Lee again could see a midseason move

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Scouts are out in full force this time of year. Draft duty over, pennant races taking form, they swell in numbers with their radar guns, eyeballs and Spidey senses all calibrated to optimal performance. Then they tell their bosses where to spend those extra millions of dollars just kicking around in the petty cash box.

Granted, this time of year a good scouting find isn't quite like a stock tip. Everyone knows and wants the best guys, and the winner is (usually) he who pays the most in prospects. That makes it no less exciting, the ritual of scouts turning in reports to general managers – the word "Acquire!!!" bedazzled by multiple exclamation points – and those recommendations worming their way into trade rumors and baseball's midseason doldrums overshadowed by its keepers' willingness to take risks.

It was fun watching Rick Sutcliffe go to the Chicago Cubs on June 13, 1984, and reel off a 16-1 record and win the Cy Young Award. And it was exciting seeing CC Sabathia(notes) head to the Milwaukee Brewers on July 7, 2008, invigorate the team and take it to the postseason. And it was heart-rending to see the Montreal Expos go for it by trading for Bartolo Colon(notes) on June 27, 2002, and end up only four games over .500, especially for all they gave up.

That was Cliff Lee's(notes) first deadline deal, heading from Montreal to the Cleveland Indians along with Brandon Phillips(notes), Grady Sizemore(notes) and Lee Stevens for Colon and Tim Drew. Last year, on July 29, Cleveland traded Lee to the Philadelphia Phillies, and he propelled the Phillies to the World Series. And this year – maybe sometime this week, maybe not until July 31 – Lee will head somewhere new.

The team that acquired him during the offseason, the Seattle Mariners, are a disaster – 24-39, worse than every team but the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates – and GM Jack Zduriencik stands to reap plenty more from trading Lee than he would from the two draft picks received via free agency.

"I don't care how much he likes draft picks," one executive said this week. "They cost money to sign, and he can get established players through a trade."

At least two top-level prospects, the executive suggested, along with a couple more low-level dreamers. The coveting of Lee casts a wide net: both New York teams, both Los Angeles teams, the Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers and, sure, Philadelphia. The dream rotation including Roy Halladay(notes) and Lee could happen for the low, low price of Domonic Brown(notes), Jarred Cosart and a couple other kids.

The Phillies almost certainly won't pursue that route. Others will. It's that time of year, and the only thing holding back …

1. Cliff Lee from extracting a king's ransom is the plethora of other pitchers available at this deadline derby. None is quite like Lee, of course, and those in his neighborhood make more than his $9 million salary. In other words, he is the perfect mercenary: cheap (relatively), attached to two draft picks (for sure), playoff proven (check out last year) and unfazed by anything (remember this?) .

Lee is already doing his best Dennis Eckersley circa '90 impersonation. In 73 1/3 innings as Oakland closer, Eckersley walked four and struck out 73. Lee's line this season: 68 2/3 innings, 4 walks, 60 strikeouts. No pitcher has ever finished a season with better than Bret Saberhagen's 11-to-1 strikeout-to-walkout ratio in 1994, and just five in the modern era have been better than 8-to-1: Saberhagen, Greg Maddux(notes), Pedro Martinez(notes), Curt Schilling(notes) and …

2. Ben Sheets(notes), whose 264-to-32 ratio in 2004 proved just how good he can be when healthy. Since figuring out he was tipping his curveball before a May 8 start, Sheets has put up a 3.60 earned-run average. If Oakland continues to fade in the American League West, he may go elsewhere.

Two problems: Sheets' $10 million salary and, yes, his strikeout-to-walk ratio. What once sparkled like a diamond is now more akin to glitter: 59 strikeouts vs. 33 walks in 80 1/3 innings. Sheets' payroll number hurts, too, particularly since he's a long shot for draft-pick compensation at the end of the season. Those looking for a power right-hander …

3. Need search no further than Dan Haren(notes). Owner of the wackiest season among pitchers, Haren leads the National League in three categories: hits allowed, home runs allowed and strikeouts. Steve Carlton led the NL in hits and strikeouts a few times. Never homers, though, and they illustrate the many oddities of Haren's season.

Batters are hitting .345 against him on balls in play – ninth-worst among starters. More than 15 percent of the fly balls he allows have gone over the fence – fifth-worst. How bad did it get? In the first 196 starts of Haren's career, he allowed one four-homer game. Then Toronto and Colorado did it back-to-back.

"I'll take him," said a scout who saw Haren throw eight solid innings Saturday to lower his ERA to 4.61. At $25.5 million over the next two years (with a $15.5 million option for 2013 that includes a $3.5 million buyout), Haren doesn't come cheap, which is the lone prohibitive issue for him …

4. As well as for Roy Oswalt(notes), who worked his way into old form long before Haren. While his groundball rate isn't what it used to be, Oswalt is striking out more hitters than he has since debuting in 2001, and a 4-8 record is less important than his 3.16 ERA.

Whether that translates to a team swallowing the rest of his $15 million salary this year, plus his $16 million next year and a $16 million option in 2012, is a matter of demand. And that's the greatest feature of this mid-summer market for a team thin on starting pitching: There's a whole lot of it. Washington, of all teams, was connected to Oswalt when he requested a trade, and it led to …

5. Steve Phillips' infamous comment that he would trade Stephen Strasburg(notes) for Oswalt – a comment he then defended instead of copping the only reasonable defense for such asininity, which would've been mistaking a couple Tylenol for Foot-In-Mouth Pills.

Still, it made for a fun parlor trick with still-employed general managers: Say Washington GM Mike Rizzo made Strasburg available. What would you trade for him?

"My entire minor league system," said one GM, and it's a well-stocked one at that, which goes to show that with Strasburg, the only thing that will exceed his talent over the next decade is the hyperbole that accompanies it. Already, he's the King of D.C. …

6. While up the Beltway Jeremy Guthrie(notes) tries to bring a little bit of royalty to Baltimore – pitching princely for a jester of a team. It's Guthrie, not Kevin Millwood(notes), generating the most interest from the woebegone Orioles. Said one scout who saw Guthrie this week: "His slider looks great."

Indeed, Guthrie has almost abandoned his curveball and is throwing his slider more than a quarter of the time. It's working, as is his fastball, with a 3.83 ERA to show for it in spite of only 46 strikeouts in 84 2/3 innings. The most attractive part of Guthrie: a $3 million salary this season and two more years of arbitration eligibility, as opposed to Millwood, whose $12 million salary is …

7. The same as Ted Lilly(notes)'s, with far less bang for the buck. Lilly threw eight no-hit innings Sunday night before yielding a single to Juan Pierre(notes). Out he came after the hit, 108 pitches thrown, 72 of them strikes, barely any at 90 mph, because Lilly has turned himself into the stereotypical left-handed pitcher in his mid-30s who somehow gets away with a mediocre-mph fastball.

Lilly has induced all sorts of pop-ups this season – more than 20 percent of his fly balls, the highest percentage in baseball by a long shot – and that speaks to his luck. Should the Cubs' collapse continue, however, Lilly will be a sought-after commodity, his contract expiring after this season. He's done this dance before. On July 31, 1998, he went to Montreal when Carlos Perez and Mark Grudzielanek(notes) came to Los Angeles. Four years later, it was off to Oakland in a three-way deal. In his one non-deadline trade, the Yankees sent Hideki Irabu to Montreal for Lilly …

8. And a 22-year-old named Jake Westbrook(notes). He's now 32, and like Lilly an eight-figure pitcher ($11 million) who will be a free agent after the season. Westbrook is the epitome of a get-what-you-see guy. He gets ground balls (54.5 percent, sixth most in the big leagues), doesn't get pop-ups (zero, amazingly, in 337 batters faced this season) and is pretty mediocre across the board otherwise. Westbrook offsets flashes of excellence with messy implosions, so only a team looking for an innings-eater will inquire with Cleveland. Should he …

9. And Fausto Carmona(notes) leave, that will rid the Indians of the final remnants from the 2007 rotation that nearly pitched them to the World Series. The Indians' main returns from Sabathia – Matt LaPorta(notes) and Michael Brantley(notes) – are in Triple-A. So are two of the pieces from the Lee deal, while a third still hasn't pitched this year. Hey, at least Jason Donald(notes) broke up Armando Galarraga's(notes) perfect game!

Point is, the Indians can't do much worse, so they might be inclined to sell high on Carmona. No longer is his sinker the mess it was last season – the single worst pitch in baseball – and his walk rate and line-drive rates are down. Because of his low strikeout rates, repeating his 19-8 2007 season is almost impossible. But the Indians did sign Carmona to a super-friendly deal – with three consecutive club options – so any interested team inherits a 26-year-old with a 3.23 ERA and no buyout attached.

Not bad. But not …

10. Cliff Lee, either. Last summer, he was the contingency plan for teams worried that then-Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi wouldn't pull the trigger on a Halladay deal. He didn't, and so the Phillies struck, and struck gold, with Lee. Oh, there will be other names of interest: Oswalt and Haren, Lance Berkman(notes) and Derrek Lee(notes), Paul Konerko(notes) and Bobby Jenks(notes), David DeJesus(notes) and Kerry Wood(notes). None quite like Lee.

Scouts will stalk, GMs will kill cell phone batteries, rumors will fly, fans will fret and come the July 31 trading deadline, everything will be settled. Lee will be somewhere other than Seattle. Winners-and-losers analyses and post-deadline candy will come out soon thereafter. And it's already obvious which category the lucky team that wins the Cliff Lee Sweepstakes will fall under.