By Mary Cunningham
Even casual Phillies fans know that the Boston Red Sox have been the most public suitor-of-interest in acquiring Phillies ace lefty Cole Hamels.
Rumors are that the Sox offered the Phils nothing but current major leaguers and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has been consistent that he wants blue-chip prospects.
Now, the gaze of Boston GM Ben Cherington may have moved to another Phillies hurler.
Here’s what Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com is reporting:
The Rangers and Padres were among teams to at least “kick the tires” on the Phillies’ returning pitching ace Cliff Lee over the winter. But the Red Sox have a much more obvious need for a frontline starter now and are also known to like Lee, and with Boston and Philly still believed to be at a standstill in their Cole Hamels talks, it is fair to wonder whether Lee could become a consideration for them.
Lee might make an interesting alternative to Hamels with trade discussion still believed stalled over Boston’s apparent unwillingness to part with either of the Phillies’ two big requests, catching prospect Blake Swihart or second baseman/outfielder Mookie Betts. The sides could continue to try to make it work, perhaps with different prospects, such as young catcher Christian Vazquez or pitching prospect Henry Owens, but there’s no evidence Philly has come off its first two requests.
Depending on the health and early performance of Lee, who is said to look superb so far in spring as he returns from his injury-racked 2014 season, he could make sense for Boston since his backloaded contract should preclude any thought of someone such as Swihart or Betts being in the trade picture. The sides do seem to have potential matches for either pitcher on the main pieces, and maybe even a secondary piece, as well, as word is the Phillies wouldn’t mind bringing back old Philly hero Shane Victorino, whose position in a crowded Bosox outfield appears tenuous.
The Red Sox need an ace, and most of the talk so far has involved Hamels, who has the advantages of being younger than Lee, having a more palatable salary and no injury question. But while Boston people aren’t as familiar as Texas with Lee, who they love and seemingly have had interest in bringing back since he left for Philly as a free agent, behind the scenes Red Sox people also have only praise for Lee as a pitcher. They’ve also noticed how impressive he’s looked thus far this spring.
“He’s hard not to like,” one Red Sox person said.
However, another Boston official still characterized the Lee possibility as a “long shot,” which really shouldn’t be a surprise since Lee will have to show he’s healthy following an injury-plagued 2014 season when he went 4-5 with a 3.65 ERA. One plus to Lee though: Unlike even Hamels, he has a big track record pitching in the American League, with both the Mariners and Rangers.
If it matters, unlike Hamels, Lee also is a bit more careful not to publicly suggest it’s time to go, as Hamels did in an interview just before spring began with USA Today, when he also suggested the Phillies can’t win this year, roiling a few folks around here. While Phillies management is careful not to criticize Hamels, the reality is he signed back for $144 million and six years just after the team’s slide started. Lee, meanwhile, eschewed higher offers from the Yankees and Rangers to return to Philly at a time it looked like the Phillies would continue their impressive dynasty.
But things turned south in a hurry, and it is well known Lee badly wants to play for a winner, even if he won’t say anything out of school here in spring. He is focused on winning as much as anyone can be, but like others around here, he is shocked by the steep slide.
“To me, it’s almost embarrassing considering the payroll we had and the players we had,” Lee said in an interview with CBSSports.com. “It’s embarrassing to me. But whatever. We went from one extreme to the other .. same team, same guys. I don’t have all the answers. There’s nothing you can do at this point.”
Unlike Hamels, though, he won’t publicly suggest he needs to be traded now, though. “I signed here to win here, and I’m going to continue to try to do that every time I take the mound,” Lee said. “It’s frustrating losing, but it still doesn’t take away from we’re going to try to do.”
Among other trade possibilities for Lee, the Rangers, who loved Lee and tried hard to keep him before he signed in Philly for $120 million over five years, have added this winter to their pitching depth, and it isn’t known how interested they are now. Meanwhile, the Padres have signed James Shields for $75 million over four years since they talked about Hamels and checked in on Lee. The Cardinals, who weren’t overly aggressive in pursuing pitching this winter, are a team that would seem to fit, and they’d be almost local for the Little Rock, Ark. native and resident.
Lee said he hadn’t heard of any interest on the part of the Red Sox, but he like other veterans around here he understands he is seen as trade bait, with the Phillies seemingly not quite halfway through a sale (Jimmy Rollins, Marlon Byrd and Antonio Bastardo were traded but like Hamels and Lee, first baseman Ryan Howard, closer Jonathan Papelbon and catcher Carlos Ruiz remain).
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro said he’s expecting today to start the season with all the players now in camp, and that includes Lee. “He’s another No. 1 starter. And he’s a big part of our success both currently and in the future,” Amaro said. “We fully expect him to be in the rotation. Right now, he’s 100 percent, and rolling.” (Amaro characteristically declined to get into any specifics of trade talks, regarding Hamels, Lee or anyone else.)
Some are suggesting the trading phase of the Phillies’ rebuild is going too slow because Amaro loves his players too much, and is asking for way too much (for Hamels, he is said to be looking for three nice prospect pieces with at least one ready to go in the bigs.). But one GM who made that claim agreed that Swihart or Betts shouldn’t be too much to ask for an ace like Hamels.
For his part, Amaro said, “If you’re moving a proven entity for something not proven, you’re weakening your organization, and it’s a matter of cost, risk and reward.”
Others do not see Lee as a catch, at least not at the moment. “Lee does not have value (now) because of age and injuries and most of all what he is owed,” one AL executive said.
Lee is realistic, and he himself said, “I’ve got to prove I’m healthy.”
Lee has an onerous $37.5 million guaranteed through the end of only 2015, with a $25 million salary this year, a $27.5 million salary on a team option next year, and a $12.5 million buyout. The option becomes guaranteed if Lee logs 200 innings this season and isn’t on the disabled list with an elbow or shoulder ailment this year.
Lee has an extensive but no-trade list, and according to Cots Baseball contracts, he can only be traded to the Braves, Indians, Astros, Mets, Marlins, Twins, Padres, Nationals andRays, a list which combines lower-revenue teams and teams within the division who are unlikely to consummate a trade with the Phillies. The no-trade clause may be moot who’s on the list anyway, especially if the Phillies struggle as expected, as Lee is the type who’s only in it to win.
“It’s what we’re here for,” he said.