The Cardinals’ rotation has the lowest ERA (2.94) in the majors.
The cast features Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Jake Westbrook, and for now, Tyler Lyons.
Unless Westbrook has an additional flare-up of his right elbow, four of the five spots are locked down. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has committed to Lyons for Friday’s start against Texas. If the rookie lefty absorbs another beatdown, it’s natural to expect the Cardinals to examine another option.
The reserve list of ready arms includes Joe Kelly, Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha. All three are capable of being major-league starters right now.
If you do the math, the Cardinals still have more starters than available rotation spots, and that would remain true even if Westbrook's elbow declines to cooperate.
But there’s also the question of usage. How many innings do the Cardinals want to put on Miller, Wacha and Martinez? GM John Mozeliak hasn't declared an official innings limit publicly, but the bosses have stressed their desire to handle the rookies with care. So that complicates matters, too.
Which brings us to Cliff Lee, the Philadelphia Phillies' lefthanded starter. The Phillies are struggling with a 34-37 record. Lee is having another superb season, with an 8-2 record, 2.55 ERA and 12 quality starts in 14 outings.
Lee is said to be available via trade. He has a no-trade clause that blocks deals to 20 or 21 teams (there are conflicting reports on the number) unless he grants permission. It’s believed that the Cardinals are on Lee’s list of approved destinations.
Here's our parlor game question of the day:
Should the Cardinals pursue Lee?
There’s no question that Lee would make the Cardinals more formidable as a contender for baseball’s top prize in 2013. It’s exciting to think of the Cardinals lining up with Wainwright, Lee, Lynn and Miller to take on all postseason challengers.
Our baseball fantasies aside, this is a complex issue that defies ludicrously simplistic answers.
Let’s take a look:
1. The Lee contract: Lee signed a five-year, $120 million contract with the Phillies after the 2010 season. It included a vesting option that can inflate the deal by another $15 million.
Here are the fine-point details, courtesy of Cot’s Contracts:
Lee is due $25 million in 2014, $25 million in 2015, and there’s a club option for $27.5 million in 2016. The Phillies can buy out the option for $12.5 million. However, the option becomes fully guaranteed if Lee (A) isn’t on the disabled list at end of ‘15 season with injury to left elbow or left shoulder and (B) has 200 innings pitched in 2015 or 400 IP, total, 2014-15.
So after this season, Lee will be guaranteed either $62.5 million for two seasons (that includes the buy-out) or $77.5 million for three seasons.
And that doesn’t even take into account the amount of money that’s left on Lee’s $25 million paydays for 2013.
Lee turns 35 on Aug. 30.
2. Payroll pragmatism: The Cardinals already have a surplus of starters, and by this time next year the farm system probably will have additional candidates ready to roll out for the show. The young pitchers just keep coming.
So does it make sense to pay Lee huge dollars, especially in light of the (nearly) $100 million investment in Wainwright? Why commit a minimum of $62.5 million in Lee when your organization has done a masterful job in drafting and developing some of the industry’s best pitching prospects?
Wasn’t that the point of emphasizing player development — to keep costs down and avoid the risky business of giving huge guaranteed deals to veteran starters? These prospects are not only talented; their contracts are cost-controlled and team friendly for a six-season period.
There is nothing more expensive in baseball than the cost of veteran pitching. By developing most of the rotation within, the Cardinals can avoid that trap and have plenty of money to spend to fill other needs … or they can double down on an existing strength by investing even more funds in scouting, international operations.
Here’s the counter-argument:
OK, how do we know that Wacha, Martinez, etc. will be great? Lee has a certified history. His skills are intact. He's made 11 postseason starts. The goal is to win the World Series; Lee is more of a sure thing. Or is he? Lee's overall postseason ERA (2.52) looks sharp but in his last three postseason starts he's 0-3 with a 7.13 ERA. You may recall that Lee failed to hold a 4-0 lead in Game 2 of the 2011 NL Division Series. The Cardinals smacked him around for 12 hits and 5 earned runs in six innings and came back to win 5-4. The Cardinals had lost the opener and things looked rotten after they fell behind to Lee and the Phillies by four runs after two innings. But the Cardinals rocked Lee and the rally became a momentous turning point in the NLDS.
3. The traffic jam: Looking beyond 2013, Lee could slide into the Westbrook slot for 2014 because Westbrook becomes a free agent after this year.
But with Lee in the mix, that would still leave the Cardinals with Wainwright, Lee, Lynn, Miller, Wacha, Martinez, Kelly. Let's not leave Seth Maness off the list; the Cardinals like him a lot. And there’s also Jaime Garcia, who should rehab his rotator cuff in time to pitch at some point in 2014. You can throw Lyons into the mix, too. And other potential starters will likely emerge from the system. We’ve already mentioned at least nine or 10 starting-pitcher entries for 2014 and beyond.
That number would likely be thinned in a Lee trade because obviously the Phillies would demand young arms in return. But still, the Cardinals have extraordinary pitching depth. Do they really need to go away from their blueprint and payroll strategy to grab Lee?
Mozeliak doesn't have room for all of these guys; it's not as if St. Louis is going to revolutionize baseball by going with a 10-man rotation. If you can't keep all of the golden arms, then the next best thing to do is use them as trade bait. At some point you'll have to trade one or two of them, so why not now, when you have a team with a legitimate chance to go all the way?
4. The sliding scale: This is an important factor. Would the Phillies be willing to swallow a large piece of Lee’s contract in exchange for a more attractive package of prospects? I believe this much is certain: the Cardinals aren’t going to hand over two or three premium prospects AND take on the full load of Lee’s contract. If the Phillies want to dump all of Lee’s salary, they’ll have to settle for a lot less in return. If, however, the Phillies are willing to pick up the tab on a significant percentage of Lee’s remaining dollars, then the Cardinals (or any suitor) would be more inclined to part with elite prospects.
My question is this: why would the Phillies eat $30 million or more of Lee’s deal to take a chance on unproven commodities? There are lots of ways to spend money these days; the burgeoning international free-agent market is one.
The Phillies’ rotation isn’t firm beyond 2013. Roy Halladay (shoulder surgery) could be finished. Cole Hamels is set on a long-term deal, and Kyle Kendrick is pretty good. But with Halladay’s future in doubt, and no rising young stars on the way, Lee would provide necessary stability for 2014 and 2015. He's hardly a luxury item.
5. The deal could blow up: That applies to both sides. Lee is a perfect case study after being traded three times during his career. Let’s see how things worked out for the teams that traded Lee for a package of acclaimed prospects …
• Cleveland deals Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco to Philadelphia for starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco, infielder Jason Donald, catcher Lou Marson and reliever Jason Knapp. Result: just an awful deal for Cleveland. Carrasco can’t seem to stay healthy. Donald and Marson are backups. Knapp is out of baseball.
• Philadelphia trades Lee to Seattle for pitcher Phillippe Aumont, outfielder Tyson Gillies and pitcher J.C. Ramirez. Result: not good for Philly. Aumont couldn’t cut it as a starter, but he’s still young and has a chance — even if he isn't tracking as the ace the Phillies hoped for. Gillies, stuck in the minors, was recently demoted from Class AAA to AA. Ramirez has a 5.63 ERA in limited major-league bullpen roles.
• Seattle trades Lee to Texas for first baseman Justin Smoak, starting pitcher Blake Beavan, reliever Josh Lueke, and utility player Matt Lawson. Result: the Mariners came up short. Smoak was supposed to be the big catch as a can’t miss power-hitting prospect. But in 1,600 plate appearances for Seattle, Smoak has only 50 home runs and an unimpressive .373 slugging percentage. Beavan has a 4.83 ERA in 43 starts for the Mariners. Lueke was traded to Tampa Bay and is just a guy. Lawson was traded to Cleveland and age 27 is only hitting .240 at Class AAA.
The teams that traded Lee don’t have a lot to show for it.
The Phillies would be looking to hit the lotto, much as Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin did last summer when exploiting the idiotic Los Angeles Angels in the Zack Greinke swindle. To rent Greinke for a couple of months before he became a free agent, the Angels gave up shortstop phenom Jean Segura and two pitching prospects. The 2012 Angels failed to kake the playoffs, Greinke signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Segura already has emerged as one of the best young players in the big leagues — he's hitting .330 with 10 homers, 30 RBIs and 19 steals for the Brewers.
We’ve seen other trades go terribly wrong for anxious teams that give up too much to land a veteran.
The Angels were involved in another classic example of dumb trading back in 2010 when they lunged at Arizona’s offer of starting pitcher Dan Haren. In return the Diamondbacks received serviceable starter Joe Saunders as part of a haul that included starting-pitching prospects Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs. Corbin (9-0, 2.28) is one of the NL’s best starting pitchers in 2013, and Skaggs is widely viewed as a top 10 prospect.
As we can see, these “all-in” deals can go either way.
I don’t see Mozeliak taking on Lee’s full salary commitment.
I don’t see Mozeliak surrendering his very best pitching prospects — even if he does have a surplus.
I don’t see any reason why the Phillies would give Lee away.
I guess you could say that I don’t see this trade happening.
But ... back to a previous point. The Cardinals can't accommodate all of these starting-pitching candidates; they have too many. And the great thing about having an abundance of prospects is being able to traffic a few of them in deals to improve your team.
Ah, but suppose the Cardinals trade the wrong prospects and have the deal linger as a sad, regrettable, haunting mistake for years to come?
As I said: this is complex issue that defies simplistic answers.
Thanks for reading …