Because Of Course He Is

The trade history of Cliff Lee is extensive:

June 27, 2002: Traded by the Montreal Expos with Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore and Lee Stevens to the Cleveland Indians for Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew.

July 29, 2009: Traded by the Cleveland Indians with Ben Francisco to the Philadelphia Phillies for Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald and Lou Marson.

December 16, 2009: Traded by the Philadelphia Phillies to the Seattle Mariners for J.C. Ramirez, Phillippe Aumont and Tyson Gillies.

July 9, 2010: Traded by the Seattle Mariners with Mark Lowe and cash to the Texas Rangers for Matthew Lawson, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke and Justin Smoak.

And so, it only makes sense that as the Philadelphia Phillies set to sell off their assets at the non-waiver trade deadline, Lee is now rumored to be available with several very interested parties, including the Texas Rangers. Having gone 751 days without being traded, it’s about time.

Lee’s contract includes a limited no trade clause that would allow him to block deals to all but eight clubs, and he is still owed whatever portion remains of the $21.5 million he’s owed this season, and then another $75 million over the next three years, plus a $25 million club/vesting option in 2016 (that can be bought out for $12.5 million if Lee  is on the Disabled List at end of the 2015 season with an injury to the left elbow or left shoulder, and didn’t accumulate 200 innings pitched in 2015 or 400 innings  pitched in 2014-15). However, as we’ve discussed in the past, no trade rights are often used as leverage for a player to earn a little bit of bonus money from being traded.

So far this season, Cliff Lee has been Cliff Lee. Yes, his ERA is higher than normal, and he only has a single win this season, but it’s not that concerning given his typically brilliant strike out to walk ratio. A higher than normal BABIP, combined with a low strand rate and a viciously unlucky home run to fly ball ratio make his more television-ready numbers look as though he’s having a bad year, when in reality, he’s continuing to pitch as well as he ever has.

You might even suggest that Lee should want to get far away from Philadelphia, not only given the terrible run support his team has given him this season (fourth worst in baseball), but that high BABIP I mentioned earlier coupled with a similar ground ball rate to what he’s always managed suggests that the Phillies infield defense, which has probably been average overall if we look at DRS and UZR, is also letting him down more frequently than it has in the past.

And that’s why, despite the higher ERA and lack of wins, Lee is still going to be costly to acquire.

The latest batch of rumors are suggesting that the Rangers are the favorites to land Lee if he is indeed traded, but I’m not so sure. Any team having conversations with the Phillies, essentially has to be willing to do something that they wouldn’t do two years ago, when Lee signed his deal with Philadelphia. And they also have to pay the price in the form of prospects for the privilege of attaining a contract that they didn’t want to attain only a short time ago, when Lee was two years younger and presumably better.

All this adds up to mean we’re unlikely to see a straight player for player or players deal. Money would have to be involved from Philadelphia’s side.

As for the Phillies, I think I like what they’re trying to do. After getting the first part of his multi-year contract at good value, they’re attempting to trade the remaining years and choosing instead to rely on the recently signed Cole Hamels in Lee’s place. Given Lee’s availability two years ago, they’re also attempting to capitalize on current conditions influencing other teams as a means of moving him. Looking at their payroll structure overall, Philadelphia is simply too top heavy.

Lee is certainly a valuable commodity, but given the rest of their rotation and what they figure he’d bring back in a trade, the southpaw is also the best option to move from the top of their payroll list. If they can acquire cheap, close to Major League talent for Lee, the rebuild that the team supposedly needs isn’t necessary, as we can instead engage in a battle of semantics and call what they’re doing a reload as opposed to a rebuild, replacing expensive talent with cheaper production.