The 2013 Phillies are off to a difficult start. At 6-10, on the heels of an injury-plagued, disappointing 81-81 finish in 2012, concern is mounting in Philadelphia.
While the problems of offense, specifically on-base percentage, Roy Halladay's decline and the future of manager Charlie Manuel will take center stage over the next few months, don't forget the best player on the 25-man roster: Cliff Lee.
Regardless of how dominant Lee is in 2013, it might not be enough to drag Philadelphia back into the postseason. In reality, it might not be enough to garner a winning record. While the headlines in Atlanta on Wednesday revolved around Braves broadcaster Chip Carey's "mother's basement" comments in regard to Baseball Prospectus' updated playoff odds, the real story should be how meek Philadelphia's start has their current outlook for October baseball.
On Wednesday afternoon, holding a 6-8 record at the time, Baseball Prospectus gave the Phillies only a 25.1 percent chance of playing October baseball. They've lost twice more since that graphic, falling to 6-10. As you can imagine, the odds are rising in their favor.
While general manager Ruben Amaro has delayed the inevitable rebuilding process up to this point, a change in Philadelphia is on the horizon.
At some point, fan support will dwindle, Atlanta and Washington could pull away and moves will need to be made to ensure a more competitive outfit in 2014 and beyond. While putting Cole Hamels, 29, on the trading block would ensure the highest possible return, there's little chance the franchise would move a player they just committed over $140 million to last season.
Instead, look to Cliff Lee's dominance, trade rumors from last summer and pitching-hungry teams this July and August for the most likely domino to fall. In order to rebuild a barren farm system, Lee's durable, strike-throwing arm may be moved.
Considering the prowess of the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals, it looks as though Philadelphia's most realistic route back to contention and postseason baseball in 2013 is through the second wild-card avenue. It's only April, but the glut of quality rosters across the National League make it hard to believe that these Phillies, even with Lee and Hamels, can get to the 87-90 wins it will likely take to snag one of those spots. Between Los Angeles, St. Louis and Arizona, the second-tier teams in the NL Central and West are deeper, younger and built for the long haul.
The most intriguing part of potential Cliff Lee trades this summer: value in the eye of the beholder.
If Philadelphia falls out of contention and looks to be proactive with Lee's value, he can be marketed to many different organizations due to the Phillies' high payroll structure and their need for high-end prospects.
For example: If, say, the New York Yankees, long-time admirers and chasers of Lee's left arm, decide to make a run at him, Philadelphia could offset its payroll concerns by paying a large chunk of the $87.5 million he's guaranteed through 2016. In return, New York could supply Philadelphia with some of the best prospects in its organization.
On the other hand, Philadelphia could rid itself of Lee's current and future cost by allowing a team like the Los Angeles Dodgers, with a seemingly endless supply of payroll, to take the full brunt of Lee's deal in return for middling or poor prospects.
While that wouldn't solve Philadelphia's issue in the minor league ranks, it would allow them to re-invest that payroll in future free-agent markets, potentially filling multiple positions. It's the approach the Boston Red Sox took last winter in re-investing the payroll they sent to Los Angeles last August.
The odds against Philadelphia are growing by the day. Due to Lee's large contract and Philadelphia's dueling needs and payroll prowess, suitors can come from almost any direction if the lefty hits the market.
Of course, the last step in the puzzle would be Lee's blessing.
As part of the free agent-contract awarded to Lee in December of 2010, there is a list of 21 teams that Lee can't be moved to without his consent.
Considering his dramatic return to Philadelphia, multiple moves around the country from Cleveland to Philadelphia to Seattle to Texas—all within a few years—and stories about placing his family near the best hospitals, it won't be easy to gain the blessing in order to complete a trade.
Yet it won't be impossible.
Lee is 34 years old. Despite his reputation as a great big-game pitcher, he has yet to hoist a World Series trophy. In theory, the return to Philadelphia prior to the 2011 season was seen as the final stepping stone to achieving that goal. The quarter of Lee-Hamels-Halladay-Roy Oswalt was set to deliver the Phillies their second World Series within five years.
Of course, it hasn't materialized. Considering the age of the roster, the window is closing fast.
Lee has dazzled fans, won on the biggest stage and brought home a Cy Young award.
If broached with an offer to move to a contender, save Philadelphia payroll and/or bring them back a brighter future and collect his hefty salary, it's a move all parties would have to consider later this summer.