By Cliff Corcoran
July 29, 2010

Trading Cliff Lee was a mistake. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. admitted as much by trading for Astros ace Roy Oswalt on Thursday. Amaro may never come right out and say it, but his actions speak louder than words. Within moments of acquiring Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay on Dec. 16 of last year, Amaro pulled the trigger on a deal that sent Lee, who had emerged as the postseason ace of the repeat National League champions after being acquired from the Indians at last year's deadline, to the Mariners for three prospects. Amaro's motivation was that, after trading away seven total prospects for Lee and Halladay, he needed to restock the farm system and thus couldn't afford to have Lee walk away as a free agent after the 2010 season without getting something in return.

Given the quality of the three prospects Amaro received for Lee, that was sketchy reasoning to begin with, but now that he's sent three other youngsters to Houston for Oswalt, it's clear that Amaro realized his mistake in the intervening seven months. Consider this: if the Phillies had held on to Lee but lost him to free agency, they could have expected to get roughly 32 starts from him, and with Lee and Halladay fronting the rotation, they would have been prohibitive favorites to win another pennant this year, if not another championship. Oswalt is signed through 2011 with what is effectively a mutual option for 2012. If he opts out of that final year (and the catch-22 of player options is that if he's healthy and effective he will opt out, and if he isn't he won't), the Phillies can expect roughly 44 starts from him between this year and next. The catch there is that the extra 12 starts the Phillies will get from Oswalt are coming with the Phillies already trailing by three games in the National League East and 2.5 games in the Wild Card race with just two months to play, in large part because of the absence of Lee over the previous four months.

Those deficits are not insurmountable, but Oswalt, while certainly one of the better pitchers in the league, is clearly inferior to Lee at this point in their careers. Just look at their respective lines to this point this season:

Lee: 2.40 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 16.29 K/BB, 6 CG, 76% quality starts

Oswalt: 3.42 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 3.53 K/BB, 1 CG, 75% quality starts

Yes, Lee missed three starts in April due to an abdominal strain, but he has made 17 starts to Oswalt's 20, pitched in the tougher league (albeit in a friendly home ballpark for most of the season), and has clearly outpitched Oswalt overall. What's more, Lee is a year and one day younger than Oswalt and, unlike Oswalt, lefthanded. Although the Astros are paying $11 million of Oswalt's salary through the end of next year, with Oswalt's $2 million buyout for 2012 factored in, the per-start cost of each pitcher to the Phillies works out as nearly identical. Given all of that, there's really no reason to prefer Oswalt over Lee. Yes, Oswalt will be able to impact two pennant races to Lee's one, and there's a slim chance that he'll stick around as an effective front-of-the-rotation starter for 2012, but then there's also a chance the Phillies might have re-signed Lee, one that seems to have evaporated with his departure from the team.

The bottom line is that Amaro traded Lee unnecessarily, then watched as his team, still the favorites in the NL East, sank out of first place. You can't blame the Lee trade for the injuries to Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz, J.A. Happ, Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson and Jamie Moyer, but given that the Phillies are still just three games out despite all of that, you can blame the trade for tossing away the team's margin for error before Opening Day. One could argue that, with Lee in the rotation, the Phillies would still be in first place despite all of those injuries. They certainly wouldn't have needed to stick with Joe Blanton as he put up a 6.41 ERA over his first 13 starts. Though Blanton has been better in his last three starts, he's still been a replacement-level starter over the course of his 16 starts. Lee, meanwhile, has been worth just shy of five wins over replacement over 17 starts according to Baseball Prospectus's win-expectancy-based SNLVAR. Those extra five wins would indeed put the Phillies back in first place.

Oswalt has been worth 3.5 wins above replacement according to SNLVAR, but he's not replacing Blanton, he's replacing Moyer, who is likely to miss the rest of the season with what an MRI revealed to be a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor pronator muscle. Happ, one of the three players sent to Houston for Oswalt, took Moyer's last turn. Now that spot in the rotation goes to Oswalt.

SNLVAR had Moyer at 1.6 wins above replacement prior to his injury. Pro-rating their respective SNLVAR totals over the final dozen starts of the season, we get roughly one win above replacement for Moyer and roughly two wins over replacement for Oswalt. That means Oswalt will only make the Phillies a win better than they would have been with a healthy Moyer over the remainder of the season. Of course, a healthy Moyer wasn't an option, but Cliff Lee was, and his SNLVAR projection for those final 12 starts works out to 3.5 wins above replacement, or another win and a half better than Oswalt in addition to the extra five wins over Blanton he already would have provided. If the Phillies wind up missing the playoffs by less than seven games, you now know exactly why.

Of course, if the Phillies to return to the playoffs, and Oswalt, Halladay, and Cole Hamels pitch them to another World Championship, all is forgiven, and the Phillies get a bonus year of Oswalt. If not, Oswalt's performance in 2011 will be the key to this deal. So what can the Phils expect from Oswalt next year? Well, in his last nine starts prior to the trade, he has posted a 4.21 ERA, and 2011 is likely to bring more of the same.

From 2005 to 2007, his age 27 to 29 seasons, Oswalt posted a 3.03 ERA and averaged 224 2/3 innings a season, but that's not the pitcher the Phillies just acquired. In the last two and two-thirds seasons, he has posted a 3.71 ERA, and in his last two full seasons, he has averaged fewer than 200 innings pitched, due in part to a herniated disk that forced him to the disabled list last year. A 3.71 ERA over 195 innings is still good, but it's not the performance of a second ace. Rather, Oswalt projects as a third starter for the Phillies in 2011, one who is creeping into his mid-30s (he'll be 33 in a month and 34 before the end of the 2011 season) and has been receiving cortisone shots for what now seems to be a chronic bad back.

As for Amaro's efforts to restock the farm system, as Baseball Prospectus prospect guru Kevin Goldstein said to me Thursday night, "Philadelphia got far less for Lee than they gave away for Halladay, but what they gave up for Oswalt is less than either." Hidden in that evaluation is the fact that there are few if any future impact players among the six prospects shuffled around between the Lee and Oswalt deals. Happ, the 2009 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up, looks like a solid lefty starter, but he missed most of this season due to elbow issues and will be 28 in October. Six-foot-seven Quebecois Phillippe Aumont, acquired in the Lee deal, might make an impact short reliever one day, but the Phillies continue to let him struggle as a starter in Double-A. Tyson Gillies, obtained for Lee, is a better center field prospect than Anthony Gose, sent to Houston, but he's been alternately hurt and struggling in his Double-A debut this year. The last piece of the Oswalt booty, shortstop Jonathan Villar, is, like Gose, a toolsy 19-year-old who is about as raw as can be (he has already made 42 errors this year), while the last man acquired for Lee, 21-year-old righty J.C. Ramirez, looks like little more than an organizational arm. So, by sacrificing four months of Cliff Lee, then downgrading to Oswalt, Amaro upgraded from Gose to Gillies, exchanged Happ's major-league present for Aumont's speculative future, and flipped Villar's long-shot potential for Ramirez's reliable lack thereof. I think it's safe to say it wasn't worth it, and if Amaro didn't have his job to protect, he'd likely agree.

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