CD's Connect the Dots... Cliff Hanger

Harrowing may exaggerate a bit but to say the Phillies pursuit of a Cy Young award winning pitcher was disconcerting would not. In the end, the Phils went to the edge of the abyss, counted the risk and took the plunge in what could be called nothing less than a veritable...cliff hanger.

It was not a particularly comfortable late July for the braintrust of the Philadelphia Phillies, each of whom is entrusted with caretaker responsibilities for an organization that many fans have lately taken a great deal in caring about. World Championships will do that for a city and more than a few Phillie phanatics have spend more than their fair share of time debating the merits of acquiring one Roy Halladay of the Toronto Blue Jays. Yes, that Roy Halladay, this year's version of "the greatest pitcher in the western world." Cynics might suggest that Halladay has only been thus anointed because he happened to be the "greatest available pitcher in the western world" for 2009 and not without merit.

After all, in 2007 when the Minnesota Twins placed standout lefty hurler Johann Santana on the market he suddenly became the "greatest pitcher in the western world" and ditto for CC Sabathia in 2008. Certainly both of these lefties are fine pitchers and a solid case can be made that both of these southpaws rank among the best five or six pitchers in baseball today. And make no mistake, Roy Halladay belongs on that short list also. But it is not without justification to suggest that whenever a standout hurler suddenly becomes available in trade he quickly becomes the so called 'flavor of the month' since pitching is held in such high esteem in the baseball world. And justifiably so.

Thus, the City of Brotherly Love was seemingly caught in the perfect storm when the Phils made it known they were seeking a top of the rotation starting pitcher almost precisely as Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi was making it abundantly clear that he was now listening to offers for his prized pitching possession, Roy Halladay. It seemed the perfect storm for several reasons, not the least of which was that Toronto not only had what the Phillies badly needed but the Phils were blessed to possess the goods necessary [solid minor league prospects] to get just such a deal done.

Yet, on the periphery, almost too faint to see, was the solitary figure of yet another outstanding pitcher, one Cliff Lee of the Cleveland Indians, who was whispered to also be available in trade. Now a solid case can be made that once you get past all the pomp and circumstance of the skills of Roy Halladay, the numbers behind Cliff Lee's recent success suggest he might be almost as talented. Oh, certainly Halladay is a proven winner, with one Cy Young award to his credit. In fact, he finished second last year. Very impressive credentials indeed.

By the way, the gentleman who won the Cy Young award last year was none other than Cliff Lee. A 22-3 record will get you recognized and Lee was every bit as good as his record would suggest. He has been nearly as good this season, though not nearly as fortunate and thus his 7-9 record belies the effectiveness of his game. And he was available in trade, though Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro was not nearly as forthcoming about his demands as was Ricciardi of Toronto.

In fact, it was those very demands that made Phillie GM Ruben Amaro so cautious about dealing for Halladay and was the source of so much consternation among the Phillie faithful as the July 31 trading deadline approached. Amaro needed a starting pitcher of the ilk of Halladay but was reluctant to meet the high demands of Toronto. He was also keenly aware that as a rookie GM on a World Championship franchise, he would forever be judged by just how he handled this delicate and at times stormy negotiations.

Ricciardi made it clear from the beginning that he wanted only top minor league talent combined with major league talent as well. He quickly named Phillie starting pitcher J.A. Happ as one of the focal points for discussion as well as top minor league prospects pitcher Kyle Drabek and outfielders Dominic Brown and Michael Taylor. Not surprisingly, these three represent the best prospects in the entire organization and Happ, at 7-2 as a rookie starting pitcher, represented a major league ready player to replace Halladay in the Blue Jay rotation.

This appeared a huge price to pay, even for a player as talented as Halladay. Still, the pressure on Amaro was enormous, and most baseball pundits felt the price tag was fair. It was also rumored that behind the scenes there was a tremendous tug of war going on within the Phillie braintrust between the proponents and opponents of the deal. Reportedly, Manager Charlie Manuel, former GM Pat Gillick and front office legendaries Dallas Green and Bill Giles were pushing hard for the trade, while Amaro and many of his scouts and minor league coaches were against the deal.

Phillie players, most notably Jimmy Rollins, made very public remarks about the advantages to a Halladay led Phillie rotation and few could argue with the premise. Make no mistake, there was much to like about the Phillies even without another starting pitcher. As previously mentioned, a solid case can be made that right now Philadelphia is at the very epicenter of the baseball universe. A strong team with an excellent lineup and decent pitching. A manager who is well respected by the masses and revered by his players. An organization that has almost everyone thinking on the same page, with winning always being paramount on everyone's mind. And a farm system that is the envy of almost every franchise in baseball.

In many ways, Roy Halladay was merely the icing on what already was a pretty delicious cake. Not so to people like Manuel and Amaro, who understand better than most the vagaries of modern day baseball, where it only matters what is done today. Last years World Series victory makes for great scrap book material but means nothing in 2009. In fact, Manuel has remarked on more than one occasion about how the goal should always be to become a baseball powerhouse. Many felt the Phils were but one great starting pitcher away from just such a title. A pitcher like Roy Halladay. Or Cliff Lee.

It was with this as the backdrop that Amaro decided to make his Alamo-like last stand with Ricciardi early last week, a stand that some indicated eventually turned into a shouting match. Amaro, much like William Travis at the Alamo, was drawing his proverbial "line in the sand" at Kyle Drabek and Dominic Brown. He was unwilling to part with either of these two potential future stars. To his credit, Amaro made it clear that he was prepared to deal anyone else in the farm system, and might even consider Happ if everything else appeared copasetic. Truth be told, even without Drabek and Brown in the equation the Phillie farm system contains a cornucopia of top notch talent.

Amaro was prepared, albeit reluctantly, to part with five-tool outfield prospect Michael Taylor as well as standout catchers Travis D'Arnaud or Lou Marson. He would move infielder Jason Donald or outfielders Anthony Gose or Zack Collier. He was willing to deal any of a dozen top pitching prospects, names like Carlos Carrasco, Andrew Carpenter, Joe Savery, Trevor May, Jason Knapp, Yohan Flande, Edgar Garcia, Kyle Kendrick, Antonio Bastardo, Vance Worley or Jonathan Pettibone. And he would add Happ to the equation if that might become the final piece to the trading puzzle for Halladay. Still, Ricciardi balked and by most accounts, Kyle Drabek was the reason.

Ricciardi wanted young Mr. Drabek in the worst way and Amaro refused to budge. In the end, although neither would ever admit it, Drabek was the proverbial "deal breaker", the line in the sand player that the Phillie GM refused to move on. He then made a conscious but quiet decision, one that had ramifications beyond anything Phillie phanatics could have imagined as recently as Tuesday, July 28. At this point in time they were still envisioning a rotation lead by Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay and the baseball press corps were still stoking the fires of a Halladay to Philadelphia deal.

Quietly, Amaro turned his attention to the Cleveland Indians...and to current Cy Young winner, lefty Cliff Lee. A case could be made that if Ricciardi had never made Halladay available, then Lee might well have been the hot topic on the trading board, but with the Toronto righty on the market, Lee was relegated to Page Two material though he is anything but Page Two talent. In fact, Lee's record over the past season-and-a-half is as good as Halladays, he is a year-and-a-half younger [30 years old] and with a contract that is several million dollars less over the course of the deal. Both have contracts that run through the 2010 season.

Simply put, Cliff Lee is a top of the rotation starting pitcher, a hurler who fashioned an incredible 22-3 record last year with a club that won a tad over 80 games in total. He is the classic "function over form" lefty, stylish in his delivery, cagey in his game plan and with a very impressive ability to pitch deep into games. He seemed the perfect hurler to place between the youngish Cole Hamels and the veteran Jamie Moyer.

Ben Francisco was somewhat of a throw-in, but he could turn out to be a nice addition to the Phillies bench.
(Photo: Jeff Chiu/AP)
Once Amaro began trade negotiations with Cleveland he found that the Indians were not demanding Drabek, nor even Brown or Taylor. They had little interest in Happ but rather were interested in some of the Phillie lesser lights like pitcher Carlos Carrasco, infielder Jason Donald and catcher Lou Marson. They also a keen interest in soon-to-be 19 year old flame thrower, Jason Knapp. The Indian scouts felt that Knapp had even more long-term potential than did Drabek. They viewed Carrasco as a future major league starting pitcher, Donald as a valuable middle infield prospect and Marson as a guy who come compete for a starting catching position in Cleveland.

Amaro quickly surmised that young Jason Knapp was potentially the key to the whole deal and indicated that he might include Knapp in the trade if the Indians would consider adding 27 year old right-hand hitting outfielder Ben Francisco to the package. The Phils had a need for a right-handed hitter off the bench and Phillie scouts felt that Francisco would fit the bill perfectly. The Indians, who had scouted the Phils extensively last year when they were taking bids for CC Sabathia, quickly agreed to the deal, one that surprised many baseball experts who were convinced that Halladay was just a few days from singing Philadelphia Freedom after his exit from Toronto.

Now that all the talk has subsided, the debates have ended and the game is being returned to the field, Phillie fans are perfectly prepared to ponder just how Lee fits into a Phillie club that seems to have all the components necessary to make another deep trek through the baseball playoffs this October. With this in mind, let's venture a guess as to just how the Phillie pitching staff is likely to shake out by the end of August.

Certainly Cliff Lee will join another lefty, Cole Hamels at the top of the rotation and will be expected to complete a very formidable one-two punch at the front end of the staff. Right-hander Joe Blanton is solidly entrenched in the middle of the five man rotation and ageless southpaw Jamie Moyer appears a safe bet to take the fourth spot in the rotation. Ah, but there is still one starting spot left and here is where things might get very interesting, and very soon.

Logic would seem to dictate that Happ, who has pitched well, would continue to hold down a starting berth, but most Phillie insiders fully expect that spot to eventually be taken by Pedro Martinez, now working his way into shape in the minor leagues. They say that Martinez was signed to be a starting pitcher, and his right-handed slants would make a better balance with Blanton and the three southpaws, Hamels, Lee and Moyer. In fact, a staff with four lefties in the starting rotation has never made it to the World Series, something that Amaro and Company are probably well aware of.

Should Martinez replace Happ in the rotation, and if he does it will be within two weeks, Happ is likely to slide back into the bullpen as a southpaw middle inning specialist. This is merely a short-term move as the Phils fully expect the talented youngster to take his place back in the rotation in 2010. He will join J.C. Romero and Scott Eyre as lefties out of the bullpen, along with righties Ryan Madson, Chad Durbin, Clay Condrey and closer Brad Lidge. Durbin and Condrey have both suffered from minor ailments this year and should they continue to struggle, look for two other interesting names to surface in the bullpen by the end of August.

Brett Myers, who was thought done in May when he agreed to have hip surgery, has begun throwing and expects to be ready for action by the end of August. Myers, who is eligible for free agency after the season, would be a yeoman like addition to the bullpen should he make what would be justifiably be considered an amazingly quick recovery from very major surgery. He is now throwing without pain and the doctors have indicated that a late August return to action is not out of the question.

In 2007 it was Brett Myers who anchored the Phillie bullpen as their closer and it takes no giant leap of faith to imagine the daunting image of Myers coming out of the Philadelphia bullpen late in games to either A] help Madson with late game assignments in the eighth inning or B] occasionally replace Lidge in the closer role should the struggling Phillie reliever continue to struggle. In any event, the return of Brett Myers would be a welcome sight for Phillie fans everywhere.

25 year old right-hander Scott Mathieson is another name to keep an eye on come late August and into early September. It may be recalled that Mathieson and Cole Hamels both made their debuts at roughly the same time in 2006, right when then Phillie GM Pat Gillick decided to retool the team with younger players. He immediately placed both Hamels and Mathieson in the starting rotation and the team immediately made a very exciting if eventually unsuccessful drive for the playoffs. Unfortunately, Mathieson suffered a major arm injury in early September of that season and has gone through some terrible ordeals on his way back up the rehabilitation ladder during the past two seasons.

Incredibly, Scott Mathieson appears to be almost all the way back to his past form, and if this continues, he will have earned a well deserved promotion to Citizens Bank Park in September. Currently, he is pitching very well in Reading and has been clocked routinely at 95-97 MPH. It takes no giant leap of faith to imagine a late season bullpen anchored by the tasty M&M duo of Myers and Mathieson. Add a rejuvenated Pedro Martinez to the equation and the Phillie pitching staff could eventually become MMM good!

Suffice it to say, there is always a downside to any scenario and this one is not without its potential pitfalls. For one thing, the addition of Lee creates for perhaps the very first time a situation where the Phillies are clearly the hunted instead of the hunters. Even as World Champions they have been viewed more as an anomaly rather than as the reigning National League powerhouse Phillies. The Los Angeles Dodgers were widely viewed as the best team in the NL and the case could be made that the Phils were placed squarely within the ranks of the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs and pitching rich San Francisco Giants in the next tier of contenders.

Not so now, not so after the acquisition of Cliff Lee. Playoff pitching rotations were already being discussed among not only Phillie fans but even Phillie players. There is an inherent danger to any of this, the danger being that games and pennants are decided on the playing field and not on pieces of paper. It was worthy of note that immediately AFTER the acquisition of Lee was announced, the Phillies went out and played some of their worst baseball of the season, probably not coincidentally. It is merely human nature to relax when all the pressure seems turned off and with Lee safely in tow the players probably felt a sudden lack of urgency, almost as if the playoffs were not certain.

Hopefully, this will only be a short-term problem and that the team will continue to play with the urgency and purpose that has made them such a widely admired team within the entire baseball community. If this happens, then Cliff Lee will do nothing but add to the strength of what was already a very deep and talented club, one that was fully capable of yet another run at the National League pennant. Certainly he will take much of the pressure off of Cole Hamels and should relieve the burdens of an oft overworked bullpen by continuing to pitch deep into games as his average of seven innings per start indicates. He also has shown a propensity for dominating the National League, as his lifetime 12-2 record indicates.

And what of the talent surrendered in the deal for Lee and Francisco? What bountiful harvest has Cleveland accumulated in this deal. Marson will no doubt be missed in the short-term by the Phillies, especially if incumbent backstop Carlos Ruiz should ever be injured. The Phils now have no one in the upper reaches of the minor leagues capable of starting in the major leagues. This makes it imperative that they do everything possible to sign one of their top draft picks, catcher Andrew Susac, a strapping youngster scheduled to play college ball at Oregon State this fall. The Phillies have reportedly given him a high six figure offer and might need to sweeten the pot before the deadline of August 17 to insure that the pipeline of top minor league talent to the big leagues continues uninterrupted.

The same might be said for the losses of top pitching prospects, Carlos Carrasco and Jason Knapp. Both are talented enough to one day form 40% of the Cleveland five man rotation but can be replaced if the Phils are fortunate enough to sign top amateur picks, Brody Colvin and Steven Inch. Reportedly, the Canadian born Inch is close to signing and the announcement could come at any time. Yet, it is the imposing figure of Brody Colvin that still causes Phillie scouts to salivate with delight. Colvin, a 6'4" high school pitcher from Louisiana, would easily have been a number one round draft pick if he had not made such a commitment to honor his college scholarship to LSU.

Still there are whispers that the Phils feel quite confident that they can get Colvin signed before August 17 and his silence when questioned about the negotiations is viewed as a positive sign by most impartial observers. The same can be said for the other two highly rated unsigned Phillie draft picks, outfielders Kyrell Hudson and Jacob Stewart. It seems unreasonable to expect all five of these highly rated players to ink professional contracts but should the Phils get Colvin, Susac, Inch and one of the two outfielders in the system it will have been a major coup for the organization as a whole. Stay tuned.

There is little doubt that these past few weeks have proved to be difficult ones for the Phillies in general and for new GM Ruben Amaro in particular. The uncertainly of every possible deal, especially given the high poker stakes of the players involved had to place the rookie general manager squarely under the microscope. By most accounts, he is has performed remarkably well and the acquisition of Lee took courage, poise and a steady hand when steadiness was at a premium.

The late Robert Kennedy once observed that "those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly." There is a chance, albeit a seemingly tiny one, that Amaro could fail miserably when all the chips are eventually counted. Lee could struggle, the Phils could fold and the four youngsters surrendered in the deal could eventually flourish in their new surroundings. Yet Amaro was more interested in the possible great achievements the team could derive from this deal and for that he is to be commended.

The acquisition of Cliff Lee has thus far been a walk to the edge of the cliff novel full of drama, uncertainty and for Phillie fans, a potentially wonderful, happy ending. Until then, the final chapters of the book are as yet unwritten with only the guarantee of subplots, story lines and excitement worthy of the term, genuine first class...cliff hanger.

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