NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The hypothetical was laid out to Ruben Amaro Jr. 1 month ago, when the free-agent signing period was just under way and the Phillies' general manager and his brethren across the league were in Palm Springs, Calif., for a conference that was a veritable retreat when compared to the zaniness that has unfolded at Major League Baseball's annual winter meetings at the Opryland Hotel.
Say the free-agent market unfolds in a manner that hampers the Phillies' efforts to fill one of their positions of need, namely the outfield or third base. And say Amaro realizes that he can address one of those positions by trading away a valuable asset who is on the team's active roster. If the valuable asset plays a position that can be addressed via free agency more easily than one of the Phillies' current positions of need, would it make sense to trade that valuable asset for the position of need, and then use their available dollars to fill the new void?
While Amaro did not refer to one specific player on his roster, he acknowledged the general possibility that such a scenario could play out. Which brings us to Tuesday afternoon, and the intriguing piece of gossip that floated into the Twittersphere via ESPN's Pedro Gomez. The report said that the Phillies and Diamondbacks were contemplating a swap that would send ace lefthander Cliff Lee to Arizona in exchange for star rightfielder Justin Upton. For about 20 minutes, the convention center buzzed with the possibility of an honest-to-goodness blockbuster deal. Then, Amaro issued a preemptive strike to the media members who had assembled in his sixth-floor suite, calling the suggestion that the Phillies would trade Lee "unequivocally false."
While Amaro's denial, like Gomez' report, is in no way binding, there are two big reasons why a Lee-for-Upton swap might not work. First, Lee's contract guarantees him $87.5 million over the next 3 years, a cost that the Phillies would likely have to help defray in order to facilitate a deal. Second, trading away a pitcher who has averaged 222 innings with a 2.76 ERA over the last two seasons would be a risky proposition given the dramatic regression that Roy Halladay experienced last season.
But let's go back to the original hypothetical that was posed to Amaro in early November. The scenario did not propose trading a high-priced veteran like Lee. It proposed trading a piece who has all of the characteristics that general managers covet: youth, success at the major league level, and a low salary. Like Vance Worley.
In the month since the GM meetings, the free-agent market has accelerated like a runaway train, with players of all skill levels agreeing to contracts that will pay them between 40 and 60 percent more than similar players were paid at this time last year. Three potential centerfield targets are off the board, with Angel Pagan agreeing to a 4-year, $40 million contract with the Giants, B.J. Upton signing a 5-year, $75 million deal with the Braves, and, on Tuesday, Shane Victorino reportedly getting 3 years and $39 million from the Red Sox. The Phillies are not believed to be serious players for Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton, who is favored to return to Texas, which leaves speedy defensive stalwart Michael Bourn as the only realistic everyday centerfielder available on the free-agent market.
The Phillies are known to like Bourn, but he might make even less sense than B.J. Upton or Pagan. For starters, he is lefthanded, which would force Charlie Manuel to consider a lineup that features lefties at No. 1 (Bourn), No. 3 (Chase Utley) and No. 4 (Ryan Howard). It just doesn't make much sense, particularly if Bourn is determined to land a deal richer than B.J. Upton's.
In other words, the Phillies are now at the point that was proposed to Amaro at the general managers' meetings. Which means they might be at a point where the sensible course of action is to cash in their most valuable trade chip. After the 2009 season, the Yankees used young starter Ian Kennedy and young outfielder Austin Jackson to facilitate a deal that landed them Curtis Granderson. The most comparable centerfielder who is believed to be available via trade is the Rockies' Dexter Fowler, but his drastic home/road splits are cause for some concern. So perhaps the Phillies' best move is to forget about an offensive upgrade in centerfield and instead focus on one of the corners.
Such a strategic shift would make Justin Upton an obvious target. Even in a supposedly down year in 2012, the righthanded-hitting rightfielder hit .280 with a .355 on-base percentage, .430 slugging percentage and 17 home runs. Over the course of his 6-year career, he has averaged 24 home runs and 80 RBI per 162 games with a .278/.357/.475 batting line. Upton is slated to earn $9.75 million in 2013, $14.25 million in 2014, and $14.5 million in 2015. Oh, and he is 25 years old, exactly 9 days older than Domonic Brown.
Making Worley a piece of a deal would weaken the Phillies' rotation, but the rotation might be easier, and more cost-effective, to address via free agency. The top of the market features Zack Greinke, Anibal Sanchez, Edwin Jackson, Kyle Lohse and Ryan Dempster. But there is plenty of potential value to be had elsewhere: Shaun Marcum, Brandon McCarthy, Carl Pavano, Joe Saunders and Kevin Correia are some of the names on the market. The Phillies also have a pair of minor league starters in Adam Morgan and Jonathan Pettibone who could merit a look at the major league level in 2013.
Last year, the Nationals traded four prospects to the Athletics in exchange for young starter Gio Gonzalez. Both teams ended up in the playoffs. While Worley does not have Gonzalez' track record, he does have a 3.60 ERA and solid strikeout, walk and home-run rates in 264 2/3 innings over the last two seasons. He is clearly a commodity. And if the Phillies hope to make a serious upgrade to their lineup, he is a commodity who might need to be dealt.