Monday, December 13, 2010

Mystery Team Unveiled

As Cliff Lee's world turns...

The mystery team surrounding the Cliff Lee negotiations just won't go away.  Now, thanks to ESPN's Jayson Stark and Fox Sports Ken Rosenthal the mystery team has finally been identified.  Earlier in the day, Stark tweeted that he thought no team "fits profile of Cliff Lee's mystery team more than the Phillies."  While this was an interesting idea, the rumor was not only unconfirmed, but a bit implausible.  Then, Rosenthal confirmed the rumor. 
The Phillies are still bidding for free-agent left-hander Cliff Lee, according to a source with direct knowledge of the negotiations.
The extent of the Phillies’ involvement is not known, but as of 6:30 p.m. ET Monday, the source described them as “not out.” 
This is certainly a very interesting and unexpected development.  The Phillies were very interested in re-singing Cliff Lee last offseason before it became clear he was determined to become a free agent after the 2010 season.  Knowing how much he would command on the open market (and not wanting him to leave without compensation), the Phillies traded for former Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay and simultaneously traded Lee to the Mariners.  Now, it appears that they're interested yet again.

The problem the Phillies are going to have is that they need to clear a significant amount of payroll to fit Lee on the roster.   According to Cots Baseball Contracts, the Phillies already have $146.8M committed to 18 players, which includes $56M to their top four starting pitchers.  To sign Lee, the Phillies would have probably have to move LF Raul Ibanez and SP Joe Blanton.  This isn't going to be easy.

As I've mentioned before, Ibanez is entering his age-39 season, and has exhibited declining a skill set on offensive, defensive, and the base paths.  My early projections have Ibanez being worth 1.5 WAR next season, or $7.5M (marginal value of -$4.5M).  Finding a trade partner for the left fielder is going to be tough.  Finding a trade partner willing to absorb his entire $12M salary is going to be nearly impossible.  Then again, never say never.  Brian Sabean and Ned Colletti are always willing to take on overpriced veterans.

Joe Blanton should be a lot easier to move.  He's going into his age-30 season next year, and has shown marked improvements in his control and strikeout numbers over the last two seasons.  Yes, he's had trouble with the long ball in the pinball machine known as Citizen's Bank Park, but who hasn't.  Moving him out of Philly to a neutral park could be just what the doctor ordered for Blanton.  With the starting pitching market being rather thin right now (Lee and Pavano are the best starters available), there are plenty of teams looking to make trades.  The Cubs, Yankees, Rangers, Nationals, Brewers, and Angels have all been linked to rumors involving trading for a starting pitcher.  Blanton fits the bill of the classic number four starter that most teams need in order to be serious playoff contenders.  While Blanton's salary of $10.5M for 2011 might seem a bit high, it's not.  With the average cost of a win on the free agent market averaging $5M/win, Blanton would need to be roughly a 2.0 win pitcher in 2011 to justify his salary.  In the last three seasons, Blanton's been worth 2.1, 2.0, and 1.9 WAR respectively.  Considering he hasn't seen any decline in his control or his "stuff," he seems like a great bet to be at least a 2.0 WAR pitcher next season.  Plus, Blanton is signed for the next two years, so it's not like he'd be a one year rental. 

If the Phillies are successful in unloading both players (highly unlikely), they would clear roughly $23M in salary, which coincidentally happens to be the annual average salary the Yankees are reported to have recently offered Lee.  Considering the long term investments the Phillies have committed themselves to (Howard, Utley, Halladay, etc.), I'd have to imagine the Phillies would prefer to sign him to a deal that is much shorter than seven years.  A deal of five years appears to be the minimum Lee and Bruanecker would consider.  With Lee receiving a seven year deal from the Yankees, and a six year deal (with a seventh year option) from the Rangers, the Phillies would likely have to top both teams in terms of average annual salary.  To be serious contenders, the Phillies would likely need to offer 5 years $125M just to be considered.  There's no word on whether Phillies GM Ruben Amaro would be willing to make that kind of offer, but considering some of the other contracts he's given out in recent years, I wouldn't be surprised.

If the Phillies somehow pull this signing off, it would be quite a coup.  With Halladay and Lee as dueling aces, Oswalt as the number three, and Hamels as the number four starter, the Philles would have a rotation that was unparalleled throughout the major leagues.  Unfortunately, the Phillies window to win with this group would be fairly narrow as Lee will be 32 in 2010, Oswalt 33, and Halladay 34.  Still, it would be impressive to see them in action for just one year.

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