With Phillies falling apart at the seams, Lee could be dealt sooner rather than later

Publish date:

Cliff Lee has already been traded four times in his career. (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

Cliff Lee, Phillies

Roy Halladay is out, perhaps for the season. Carlos Ruiz is out. Ryan Howard is ailing. Chase Utley is headed for an MRI. The offense has been so lousy that it has left Cole Hamels speechless. Now Cliff Lee has admitted that he's open to a trade. Add it all up and the Phillies appear even further from retaking their spot among NL East contenders than they did last year, when their run of five straight division titles ended. No matter how brave a face he puts on the situation, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. may need to dismantle his team for the second summer in a row.

Lee, who's in the third year of a five-year, $120 million deal he signed in December 2010, has been one of the few bright spots for the Phillies. The 34-year-old lefty has been typically excellent, with a 2.83 ERA and a 2.93 FIP through nine starts, seven of them quality. Nonetheless, even after winning six of their last nine, Philadelphia is just 22-24, third in the NL East, 5 1/2 games out of first place and the same distance from a wild card slot. Given a bloated payroll, an aging roster and a depleted farm system — not to mention a lame-duck manager — dealing Lee later this summer may make more sense than keeping him.

Asked about the possibility of a trade, Lee told CBS Sports, “I definitely want to win. I want to be on a winning team… That should be what it's all about… That's completely out of my control. I'm a Phillie until they tell me otherwise."

The reality is that Lee does have some control of the matter, as his contract includes a 21-team no-trade list. It's not clear which teams are on it and which aren't, but come July, many a contender is sure to take an interest. Lee knows the drill, as he's been traded four times in his career, twice to contenders in July; both times he helped his new team win the pennant. On July 29, 2009, the Indians sent him to the eventual NL champion Phillies in a six-player deal. After being moved to Seattle in a four-player deal that December, the Mariners traded him to the eventual AL champion Rangers in another six-player transaction on July 9, 2010 once their own bid for contention fizzled.

When Amaro faced the reality that 2012 wasn't Philadelphia's year, he traded away Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence and Joe Blanton within a four-day span, and briefly put Lee on the block last summer as well. The Dodgers claimed him on waivers in August, though discussions between the two teams never got very far. The Phillies were 45-57, 12 games under .500 when the July 31 trading deadline passed, but they rallied to go 36-24 the rest of the way to finish right at 81-81.

At the moment, there's not a whole lot of reason to think that the current team can reach even that level. Though they're just two games below .500, the Phillies' -34 run differential is the third-worst in the league, and they're three games ahead of their Pythagorean record. The offense is limping along at 3.57 runs per game, the fourth-worst mark in the league, while the pitching is allowing 4.30 runs per game, tied for the fifth-worst mark in the NL, and both the lineup and the rotation are showing more than the usual wear and tear.

After starting the year with a 25-game suspension for using a banned stimulant, the 34-year-old Ruiz has played in just 16 games, hitting .235/.286/.275. He went on the disabled list on Tuesday with a Grade 2 strain of his right hamstring, which will knock him out for three or four weeks; meanwhile, backup Erik Kratz is hitting just .213/.268/.337. The 33-year-old Howard is flirting with the DL as well; on Monday, he was diagnosed with inflammation in his left knee, as well as a possible tear of a meniscus, problems that may be linked to his mechanics in the wake of his Achilles injury that kept him out for the first three months of the 2012 season. He's hitting .256/.292/.436 with six homers, a performance only superficially better than last year's .219/.295/.423.

Elsewhere in the lineup, the 34-year-old Utley is off to a decent start (.272/.339/.475), but he and 36-year-old Michael Young (.296/.389/.388) are the only two regulars with an OPS+ above 100. After being limited to 83 games last year and an average of 100 for 2010-2012, Utley had played in all but one game prior to Tuesday night, but he was scratched 30 minutes before game time due to discomfort in his right side, and will undergo an MRI on Thursday.

Jimmy Rollins, also 34, is hitting just .260/.307/.395, which is right in line with the .253/.316/.410 he hit over the previous four seasons. As for the youth movement in the outfield, while five of the six contributors are under 30, they have combined to hit .238/.290/.362 en route to the lowest OPS of any outfield in the league. Domonic Brown leads the team with eight homers, but the 25-year-old is hitting a meager .248/.291/.435. Ben Revere, also 25, is hitting only .260/.302/.298 with eight walks and four extra-base hits in 142 plate appearances; he was even worse than that in the leadoff spot, and has since been bounced all around the lineup by manager Charlie Manuel. Delmon Young, 27, is hitting .214/.292/.393 in 65 PA since returning from offseason ankle surgery, and providing high comedy in rightfield as well.

There is some good news. The rotation leads the league with a 67 percent quality start rate, but its 4.07 ERA and 6.9 strikeouts per nine rank just ninth. Lee and Kyle Kendrick (2.82 ERA) have both been very good and rookie Jonathan Pettibone (3.00 ERA) has outpitched his less-than-flattering peripherals in six starts filling in for the injured John Lannan. Hamels, who's carrying a 1-7 record and a 4.45 ERA, hasn't pitched up to his usual standard, but a closer look shows that he's allowed three runs or fewer in seven of his 10 starts, yet the only time the Phillies have won a game he's started this year was on April 28 against the lowly Mets.

Hamels' frustration appears to be mounting. On Monday, he set a season high with 10 strikeouts against the even more lowly Marlins, walking none while allowing seven hits and two runs. The Phillies mustered just one run of their own, and after the game, he refused to speak to reporters. He did so again before Tuesday's game. Manuel stood up for his 29-year-old southpaw, telling reporters, "I'm sure it's confusing to him when he pitches like he did last night and it's hard for him to win… That's the competitor in him, that's the part that was upset. He probably thought it was best that he didn't talk." While understandable in the heat of the moment, that's not the kind of behavior that a manager or teammate can cover for indefinitely, and if anything, his lack of words calls even more attention to the slumping offense than a standard canned response.

As for the third member of the team's pitching triumvirate, Halladay underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder last week. While Dr. Neal ElAttrache found no detachments or major tears, the 36-year-old righty did have an inflamed bursa removed as well as repairs to both his rotator cuff and labrum. Dr. Michael Ciccotti, the team physician, called it a "best-case scenario" and said Halladay could begin throwing again in six to eight weeks, which could mean a late August return.

Even so, there are no guarantees that Halladay will regain his range of motion or velocity that quickly, and the data regarding older pitchers with shoulder injuries is daunting. In a recent study for FanGraphs, Eno Sarris found 62 pitchers age 35 and older who went on the disabled list since 2002. Just over half the group (32 out of 62) never pitched in the majors again, and the group as a whole averaged a mere 59 major league innings for the remainder of their careers, with only six starters topping 100 innings total: Orlando Hernandez (438 1/3), Tim Wakefield (424 1/3), John Burkett (181 2/3), Kenny Rogers (173 2/3), Pedro Martinez (153 2/3), and John Smoltz (106).

In conjunction with last year's seven-week DL stint, Halladay's injury will prevent him from reaching the innings thresholds (225 in 2013 or 415 in 2012-2013) that would have triggered his $20 million option for 2014. Even without him, the Phils have more than $100 million committed to six players for next year -- Lee ($25 million), Howard ($25 million), Hamels ($23.5 million), Jonathan Papelbon ($13 million), Rollins ($11 million) and Mike Adams ($7 million) -- and $86.5 million committed to four players (Lee, Howard, Hamels and Papelbon) for 2015. While their current payroll of $159.5 million is their lowest since 2010, it's still the third-highest in the game behind the Yankees and Dodgers, and far more money than a noncontender should be spending. So if the team fails to pick up the pace, Amaro could look to deal pending free agents Utley, Ruiz and Young, health permitting.

Utley, Hamels and Howard all have similar no-trade protection to Lee, but all are homegrown products to whom Amaro and the rest of the organization are more attached. Nobody's talking about trading Hamels, who signed a six-year, $144 million extension last summer, and nobody's going to take Howard, who has $85 million guaranteed on his deal beyond this year ($25 million a year through 2016, plus a $10 million buyout of his $23 million option for 2017), in his current condition. That doesn't mean Amaro has to trade Lee, but given the dearth of top flight free agent pitchers on the market, moving him may be necessary to restock a farm system that Baseball America ranked 23rd out of 30 prior to this season while noting a lack of immediate help in the upper levels.

the well-regarded Ryne Sandberg