Lost in the commotion somewhat in Philadelphia is veteran ace Cliff Lee, who made only 13 starts last year while dealing with elbow problems. But he, too, could be a trade candidate — possibly sooner than expected. The Phillies will consider trading Lee during camp if he can prove his health, the team told at least one rival executive, who relayed that information to Jayson Stark of ESPN.com (Twitter link).
It is not exactly surprising that the club is preparing to listen on Lee, of course. The Phils front office has candidly acknowledged that it is embarking upon a rebuilding effort, and has already moved several veterans.
But Lee’s health questions made the timetable uncertain. It now appears at least plausible that he could come available before the season, which is not only significant in its own right but may have some impact on the trade market for other arms (including, perhaps, his teammate Cole Hamels).
Of course, the major issue with Lee is the fact that his elbow problems coincide with the tail end of a significant contract. Lee is owed $25MM for the coming season and can be controlled for another year through a $27.5MM option that comes with a hefty $12.5MM buyout.
While it is conceivable that a healthy Lee would make that 2016 option look reasonable, it is difficult to imagine a competitor giving value and taking on $27.5MM in obligations at this point. It probably does not help that Lee has lost a tick off his average fastball in each of the last two seasons. There will no doubt be interest if Lee looks his old self this spring, but it figures to be hard for Philly to find an attractive offer unless it waits til the summer.
Apart from his recently-balky left elbow, Lee has been nothing short of outstanding even as he has aged. Lee’s 2014 campaign broke a streak of six straight seasons in which he had gone over 200 innings. Over that stretch, he carried a 2.89 ERA with 8.1 K/9 against just 1.3 BB/9.
It is worth noting that Lee does have a no-trade clause that allows him to block deals to twenty teams per year. Last year, Lee could only be traded without consent to the remaining four NL East clubs and the Indians, Astros, Twins, Padres, and Rays. That seemingly strategic list appears fairly likely to have undergone some changes this time around.
While Lee managed only a 3.65 earned run average last year, he otherwise posted strikeout-to-walk ratios that were completely in line with his past results. Once a .358 BABIP was accounted for, ERA estimators valued his work right around his typical three-earned-per-nine level.