PHILADELPHIA — While the Philadelphia Phillies struggle to achieve even a winning record, speculation persists that Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon will be available before next month’s non-waiver trade deadline.
That’s not necessarily the case.
“Absolutely not, because these are guys I’d be better off having on my club than not,” Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. told The Associated Press. “Who am I going to replace these guys with to win a championship? These are championship-caliber players. If we think about moving these guys, then I better be getting someone of better or equal value and I just don’t see that happening.”
Lee is 9-2 with a 2.53 ERA. The 34-year-old lefty is signed for two more years at $25 million per plus a vesting option for 2016. He’s already been traded three times, including twice before the deadline.
Papelbon began the year 13 for 13 in save tries before blowing two chances during a three-game series against defending NL East champion Washington. He’s signed for two more years at $13 million per plus a vesting option for 2016.
Amaro and other GMs in similar situations — non-contending clubs with high-priced veterans — have to make a tough decision before July 31. Will they be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline?
At this point, it’s too early to make that determination.
The Phillies are 35-38 and entered Thursday eight games behind first-place Atlanta in the NL East and 7½ out of a wild-card berth.
“It’s about trying to improve your club whether it’s for the short term, the long term or both,” Amaro said. “It depends on your perspective. You are almost always buying because if you are moving veteran guys for younger guys that can help your future then you are still buying something. For me, it’s about trying to fortify your club at the major league level or minor league level.”
The Phillies won five straight division titles from 2007-2011, including the 2008 World Series. They made major midseason moves each of those years, acquiring Kyle Lohse, Joe Blanton, Lee, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence. Amaro replaced Pat Gillick after the ‘08 season, and he made the moves for Lee, Oswalt, Pence and Roy Halladay. He also traded Lee after the 2009 season before re-signing him a year later.
Last season, Amaro dealt Pence and another All-Star outfielder, Shane Victorino, on July 31. At the time, the Phillies were 13 games out of a wild-card spot. Then they started winning and climbed within three games of St. Louis for the second-wild card berth on Sept. 13 only to fall short.
The addition of that second wild-card spot keeps more teams in contention, forcing GMs to make more difficult decisions about the direction of their clubs.
“It’s about what position are we in, how are we playing and I have to think about the history of our club,” Amaro said. “We have a history of playing very good in the second half. We’re one of the best second-half teams over the last 10 years. That’s a factor, too. We always seem to finish strong. We were completely out of last year at the trade deadline and ended up getting back in the race in September.”
“I haven’t ruled out the possibility of having these guys back at some point,” Amaro said, adding Halladay’s name to the list. “I don’t know if that’s humanly possible but I can’t rule that possibility out, either. Of course, you can trade them and try to sign them back but that’s very rare when that happens.”
Lee was traded to Seattle the same day the Phillies acquired Halladay in December 2009. The Mariners traded him to Texas and he helped them reach the 2010 World Series before spurning more lucrative offers and returning to the Phillies as a free agent that December.
Lee hears the rumors and he wants to win. He also wants to stay in Philadelphia.
“I signed here to win and that’s never going to change no matter who asks me,” Lee said. “I think it’s misconstrued in thinking I wanted to play somewhere else and that’s not the case. I want to win and I want to win here and that’s it.”
Other teams that could be sellers next month include Toronto, the Chicago White Sox and Cubs, the Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers, and Milwaukee.
Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, A.J. Burnett, Hiroki Kuroda and Pence are some of the star players playing out the final years of their contracts. But their teams are in the postseason mix, so they’re unlikely to move.
The idea of dismantling the roster and rebuilding doesn’t appeal to Amaro, though it may be an idea for other clubs.
“If I have to make changes, it’s about going sideways,” Amaro said. “If I have to go sideways to get better for later on, then that’s something I have to consider but I don’t have enough pieces that I like to go blow it up. Why would I want to blow it up when my job is to try and be a contender every year.”