Bold Moves

Josh from Pitchers Hit Eighth posted an intriguing question to the Conclave members for a round table discussion this week. Because it was such a poignant and timely question and because I’m all about killing two birds with one stone, I decided to turn it into a post. Enjoy.

Question:

The Fightin’ Phils have ‘no interest’ in trading their pitchers which screams $$$ to me. IF they do decide to become sellers, the Cliff Lee to the Cards talk will only become louder. Instead of being on the defensive, I say push all in and come up with a good plan to present the FO. What say the CC?

Answer:

This question raises even more questions for me and points out the real challenge that John Mozeliak has at the trade deadline. There’s a month and a half to go, but if the Cardinals continue to play at a level near the top of baseball, there’s real incentive to make a bold move by July 31st. With the success that the team is having at the major league level, coupled with the relative absence of bad contracts (Wigginton!) and a top farm system to boot, it’s easy to assume this run of dominance will extend through the decade.

Realistically, I look at guys like Holliday, Molina, and Wainwright who, even if they aren’t showing yet, are inching closer and closer toward the decline phase of their careers, so I wonder if we can expect this much production even a year from now. As much as it hurts to look at him, we should all watch Albert Pujols and acknowledge how quickly injury and age can suck the lifeblood out of a player. Mix in the volatility of prospects, especially pitching prospects, and it makes you want to call up Ruben Amaro, Jr. and tell him to pick three from the farm and mail the bill for the remainder of Lee’s contract.

Thankfully, things aren’t that drastic, and I do expect the team to be ridiculously good for the foreseeable future. That being said, and to answer the initial question in a roundabout way, if you can trade for a player the caliber of Cliff Lee, it should take a lot for you to say no. The money isn’t even a question. As C70 accurately pointed out in a string of email messages today, starting in 2014, every team in the league will get around $25 million dished out to them annually by MLB from new national television contracts.

We know the Cardinals are funneling a ton of money into the Ballpark Village project, but there’s also a lot of salary coming off the books at the end of 2013 – Beltran’s deal alone is nearly half of Lee’s 2014 pay. The money is there to take on a contract with a hefty annual salary, especially one that’s attached to a true “ace” pitcher like Lee – from the beginning of the 2008 season, up until this moment in 2013, Lee has been the most valuable pitcher in baseball according to WAR.

To escalate things, I’ll go ahead and say I would trade Wacha or Martinez for Lee without batting an eyelash. I’d even throw in two of Gast, Lyons, Maness, Kelly, Scruggs, or, gasp, Jenkins and still eat every dollar left on Lee’s contract. If I were GM, and Amaro called and said, “The price is Wacha and Rosenthal and 85% of the money,” I’d do it and get crafty with the pen in trying to replace Rosenthal. For those quick to bring up the Mulder/Haren debacle, I’ll point out that Mulder had a fraction of the success that Lee has had, and the likelihood of Wacha or Rosenthal mirroring Danny Haren’s career at the starter position is a long shot.

Rosenthal is a dominant reliever, but last year we saw Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman post two of the most dominant performances by relief pitchers in modern history, yet, they were about half as valuable as Justin Verlander. Likewise, it’s only June 17th, but Cliff Lee has already provided the Phillies with nearly as much value as Kimbrel gave the Braves last season.

My madness does know some bounds, however. I would not trade Oscar Taveras for Lee. Taveras is most likely special, and you don’t trade special. Likewise, turning Shelby Miller into Cliff Lee is a no go. There’s also plenty of mix and match trade scenarios with prospects and $ that I’d decline. But, as fake GM, I live by the code that you should trade absolutely anything for a World Series ring – anyone give a flying flip what Colby Rasmus does this year? No. Scrabble is in the minors, Edwin’s a Cub, and I think Dotel is on the DL in Detroit. Doesn’t matter. The trade was won when Allen Craig scrambled back towards the left field wall and clutched a liner off of David Murphy’s bat.

So, if you present me with a choice between one World Series title followed by 9 straight losing seasons, or 10 straight years of NLCS wins and no World Series rings, start drinking – we’re gonna spend 9 seasons in the gutter. And I’m probably stark raving mad, so we can take comfort that bidding wars aren’t the M.O. (never going to get sick of that pun) of the Cardinals front office. And any race for Cliff Lee would most certainly be a bidding war.

And that’s if the Phillies actually want to trade him. My guess is if they are even 7 games within first place in the NL East come late July, Amaro will be looking to go for it. The guy is on the hot seat and most likely won’t be around to watch any returns from a second Lee trade provide dividends. Amaro’s looking at Ryan Howard like MacGyver looks at a briefcase bomb. That being said, if Cliff Lee is truly on the trading block, you get after that hot and heavy. Reports say the Cardinals aren’t one of the 20 teams he can block a trade to. Lee makes his home in Arkansas, and St. Louis, MO is about as close to home as a ballplayer from Arkansas can get, so draw your own conclusions. And while the price and scope of such a trade might be unprecedented for the team, the current state of the organization demands they at least explore it.

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