Cliff Lee has essentially been on the trade block for the past five years, and for the first time as a member of the Phillies, the matter of Lee switching teams is realistically feasible. Yesterday, Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com wrote that the Phillies could finally "pull the trigger" on a Lee trade if the team is out of contention by July, something which is more likely than unlikely.
The Phillies have made it their goal to field a competitive ballclub this season, but odds are that won't be happening. With an aging*, overpaid veteran core, the Phillies sought to add talent to a meager roster this offseason, eventually doing so by signing more aging, overpaid veterans.
Their additions, which include AJ Burnett, Marlon Byrd, and Fausto err.... Roberto Hernandez (they also resigned Carlos Ruiz to an incredibly generous three-year, $26 million deal) certainly provide upgrades over the 73-win 2013 squad, but they really don't make them all that much better.
While they may gain some production from healthy campaigns by Ben Revere and Ryan Howard, a full season from Cody Asche, and the continued development of Domonic Brown, veterans such as Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley are another year older and Cole Hamels could miss the first month of the season. Add in the fact that both Atlanta and Washington are top-tier teams, and a Phillies playoff berth in 2014 appear to be a longshot.
*The Phillies have just three players in their projected starting lineup under the age of 34 (Brown, Asche, and Revere), while Kyle Kendrick is the only member of the starting rotation under 30.
If the Phillies finally do come to their senses and realize that their window has long closed, trading Cliff Lee could be the ideal way to jumpstart a rebuild.
Lee has been one of the best pitchers in the game since his remarkable 2008 renaissance (Beyond the Box Score's Jeffrey Long wrote an excellent analysis of it earlier this week). Since then, he has averaged a 2.89 ERA (141 ERA+), 6.2 WAR, 1.3 BB/9, and 8.1 K/9 over 222 innings each season. He has been a consistent, reliable workhorse, pitching less than 30 games just once in the past six seasons (2010). He has been excellent in the playoffs with a career 2.52 postseason ERA (in 11 starts), and still manages to throw in the low-90's despite being 35-years-old. Plus, he has shown no signs of slowing down, posting an outstanding 7.3 WAR last season, while also notching a 2.82 FIP and league-leading 6.94 K/BB (he has led the league in that category each of the past two seasons and three of the past four).
While the AAV is certainly steep, Lee's contract comes off as less treacherous when one considers the fact that he has just two guaranteed years remaining on the five-year, $120 million contract he signed back in 2010. He is scheduled to make $25 million in each of the next two season, while the Phillies also hold a $27.5 million club option for 2016, which comes with a sizeable $12.5 million buyout. Considering the skyrocketing price of players, $77.5 million over the next three seasons (assuming the option is exercised) isn't all that bad for a pitcher of Lee's caliber.
Acquiring teams also have the added benefit of what a potential package for Lee could look like, considering he has been traded three times since 2009, including once by the Phillies before. When the Phillies first traded for Lee, they gave up four well-regarded prospects (Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, and Lou Marson), but they got considerably less in return when they traded him to Seattle prior to the 2010 season, netting just one high-end prospect in Phillippe Aumont. He was once again the subject of trade rumors mid-way through his first season with the Mariners, eventually getting dealt for top-20 prospect in baseball Justin Smoak, former first rounder Blake Beavan, and the talented yet troublesome Josh Lueke. The Mariners also spurned other competitive offers that summer from teams like the Yankees, who reportedly offered up Jesus Montero, who at the time was on his way to being named the third best prospect in the game by Baseball America.
These prior trades help give us an idea of what Lee could fetch in a deal. While he is considerably older and higher-paid compared to back then, he is still the same caliber pitcher and his three years of club control are more than what he had remaining in all three of those trades.
Lee's first trade (to Philly) was based around a package of prospects whereas in 2010 he was moved (or almost moved) for a top-20 overall prospect plus other potential big leaguers. Discounting his trade to Seattle (when he was essentially moved for nothing even though he had a full year of club control remaining and was coming off back-to-back ~7.0 WAR seasons), each of Lee's trades (or trade offers) featured at least one top-50 prospect, so it is safe to assume that Lee could probably bring the Phillies back something along the lines of one B+ level prospect or multiple B types, which would certainly help to replenish a system which Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks just ranked as the 6th worst in baseball.
His monstrous salary will definitely scare some teams away, but the number of potential suitors for Lee should still be ample. Injuries to other teams' starters will certainly play a significant role in his market, but teams such as the Angels, Yankees, Mariners, or Blue Jays could make a run at him since all four have holes in their rotations and seemingly deep payrolls. The Dodgers could also be a prime landing spot since they could care less about Lee's financials.
As far as the likelihood of a trade occurring, Lee himself put it best in this quote to Salisbury:
"What happens in the next couple of months, we'll just have to wait and see."