A Cy for a Cy? … Sigh

by | December 15, 2009 at 4:41 PM | General, MLB, Philadelphia, Sports

Deep breath Philadelphia.

You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes you might find, you get what you need.

Roy Halladay has gone from savior to consolation prize in a matter of 18 hours.

As the megadeal ballooned by the second, Phillies fans went from perplexed to ready to burn Ruben Amaro at the stake.

I get it. The tantalizing prospect of a Halladay-Lee-Hamels rotation was so close that we could taste the collective soiled underwear of the rest of Major League Baseball.

But that prospect was ripped out from under us, and was replaced by a scenario where suddenly Amaro was giving up Cliff Lee, Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor and Travis D’Arnaud for his great white whale (See, Salisbury).

I know … what the…?

Don’t jump, Phillies fans. It’s not as bad as it feels right now. I promise. And I’ll explain.

When the dust settles on the biggest trade in Phillies history, Amaro will have landed the best pitcher in baseball, Toronto will be paying $6 million of his ’10 salary and the Phils will have him locked up to an additional three-year, $60 million extension (with an option year).

The extension is the key to this thing. Last July, Toronto wanted even more for one-and-a-half years of Halladay. Now the Phils are getting Doc for four or potentially five years. Big difference.

In return, they lost three top prospects. Kyle Drabek was the star atop the Phils’ Christmas tree; a former No. 1 pick, who many scouts project out to be a No. 2 starter (as if there is accuracy in scout’s projections). Michael Taylor was the outfield prospect in the system closest to major-league ready, who was playing so well that veteran Daily News scribe Bill Conlin wrote a column in June suggesting one could build an entire team around him. The third prospect is the top catcher in the Phillies’ system, Travis D’Arnaud.

It’s a steep price to pay, but the best pitcher in baseball was never going to come cheap. If that were the end of the deal, Phillies fans would have to be ecstatic. No one wants to give up three of the best prospects in the farm system, but when you have the opportunity to land a pitcher like Halladay, you do what you have to do.

But alas, this is Philadelphia, where even Christmas has a downside (Hack sportscaster every December: “Remember when Philly fans threw snowballs at Santa? That wasn’t cool.”) and the Halladay trade is no exception.

The lump of coal Phillies fans found in their stockings is the departure of World Series ace Cliff Lee. From what I’m hearing, the Phillies current $140 million payroll has been positioned to Amaro as more of a hard cap. Adding Halladay without shedding any payroll is apparently not an option.

So Ruben solved his cash dilemma by shipping Lee to Seattle, allegedly for three of Seattle’s better prospects – pitchers Phillipe Aumont and J.C. Ramirez and OF Tyson Gillies. All are relatively highly regarded, but projected to be a notch below the prospects the Phillies are trading to Toronto (again, I acknowledge projections are less than an exact science).

It’s Part 2 of the deal that has Phils fans’ booties in a bunch. The Phillies have been to two straight World Series. (1) Why in the world are they selling their best starting pitcher for prospects?; (2) Isn’t this small-market thinking?; and (3) Couldn’t they find another way to dump salary?

The answers to those questions are surprisingly simple.

(1) For the money and to replenish the farm; (2) No, it’s not small-market thinking, it’s smaller-than-the-Yankees market thinking; And (3) No, unfortunately not.

The boner in all of this seems to be Ruben’s decision to offer Joe Blanton arbitration. Had he known he was going to land Doc, he would’ve had to have been at least tempted to just say “screw it,” keep both Halladay and Lee and go into 2010 with the best team in baseball (sorry, Yankees fans).

But Amaro opted to offer Tennessee Joe arbitration and is on the hook for Blanton’s $7 million or so. Could that money have been unloaded rather than Lee’s $9 million? Apparently that was explored, but there were no takers.

Of course, the other albatross hanging from Amaro’s pocketbook is Jamie Moyer’s guaranteed $8 million this year. If you recall, last offseason Moyer, who has been in and out of the hospital in recent months with rehab setbacks, fought for and received a second year in guaranteed money. That obligation to one of the most likeable Phillies in recent history may prove out to be the insurmountable obstacle in the way of a Halladay-Lee-Hamels rotation.

But maybe not. Maybe Ruben isn’t ready to just play out Cliff Lee. Maybe he felt it necessary to get something back for the arm he stole in July. If that was Amaro’s mindset, then the trade had to happen now. If Amaro didn’t want to lose Lee for nothing, there was no chance Clifton was ever taking the field for the Phillies in 2010.

Why do I say that? Think about the uproar in Philly now – in December – associated with dumping Lee for prospects. Imagine if Amaro tried to do this during the season … when presumably the Fightins were in the middle of a pennant run.

Philadelphia would have burned to the ground.

Bottom line, Roy Halladay is a better pitcher than Cliff Lee. And therefore this trade makes the Phillies better this year. Plus, the three-year extension on Halladay makes the team MUCH better in 2011-13, the purported window for this team’s core.

Believe me, nothing would have made me happier than a 1-2-3 punch of Halladay-Lee-Hamels. That was the dream. If the Phillies ownership would have OK’d the payroll jump, it likely would have been a reality.

But as well as the Phillies draw (ratings, attendance, merchandise), there is a limit. We fans like to think the Phils were building an NL version of the Yankees, but that was never a realistic aspiration. The Phillies owners, unlike the Steinbrenners, have a bottom to their pockets … and they’ve decided that those pockets are exactly $140 million deep.

In that light, this deal makes a ton of sense. Prospects are prospects. Don’t ever buy into the hype that these guys can’t-miss. They can always miss.

Maybe the three prospects the Phils sent to Toronto are better than the three they got back from Seattle. They probably are. But that doesn’t mean any of the six of them are ever going to be any good. And it certainly doesn’t suggest that any of them will ever be one-eighth of the player that Halladay or Lee is.

Forget the prospects, they’re a smokescreen. A complete unknown. For all practical purposes, this trade is exactly what the headlines purport it to be:

One Cy Young winner for another Cy Young winner.

Cliff Lee is a great pitcher. Roy Halladay is better. Cliff Lee was only going to be in Philly for one more year. Roy Halladay is now a Phillie for the next four years (at least).

When you break the trade down like that, it’s a no-brainer. Ruben Amaro again deserves a pat on the back.

(Though, if you want to slap him upside the head for the Blanton and Moyer decisions, I’m OK with that too.)


Email me at russakoffrules@comcast.net; follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/leerussakoff.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.