Tim: This is a loaded question. As I wrote Monday, a lot is going to depend on just how quickly Lee is able to get a clean bill of health. He is scheduled to be re-evaluated sometime today, and we will know more about when Lee will be able to start throwing.
Yesterday, Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro told Philly.com’s Ryan Lawrence this, on when Lee will return.
“It could be up to a month, it could be a month and a half, it could be 3 weeks,” Amaro said. “I have no idea when the guy is going to be ready to pitch. I really don’t. I would think it be sooner rather than later, but I have no timetable until he’s up and throwing again.”
Whenever he is cleared, he then has to work his arm strength up, and my guess would be that he is going to make a minor-league rehab appearance. My educated guess (which I really wouldn’t put a ton of stock into), is that Lee would be looking at a mid-June return, at the earliest. Based off of what Amaro said, late-June might be more realistic. The Phillies need to be careful not to try to rush Lee back, because in that scenario they run the risk that he has a setback, or even injures his elbow more severely, which would likely lead to season-ending surgery.
So realistically, I think we are looking at a late-June return from Lee. For his trade value to be anything after that, he would have to come back and pitch his best baseball of the year. That would mean Lee would need to get hot right away, lower his 3.18 ERA into the twos, and limit the amount of hits that he has been giving up. Essentially, he not only needs to get hot, but he needs to prove that he is completely healthy.
I think the likelyhood of Lee doing that isn’t high, which makes a potential scenario of him getting traded very interesting. I certainly think teams won’t be willing to give up their blue-chip prospects for Lee, if things fall the way that I expect. They definitely won’t be willing to do that and pick up the $37 million (that’s if he is bought out after the 2015 season) that he is still guaranteed after this season.
To get any sort of good package, the Phillies would likely have to take on at least half of that money, and even then, it’s hard to imagine getting any “blue-chip” prospects for a 35 year-old not far removed from having an elbow problem.
So instead of going after a few B level prospects, who may or may not work out, I’m not sure that the Phillies wouldn’t be better off waiting until after July, waiving Lee, and allowing someone like the Dodgers or Yankees to take his entire contract, and save the Phillies an extra $20 million (that’s under the ideal that they would eat half the money in a potential trade) over the course of the next two seasons. That’s the only scenario I can see that a team is willing to take on his entire contract, because competitive teams get desperate in August, especially if one of their pitchers goes down or they realize they didn’t do enough at the trade-deadline.
As far as recouping player talent, I think Cole Hamels, who has a massive contract of his own, may be the only player who a team is willing to give up any sort of legitimate minor-league talent for, because he is only 30 years-old. Then again, I’m not sure too many teams are going to give up any sort of substantial prospects to pick up a pitcher who has a 4.43 ERA and still has $110 million remaining on his deal after this year.
In both cases, just getting free cap space, to address the bullpen, bench, third-base and outfield, may actually do more for the Phillies, than eating half of Lee or Hamels’ deal and getting mediocre prospects. My guess is that Hamels is in the long-term plans of the Phillies (especially with how low his trade-value is now) and Lee is wearing another jersey by the end of the Summer, but the Phillies don’t get a boatload for him.