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Cliff Lee returns, giving Yankees a possible trade target as deadline nears

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
Duvall, Kontos help Giants beat Phillies
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Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee throws a pitch during the first inning of a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants on Monday, July 21, 2014, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)

NEW YORK – About five minutes before Shane Greene threw his first pitch in the Bronx on Monday night, Cliff Lee threw his first pitch in Philly. These would be unrelated events were we not in the final days of July, were the New York Yankees and the AL East not so mediocre, and were the Philadelphia Phillies not hard at another season of irrelevance.

As it was, however, the Yankees would have to decide if they would proceed with a rotation held together with Plan B's and reasonable intentions, and choose to believe the division was really that vulnerable, and then schedule the rookie Greene in front of the rookie Chase Whitley, then follow Whitley with David Phelps and Brandon McCarthy, and then assume this is the rotation (along with Hiroki Kuroda) that would make them great – or minimally postseason worthy – again.

It might be a lot to assume.

As it was, the Phillies would have to swallow hard and admit finally the past is gone, to understand their former core is no longer competitive or even amusing to watch, and to waken to the reality that it is one thing to lose in the NL East and quite another to be outclassed by the New York Mets and Miami Marlins, too. The payroll, which is sneaking up on $180 million, isn't winning them any games, and there's about $130 million on the books for next year, including $25 million for Cliff Lee (and $23.5 million for Cole Hamels). Maybe that's a workable model for Ruben Amaro Jr. going forward, and what the Phillies really need to do is continue to chase the contracts, and chase reasonable health from their established and well-paid players, and in the end chase the fumes of the ballclub they once were.

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Shane Greene allowed four earned runs in 5 2/3 innings against the Rangers. (Getty Images)

Shane Greene allowed four earned runs in 5 2/3 innings against the Rangers. (Getty Images)

But it might be a lot to assume.

So, at a time the Phillies would seem to require better young players and salary relief and the Yankees would seem to require better players no matter the age or cost, it was of some interest that Lee would pitch for the first time in two months, and 10 days from the trading deadline. About a third of the league's teams dispatched scouts to Citizens Bank Park on Monday night to inspect Lee, who shut down May 31 because of a strained elbow tendon. They're likely to return Thursday to see Hamels.

If serious, they'd best bring their debit cards and an offering of their finest prospects.

According to sources appraised of Amaro's hopes and dreams, the Phillies would expect a team to take on Lee's entire contract. He is due the remainder of $25 million this season, another $25 million in 2015 and either $27.5 million or a $12.5 million buyout in 2016. Lee can block trades to 21 teams, including the Yankees. There's suspicion the cost for Lee to authorize a trade to a blocked team would be the option year at full value, though neither Lee nor anyone in Lee's camp has said so. It's a hunch.

Lee posted a 2.87 ERA last season and is a respected workhorse, having thrown at least 211 innings for six consecutive seasons before this one. He'll also turn 36 next month. And, of course, there's the elbow, which may or may not be something, but you'd understand if – this season of all seasons – general managers have grown skittish over elbows.

Given the money and the possible risk, the Phillies aren't asking the farm for Lee. It'd be enough to mitigate their own payroll and risk. For Hamels, however, he being three years younger and presumably healthy, the Phillies expect to top off their farm system with at least two high-end, big league-ready studs, which doesn't make their ask on Hamels so different than Tampa Bay's on David Price. The difference: Hamels is under contract through 2018 at $22.5 million per. Price could walk after '15. Like Lee, Hamels has significant no-trade protection and an option year.

So, it's complicated. What's it worth to the Yankees? Do they take on the Lee money and trust the elbow, assuming Lee even would come to New York? Do they clear the best of their immediate future for Hamels? Or do they make do with what they have, and pray Masahiro Tanaka will not be lost to Tommy John surgery, and assume the offense will come around enough to cover for the pitchers they've lost?

Against a woeful Texas Rangers team, Greene on Monday night pitched 5 2/3 innings. He allowed four runs, the final two of which he'd left on base for reliever Matt Thornton. Greene committed three – that's three – errors. His start was the 46th by a rookie starting pitcher for the Yankees, in their 98th game. (Tanaka made 18 of those.) Greene's stuff, as they say, will play here. He's also made all of 16 starts above Double-A, three of them in the big leagues. It's a lot to trust.

"Well, I'd like to say I'm a pretty confident person," said Greene, 25 years old and a 15th-round draft pick five years ago. "Every time I go out there I get a little more confident, believe in myself maybe a little more."

He added with a smile, "Every day I walk into a big-league clubhouse, it's the best day of my life."

Meantime, down in Philly, Lee also lasted 5 2/3 innings. In what was widely viewed as a showcase start for him, Lee allowed 12 hits and six runs to the San Francisco Giants. According to those who witnessed the start, Lee's issue was location. While it is foolish to judge him on a single start after two idle months, the trading deadline drew two hours nearer during those 5 2/3 innings and, again, it's a lot to trust.

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