Why The Red Sox & Phillies Should Get Together On Cliff Lee

If it's time for Cliff Lee to leave Philadelphia--and it should be--Boston needs to step up.

If it’s time for Cliff Lee to leave Philadelphia–and it should be–Boston needs to step up.

Two weeks from today is major league baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline and past history tells us that the moves general managers make over the next couple weeks can decide this year’s division races—or, if the GM’s of contending teams aren’t so smart, it might decide a lot of future division races on behalf of today’s also-rans. The question for the Boston Red Sox, as it has been most every year, save 2012, is this—how much is too much to give up and who is the right player to target.

I’m focusing this discussion on Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee. I know Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal said last night at the All-Star Game that he believe the Phils will hold on to Lee, but my understanding was that it was Rosenthal offering an opinion, not reporting a fact. And even if it was the latter, everything is negotiable.

Lee is the kind of player to focus on, because if there is one mistake that contending general managers make, it’s trading off prospects for players that essentially marginal. As much as you’d like a seventh-inning reliever or a quality #6 hitter, you don’t deal your future to get them, lest you end up trading away a young Jeff Bagwell for a journeyman reliever in Larry Andersen, as the Red Sox did so infamously in 1990.

But I think we can all agree that Lee is anything but marginal. He’s a real difference-maker, a former Cy Young Award winner and one who has pitched some of his most dominant games in the glare of October, including beating the New York Yankees twice in the 2009 World Series, even if the Phils ultimately lost. Therefore, the questions would be threefold—is he available, what prospects should be given up and is his $25 million annual salary too much to take on.

I’ll be brief on the first question because it’s not something Boston can control and it’s more pertinent to a Philadelphia sports venue than a Boston one. But I believe strongly that the Phillies desperately need to get younger. They made repeated efforts to “win now”, and those efforts were understandable and produced some really good teams. They’ve also run their course and if you want to replenish, no one will get you a bigger haul than Lee. You didn’t give him a five year, $125 million deal to stay in vague shouting distance of the second wild-card. Move on.

Now on to Boston. The top-ranked minor league in the Red Sox system, according to Sox Prospects, is shortstop Zander Bogaerts. The second-best is Jackie Bradley Jr, third baseman Garin Cecchni is third, with starting pitcher Allen Webster fourth.

I would open the bidding with an offer of Bogaerts and Webster. The former fills a soon-to-be-need in the Phillies’ lineup, as Jimmy Rollins is on his last legs. Everyone needs pitching, and with the Red Sox #5 prospect also being a pitcher, Rubby de La Rosa, they could afford to part with Webster.

On its face, even two highly regarded minor leaguers are nowhere near what Philadelphia would want strictly on talent, but now is where the question of salary comes in. It’s not just young players, its payroll flexibility, and there are few teams who could afford to think about taking Lee’s deal, which has two years remaining after this season. The Red Sox will see John Lackey’s contract come off the books at the end of the year, and in general they were pretty restrained in the offseason of 2012. We know Boston is one of the few markets that can absorb a big contract without gutting the rest of the team.

I’d still be open to adding a third minor leaguer, although it would have to be more on a Grade B level. If the Phils wanted three “A level” prospects, they’d need to eat some of the money. I suspect they’d prefer two top-tier players and the cash off the books.

For those Red Sox fans who think I might be thinking too short-term, let me just say that I generally don’t like trade deadline moves. In fact, even right now, if you told me Boston was going to do nothing, I’d be okay with that. Most of these moves look a lot better in the heat of a playoff race than they do later on. The Texas Rangers, who acquired Koji Uehara in exchange for unknowns Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter would testify to that, and Uehard actually pitched pretty well for the Rangers in 2011.

But again, Lee is different. I don’t have a problem with deadline moves when they involve getting a high-level player who can help you beyond the current year. Lee qualifies, as there’s no reason to think he can’t pitch at a high level in 2014 and 2015. That’s also a reason Philadelphia might choose to keep him and rebuild in a less drastic way, but if the Phils do want to go nuclear, the Sox are the best trading partner, both in terms of money and prospects. And Boston shouldn’t hesitate to step in.

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