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Almost everyone in baseball expects Cliff Lee to pass through waivers unclaimed sometime Friday afternoon, which is significant for two reasons: The Philadelphia Phillies will be able to trade Lee from then until Aug. 31, and it will mean that not a single team was willing to assume Lee's massive contract.
Of course, everybody assumed the same about Alex Rios in 2009, and the Chicago White Sox plucked him off the waiver wire. And not only did the Los Angeles Angels assume the entirety of the Vernon Wells albatross in a trade after the 2010 season, they gave up Mike Napoli. All of which is to say: It takes only one team.
If that one team happens to exist, the Phillies will have a decision: Do they allow the claiming team to absorb Lee's contract – which, depending on whether an option vests, will be three years for $87.5 million or four years for $102.5 million – or do they try to negotiate a trade, then pull him back if such a deal fails? Sources from two teams that before the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline engaged Philadelphia about Lee came away from the conversation believing that the Phillies certainly would be willing to deal Lee, just not for a reasonable return.
And that is why his likely passing through waivers this early in the month matters: Teams will have four weeks to entice the Phillies into giving Lee away. Multiple general managers this week echoed the sentiment of the executive who before the trade deadline indicated his team would be inclined to deal for Lee were the Phillies to absorb $20-$25 million of the contract, a sum at which the Phillies laughed and said no thank you.
How the standings evolve in the coming weeks could dictate a market in which that figure is inflated and teams – especially the most deep-pocketed – consider acceding to Philadelphia's desire to eat little money and receive premium prospects in return.
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Because, executives acknowledge, Lee has not pitched close to as bad as his 2-6 record would indicate. In most statistical categories, Lee is pitching to his usual high standards. His strikeout rate of 8.5 per nine innings is the second highest of his career. His walk rate of 1.7 per nine is close to in line with his best seasons. Lee's predilection to allow home runs – 1.1 per nine – may be as much a stroke of bad luck as anything. His groundball rate of 48.1 percent is a career best.
Scouts who have seen Lee report nothing wrong with the quality of his stuff. He's just missing locations more than usual, they say, something that can doom a command-centric pitcher. Still, that's not the sort of quality that goes away over time; it can wax and wane, but the post-Cy Young Lee, who throws an array of fastballs, cutters, curves and changeups, is by no means cratering.
So it becomes a matter of the money – and two factors actually work in favor of the money not being nearly as big an encumbrance as executives want to paint it. First and foremost: Money is going nuts across the game. Revenues have boomed because of television deals. We're coming off an offseason in which a pair of first basemen received $200 million-plus contracts. Plus there are the years: three guaranteed, a fourth if Lee pitches 200 innings in 2015 or 400 between 2014 and '15. Teams that balk at excessively long deals for pitchers can treat Lee as a player for whom length of deal was sacrificed for size, a trade clubs would willingly make on almost all long-term deals.
Lee has things going against him, certainly – his age (34 on Aug. 30) and the fallibility of pitchers' arms – but pitchers of his ilk tend to age better than most, and Lee has been a consistent 200-inning workhorse with none of the typical signs of arm problems like a drop in velocity. His actually has climbed, and there's plenty in his favor beyond his radar-gun readings and the money. Namely, the available pitchers over the next two seasons in free agency.
This was supposed to be a bonanza offseason for free agent pitchers. Then Jered Weaver, Matt Cain and Cole Hamels signed long-term contract extensions, leaving Zack Greinke the only marquee pitcher to hit the market. The second tier will include young guys with question marks (Anibal Sanchez, Brandon McCarthy) and older ones experiencing recent success (Ryan Dempster, Hiroki Kuroda, Kyle Lohse, perhaps Jake Peavy if the White Sox decline his option). There is one $100 million arm in that entire class, and there are plenty of teams with a need for a $100 million-caliber arm that have the capacity to take on such a deal.
It's not like the group following the 2013 season is any better. The best option is … Tim Lincecum? Not if he pitches like he has this season. Josh Johnson? An MRI of his arm would make teams think twice. Matt Garza? Good pitcher, not a $100 million one.
The pitching paucity could be quenched by trades for the free agents from the Class of 2014 – among them: Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw – but, like this year's group, it's likelier that most of them sign extensions, as teams prioritize keeping top-flight pitchers in-house.
If the Phillies value financial flexibility as much as most teams, they'll certainly consider bending from their hard-line stance and dealing Lee should he pass through waivers. It won't be easy. He has a no-trade clause to 21 teams, limiting his market (though there are always concessions to get it waived). Philadelphia would be trading him near the bottom of his value, always a dangerous proposition, though if they get back prospects in exchange for some salary relief, it could go a long way to rebuilding a farm system considered among the game's worst.
Fact is, plenty of teams could use him. Reuniting with old teammate CC Sabathia in New York, which offered Lee six years and $148 million during his free agency two offseasons ago? It would make the Yankees no-doubt World Series favorites. Rejoining Texas, which tried to hand Lee a six-year, $138 million deal with a vesting option for another $23 million after he led them to the World Series? He did like the Rangers, and they could use him. Becoming another piece of the Los Angeles Dodgers' attempt to take on every big contract it can? Well, they were hoping to sign Hamels, and that's not happening anymore.
In fact, Hamels' six-year, $144 million deal pushed the Phillies' payroll to the point where dealing Lee became an option. Nobody will take Ryan Howard's deal nor Jonathan Papelbon's, and Hamels and Roy Halladay aren't going anywhere, so baseball's focus trains toward Lee for the next month. Whether it's one of the aforementioned teams, or maybe one that has the payroll leeway and motivation – Toronto … Washington … either Chicago team … or perhaps none, as Lee's no-trade list remains unknown – it's far from a fait accompli that he continues to wear a Phillies uniform for the season's final month, let alone the next three or four years.
Taking on Cliff Lee at present cost isn't nearly as crazy and far-fetched as the contract figures make it seem, though it would take a brave executive to do it and an even bolder move from Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. to deal him after saying publicly Lee would stay put. This is baseball, though, where big trades still happen even if the odds are stacked well against them.
Remember, it takes only one team.
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