Friday, December 18, 2009

Halladay is Great, But Really Sorry to See Lee Go


So, its official. The hotly rumored tandem of deals have become reality. The gleam in the Phillies eyes has finally culminated in getting the pitcher they wanted all along. Sadly, it came at the price of parting ways with the next best thing and a quick fan favorite.

There is no debating the fact that Roy Halladay is one of the very best pitchers in baseball, possibly even the best. His body of work over the past decade makes a strong case without even having to have witnessed his commanding presence. Toronto teammates will attest, though, that he was even better than his numbers might suggest as they watched the masterful way he dominated hitters. When he took the mound, the bullpen pretty much felt like they had the night off.

Does this sound reminiscent? It sounds an awful lot like the pitcher the Phillies acquired at the end of July who stormed onto the Philadelphia scene and then finished with an other worldly post season run. No, not Pedro, who was good until something came undone in the World Series finale, but rather Cliff Lee.

Like many fans, it was almost a case of "love" at first sight when Lee joined the team last year. Most were aware of his remarkable accomplishments a season earlier when he went 22-3 and won the AL Cy Young award; however, few had actually seen him in operation a great deal since he played in Cleveland.

My wife might call it a "man crush", but regardless of the label, it was quickly apparent that Lee was a special player. Besides the array of pitches that he aggressively mixed to confound hitters, he also brought a no nonsense demeanor and intensity that was the perfect blend for Philadelphia fans and teammates. He was a gamer through and through, the exact right mixture of talent and competitive spirit to fit in perfectly on this team and in this city.

Lee started phenomenally, hit a rough patch for a few games and then finished the season with a flourish. On baseball's biggest stage, from the opening act in the NLDS to the NLCS to the World Series, Lee validated that he was the type of big time pitcher the team needed to have at the front of its rotation. Lee was the one constant throughout the post season in leading the Phillies to a second straight World Series performance, amazing all baseball fans and pundits with his pitching mastery throughout.

Now, suddenly, he is gone. Lee was simply a stretch run rental, like so many players in this economic era of baseball. To be fair, the Phillies did get some young talent back for him, so in a way, they rented him for the debatable differential between the four minor leaguers they shippped to the Indians and what they got back from the Mariners plus Ben Francisco.

This is generally true, but it would seem that they ended up paying more for Halladay in the off season than what they were prepared to do in July. The Phillies parted ways with "untouchable" Kyle Drabek, their future replacement for Carlos Ruiz and probably the most accomplished and "sure thing" player in their minor league system in Michael Taylor. Conversely, both young pitchers from the Mariners bring greater uncertainty due to previous arm troubles and/or performance. Using the Blue Jays as a guage, the two are less valuable together than Drabek alone or the Phillies would have substituted them for an "untouchable" player.

All trade analysis and subjectivity aside, it is tough to see Lee depart. It is also tough to hear how it all came about and the manner in which it was handled. Major League Baseball is surely a business, and unless its the Yankees or perhaps the Red Sox, economics and strategy often transcend sentimentality.

Accordingly, Lee was traded to manage down the payroll and replenish the farm system that was being further depleted in the deal to obtain Halladay. To a certain degree, fans can make rational sense of it all, but the necessity to trade Lee and the scenario around it are questionable and unsettling.

In an interview with ESPN yesterday, Lee's surprise and anquish over the deal came through loud and clear. He went from having his agent negotiate an extension to finish his career in a Phillies uniform one day to being shipped to join Ichiro in the Pacific Northwest a couple days later. In between, he was told by the Phillies not to believe the rumors and that he wasn't going anywhere.

Again, business is business, but in his short stay with the team, Lee would have seemed to have earned the right to different treatment. Of course, the Phillies might offer a different perspective on the proceedings, but there is little reason to question the balanced and straight shooting Lee's creditability or accounting of the events. Ruben Amaro has been superb as GM thus far, but in this case, it should have been handled differently.

In regard to the need to make the deal with Seattle at all, the gnawing feeling still persists that there could have been a way to keep Lee in the fold. The Phillies have payroll expense rolling off next year that could have funded an increase for Lee in a contract extension. If they could not ink a new deal, two compensatory picks in lieu of 3 players who are years away from the majors at best would be worth another year of his services.

With the Blue Jay's picking up a portion of Halladay's salary next season, if controlling expense was an absolute necessity, trading Joe Blanton for one good prospect would have gotten the team to a very similar financial place for 2010. And, despite the tough economic times, fans would probably choose paying a couple bucks more for tickets and concessions if that would translate into a Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Happ led rotation- and the favorites for another World Championship.

Halladay is a great pitcher, is thrilled to be a Phillie and appears to be a solid citizen. He should prove to be an excellent contributor on a championship caliber team for the foreseeable future.

But that aside, Lee is the special type of talent that does not come along very often, with a personality that was made for Philadelphia. It is difficult to see him slip away, especially after he wowed fans and players alike, and seemed sincere in his desire to play out his career in red pinstripes. Now we are left only with the dream that somehow, someway the Phillies sign him as a free agent next offseason.

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