One would think the Phils would be grateful for some team to take Ryan Howard's contract off their hands. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Should the Phillies Have Let Cliff Lee Go? Ripping Off Buster Olney's Article

Should the Phillies have let Lee go when the Dodgers claimed him off waivers last year? Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Listen, I’m going to be blunt about this. I’m totally using a Buster Olney article on ESPN as the basis for my own blog post.

Yep, I’m stealing. Or, more accurately, I’m BORROWING.

Yeah, that sounds better.

However, I figure that crediting Buster for bringing up this line of discussion makes this a little less smarmy, so here we go.

On Wednesday morning, Buster wondered whether the Phillies are regretting not allowing Cliff Lee to go to the Dodgers when Los Angeles claimed him off waivers in August.

What if the Phillies had told the Dodgers: Look, you can have Cliff Lee, but you’ll also have to take Howard and maybe Papelbon as well.

Which is what the Red Sox effectively did with Gonzalez: Yes, you can have him, but you also have to take Crawford and Beckett.

For Howard, 2012 was the first year of the five-year, $125 million extension he had signed with Philadelphia. If the Phillies had been able to shed all or most of that contract, as well as that of Lee and Papelbon (who is the game’s highest-paid closer now, at $13 million annually, through 2015), it would have given them an immediate and incredible opportunity to remake the roster. Whether the Phillies had been able to package Howard with Lee, or Howard and Papelbon with Lee, Philadelphia might have gained payroll flexibility and set itself to move ahead with a younger roster.

There’s no telling what the Dodgers’ response would’ve been, of course. They valued Gonzalez partly because of his Mexican heritage and his Southern California roots, and perhaps they were more aggressive in the Red Sox deal than they ever would’ve been with the Phillies.

But they had been turned down by the Red Sox just before the July 31 trade deadline, and the Dodgers’ ownership was devoted to the idea of making the team better, whatever the cost — and they clearly had targeted Lee, repeatedly, and they did so again once his name popped up on waivers in early August.

At the time, some rival executives thought the Phillies’ best play would’ve been to simply dump Lee’s contract — “A no-brainer,” said one — and that was before the industry was fully aware of how much money the Dodgers were willing to take on.

Maybe it would have been possible for the Phillies to move Lee, Howard and Papelbon; maybe not. There’s really no way of knowing, because those decisions are made in real time.

The Phillies didn’t really explore the Dodgers’ interest in Lee after he was claimed on waivers, choosing to keep the pitcher. The Dodgers moved in another direction a few weeks later, in a big way, leaving the Lee claim as one of the great what-ifs lingering from the 2012 season.

-Buster Olney, ESPN

When it was first revealed that Lee had been exposed to waivers and that the Dodgers had made a claim on him, no one really thought the Phils would actually trade him to L.A. or just let him go outright. Lee was too valuable a pitcher to the team, and don’t underestimate the promise Ruben Amaro made to Lee and his wife about making Philadelphia their baseball home over the life of his contract. I have no doubt that has played a role in any Cliff Lee talks with other clubs.

At the time, no one could have predicted the amount of absolute crazy the Dodgers were about to become, spending money wildly and without regard for financial sensibility.

Olney notes the Phils are at a crossroads here in 2013. They’re too good to completely rebuild, but also have glaring holes in their lineup and the back of the rotation. They are easily the third-best team in the division, on paper.

Jettisoning Lee last year, either in a trade or as a straight-up salary dump, would have given Amaro $25 million more dollars this year with which to play and upgrade the roster.

Now, I find it highly doubtful that Los Angeles would have taken on Howard’s contract. There’s simply no way. Howard’s contract is known as an albatross around the league, and no sane team would take on a player coming off a major injury.

So, knowing what we know now, and knowing what roster moves Amaro has made (or more to the point, not made) so far this offseason, should the Phils have just let Lee go and used his salary to upgrade the roster in other areas?

In a word, no.

Moving Lee for a valuable piece like Justin Upton makes sense. Dumping for nothing other than salary relief would have been stupid. And frankly, I can’t imagine a scenario in which the Dodgers would have been so desperate for Lee that they would have also taken Howard and Papelbon.

Of course, Amaro should have seriously gauged their interest and, if he didn’t, shame on him.

And yes, if somehow the Dodgers had agreed to take all three players, the Phils should have jumped on it and used that payroll flexibility to their advantage. But it couldn’t have been done all this year. The free agent class of 2013 was underwhelming, and the Phils would have been making some of the same mistakes they made to get themselves in the mess they are already in.

Throwing good money at mediocre players in their 30s is not smart, no matter how much payroll flexibility you have.

And besides, while the Dodgers were nuts to take on all those Boston contracts, I would argue that Becket, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford were a better (and younger) trio than Lee, Howard and Paps.

If the Phils had dumped Lee, they’d have to go about finding a new number one or two starter on the free agent market. The price tag for one of those guys is around $20-25 million a year. Or, they could have signed a Kyle Lohse or some other starter not nearly as good as Lee for about two-thirds the price.

Holding onto Lee and protecting the rotation’s Big Three was the only thing that made sense, and continues to make sense, unless a star player can be had for Halladay or Lee.

Bottom line, the Dodgers would have had to be drinking a different kind of crazy altogether in order for the Phils to have truly gotten themselves out from under some heavy-duty contracts that, in retrospect, they’d probably rather not be paying.

Simply letting Lee go last year would have ruined any chance at a postseason run in 2013, and would have been the wrong thing to do.

Meanwhile, we’ll all dream of a world in which Amaro could have pulled off a miracle trade that unloaded Lee, Howard and Papelbon on some poor, unsuspecting general manager.

If wishers were horses, then beggars would ride.

Tags: Cliff Lee Los Angeles Dodgers Philadelphia Phillies

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