COMMENTARY | If Philadelphia Phillies' left-hander Cliff Lee is dealt by the club before Major League Baseball's July 31 trading deadline, it won't be because of a lack of effort to stay in Philly. Lee was brilliant for his second straight trip to the bump on May 28 at Fenway Park, holding down the Boston Red Sox for eight strong innings enroute to a 3-1 Phillies' win.
The win runs Lee's record to 6-2 with a 2.34 ERA, good for baseball's top ten. It also lowers Lee's WHIP (Walks an Hits per Inning Pitched) to .97, also good enough to rank amongst league leaders.
With his second straight dominant start, Lee is fixing to go on a run reminiscent of June and August in 2011 when he was a combined 10-0 with 0.21 and 0.45 ERAs respectively.
Without Lee, the Phillies would be in massive trouble in the National League East and Wildcard races even as early as the end of May. While there is still an eternity to play in terms of the baseball season, the Phillies are in a slightly different situation than most clubs. They are laden with a slew of high end contracts and burdened with a farm system left with little talent after general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. mortgaged much of the Phillies' future to acquire players like Lee, Roy Halladay, Hunter Pence and others. They were also stripped of high draft picks when re-acquiring Lee and signing Jonathan Papelbon.
Those moves are well and good when the prospects of competing for a title are legitimate. But as the days and weeks pass, it's becoming evident that the Phillies have fallen to the second tier of National League clubs. If the ceiling has been reached with this group, it's only rational to consider unloading a piece or two while they still have value.
Now many will say that the team is not there yet, that they are a hot weather club and battling injuries and there is plenty of time to pull it all together. Those thoughts are valid. Individually, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Michael Young and Chase Utley all have the ability to light it up on any given night. But the reality is that as a collective, this lineup is impotent.
While many of the Phillies' contracts are not fiscally responsible, unloading them wouldn't necessarily be about money. The Phillies are due to sign a mega-billion dollar TV deal in 2014 that should leave them with the ability to compete with anyone from a salary standpoint for years to come. It's about restocking the farm system. That doesn't mean the Phillies can't continually make an effort to field championship caliber clubs. This team was built from within. The nucleus of this team is home grown. You need to supplement your free agent moves with young talent like Domonic Brown, whose continuing emergence could be the most positive story of the 2013 season.
The club could go on a small run and decide to stand pat or try and get another power bat for the lineup in the hopes of making one more run. That would make no one happier than I. After years of futility, the mere prospect of meaningful September baseball still leaves me giddy. I would also be saddened by the departure of any of this team's core.
These players gave us five incredible years. I want to see Jimmy and Chase ride off into the sunset together in red pinstripes. I don't want to pay 80 percent of Ryan Howard's salary while he's playing for another team. And I certainly don't want to see Cliff Lee go on month-long runs of dominance on any team the Phillies may have to face down the line. But the reality is that he is the one player, who if dealt to the right team, could bring in a haul of talent.
Lee shocked the baseball world by coming back to Philly in the winter of 2010. His wife had created ties here that she wanted to get back to. There was a championship-caliber team on the diamond. We're not sure we can say that any longer, but Cliff Lee is pitching like he wants to stay here anyway.
Without some help from the guys around him, he could be pitching his way into a blockbuster deal out of town.
Pete Lieber is a freelance writer who has covered the Phillies for three seasons and followed the team since Dick Ruthven skipped the minor leagues. Follow him on Twitter at @Lieber14.
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