Last week, I tried (keyword: tried) to re-evaluate Cliff Lee‘s trade value (you can read that piece here). The conclusion I came to is that there is certainly going to be a market for Lee, just probably not one where the Phillies get a blue-chip prospect in return for Lee and don’t have to eat a majority of the at least $37.5 million (that’s if his 2015 option doesn’t vest and his team choose to buy him out after 2014 for $12.5 million) that Lee is owed over the next two seasons.
Jeff Passen of Yahoo! Sports agrees with my sentiment about there being a market for Lee.
8. Cliff Lee shows, dealing a $20 million-a-year-plus player isn’t exactly a cake walk, especially when the trading team doesn’t want to swallow any of that salary. Another year at $25 million remains on the 35-year-old Lee’s deal, plus at least $12.5 million worth of a buyout on a 2016 option (or a $27.5 million salary if he throws 200 innings next season and the option vests).
At minimum, that’s about $55 million for the rest of this year and next year. For a pitcher currently on the DL with an elbow issue. Which hasn’t gotten better.
For the time being, Lee still isn’t throwing and a return from the disabled list seems like it will come later, rather than sooner. If Lee is able to return in late June or early July and catch fire, then hey, maybe he recoups a majority of his trade value.
The problem is that Lee is 35 year-old, who has been even more hit-table than usual this season, and mix in concerns about an elbow injury, and his trade value isn’t exactly at an all-time high.
Because he’s Cliff Lee – because if healthy, he’s still one of the best – there will be interest. Knowing the market, though – or knowing it as well as a GM who generally struggles with market dynamics can – the idea of reloading a farm system and achieving salary relief with Lee simply will not happen. The Phillies need to make a choice: give themselves a chance to reload in free agency or infuse a system in dire need of prospects to complement the dynamic J.P. Crawford and Maikel Franco.
If you can get a few A level prospects in a Cliff Lee trade and only end up eating $10 or $15 million for him after this season, then go ahead and do that. Chances are, that isn’t happening. Despite the fact that Lee is only a year removed from being an All-Star and has a tremendous playoff pedigree, taking on a majority of Lee’s deal (which could total $52.5 million over the next two seasons if his 2016 option vests) and giving up elite talent in your farm system wouldn’t really make sense even for a contender. Let the Phillies be the example, if you move your top prospects and strap yourself financially for someone in his mid-30’s, things don’t usually work out that well for your team.
As Passen was careful to point out in his article, pitchers like James Shields, who are only rentals and will cost less of a prospect or financial hit, may make more sense for contenders looking to add another ace at the deadline. And the longer Lee remains out with an elbow issue, the more that point becomes true.
While I’m not a doctor and I can’t predict when Lee is able to come back and what is long-term health is, I know that if the Rays decide to ask for an enormous haul for David Price, it might make Lee more of an attractive consolation prize to teams. Make no mistake, though, Lee isn’t going to be setting the standard for the market at this point in his career.
Also keep in mind that the longer Lee remains out, the shorter amount of time that he will have to prove to teams that he is healthy before the deadline. So if Phillies don’t get the interest that they want before the July 31st trade deadline, don’t be surprised if they hold onto Lee and waive him in August. At least one or two teams would be desperate enough to claim Lee then, and while the Phillies won’t see any return of top prospects, it’s very realistic that whoever claimed him would take on a majority, if not all, of his salary and give the Phillies some serious financial flexibility for the first time in a few off-seasons.