still had Lee in the rotation, now the Indians are left with a highly questionable rotation in which Carl Pavano is the wins leader (8) despite a 5.66 ERA. (Not to mention he's on a one-year contract and may not even be around next year.)

To shore up the rotation, the Indians received Carrasco and Knapp. Carrasco, a 22-year-old righty, has been projected as a top-two starter and boasts an effective changeup to complement a low-90s fastball. He was outstanding during his first Triple-A stint last year, posting a 1.72 ERA and 11.3 K/9, but this year he has regressed to a 6-9 record and a 4.18 ERA while notching 8.8 K/9.

Knapp is still just 18 years old, and he has a fastball that reaches 97 mph, two attributes that make him much more attractive than his 2-7 record and 4.01 ERA would suggest. He has struck out 111 batters in just 85.1 innings this year.

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