Buster Olney: Philadelphia Phillies

Cliff Lee and A.J. BurnettMitchell Leff/Getty ImagesThe complex contracts of Cliff Lee and A.J. Burnett make them tough to value on the trade market.
The trade deadline of July 31 won't apply to Cliff Lee, some officials believe, because he's so expensive and there are enough questions about his elbow that nobody would claim him if he were to be placed on waivers in August. "He'll get through waivers," one executive said. "Nobody's going to want to take that contract."

Lee is guaranteed to make $48 million through the end of the 2015 season -- that's $48 million for the next 14 months -- because of the $12.5 million buyout attached to a vesting option for 2016.

Beyond that, rival officials are wary of some of the red flags raised with Lee's time lost to an elbow injury this summer. He has been a horse throughout his career, all but free of arm problems, but with him having spent more than two months on the disabled list and having mentioned along the way that he didn't feel completely right, some evaluators are wary of a persistent problem.

But with or without arm trouble, Lee's value is much affected by his contract.
Ruben Amaro Jr. AP Images/Matt SlocumPhillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has at least four high-priced players who could help contenders.
Philadelphia Phillies fans aren't happy, and they're expressing that through the ticket office: The team's attendance has plummeted, from an incredible (and unsustainable) 44,021 per game just two years ago to the current 30,438 per game. That's a 31 percent drop-off.

The fans saw the Phillies win the World Series in 2008 and field the best regular-season team in 2011, but then the team fell back to .500 in 2012 and won just 73 games last season.

At the current pace, Philadelphia will win just 72 games this season, which is an extraordinary failure, given the amount of money the team has invested. With the problems of the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees and the Phillies -- three teams with massive payrolls -- 2014 is shaping up to be like a baseball version of the banking industry. Too big to fail, indeed.

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 Jimmy RollinsAP Photo/Kim Johnson FlodinPhillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins is set to have an $11 million vesting option kick in for 2015.
The Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays are in free fall, and they could face the same question in the weeks ahead: Should they conduct a sell-off of marketable assets or hang on and hope for a turnaround?

But the quandary faced by these two teams is not really the same.

If Tampa Bay decides to take players into the market, they could dangle David Price, a former Cy Young winner who has another 1.5 seasons before becoming eligible for free agency. Price might not have as much trade value as a casual fan might think, but he’s got value, and there would be serious interest.

Whatever they get for Price, whether they deal him in July or in the offseason, the Rays will add those young players to Alex Cobb and Chris Archer and Wil Myers. They will reload and move ahead.

A Phillies sell-off, on the other hand, might actually be bleaker than how they're playing now, because they don't really have movable pieces, and there really isn't a core they'd be adding to.


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Chase Utley Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesPhillies second baseman Chase Utley has a cumulative career WAR of 59.6.
The evaluator hesitated for about 0.2 seconds when considering the question asked over the phone: Who's the best player you've seen lately?

"Chase Utley," he said, and went on to describe how Utley is getting to low pitches in a way he hadn't for a few years, in how he's driving the ball, in how he's making better contact.

Utley missed 216 games from 2010 through 2013, or almost 1.5 full seasons, and by the spring of 2012 he looked as if might never get back to being what he had been in his prime -- an All-Star in five straight seasons, someone who finished in the top 10 in the NL MVP voting three times.

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DodgersStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesHanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig serve as spark plugs for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
LOS ANGELES -- Hanley Ramirez attends the meetings that the Dodgers hold for the hitters at the outset of every series to go over scouting reports, but he does this to be respectful and polite of the process and not because he actually gleans information. He does not study video, either.

“None,” he said Saturday as he waited his turn in batting practice.

He does not care to know the identity of the opponent's starting pitcher, Ramirez said, until he is preparing for his first at-bat -- and even then, as he watches the pitcher throw to the first batters of the game, what Ramirez only wants to know is how hard the pitcher is throwing, and how much his fastball moves.

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Bobby ParnellElsa/Getty ImagesMets closer Bobby Parnell is expected to miss considerable time with a torn elbow ligament.
The Pirates' Jameson Taillon, one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, is the latest to go through the process of having his elbow checked. The Mets, who have been models of restraint in the handling of their young pitchers, announced that closer Bobby Parnell has a partially torn elbow ligament.

From Tim Rohan’s story:
The Mets are often asked what reasons they have to be optimistic. Lately, their unequivocal response has been starting pitching. It is their obvious strength, now and for the future. They consider Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero precious assets. The Mets plan to be cautious with them, bring them along at the right pace and eventually ride them to relevance.

Much depends on how the Mets develop these promising pitchers.

That was why it seemed particularly concerning when the Mets announced Tuesday that Bobby Parnell, their closer, had a partly torn ulnar collateral ligament. Parnell will try rehabilitation to avoid Tommy John surgery, but if he has the operation, he will be the third Mets pitcher to have it in about nine months, following Jeremy Hefner and Harvey. Jenrry Mejia had it in 2011.

Every case is different, but general manager Sandy Alderson indicated that the Mets would review how they handled pitchers and their rehabilitation programs. He called the pitching injuries an "industrywide problem." Several top-flight pitchers had the operation during spring training this year, including the Atlanta Braves' Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, who each had it for a second time.

"It's something we constantly look at," Alderson said Wednesday. "But I don't think we have -- or the industry has -- any solid answers. That’s for sure."


Alderson speaks the essential truth: The industry has been trying to find solid answers and they don’t have much to show for it. They’ve been constructing pitch counts and innings limits and adhering to them closely, doing everything they can to develop pitchers while protecting them at the same time, and pitchers continue to break down.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it's possible that the constricted pitch counts have made little to no difference. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible that the innings limits have made little to no difference.

The one conclusion that a lot of general managers have reached is that there is no one-size-fits-all set of rules, no magic formula.

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Ryne SandbergAP Photo/Charlie NeibergallRyne Sandberg is making it clear that no veteran's job is guaranteed.
Ryne Sandberg had been outspoken about his desire to manage in the big leagues and willingly bounced through the lowest levels of the minor leagues to get the reps he thought he needed to be taken seriously. Until he was offered the Philadelphia Phillies' job, however, his reputation among club officials was for flat-lining interviews. Multiple officials thought he didn't come off very well, too benign in his knowledge and passion, and so they passed.

What didn't come across, apparently, is how competitive Sandberg is, a trait that has quickly become abundantly clear in his time as the Phillies' manager, because he seems ready to tackle just about any challenge -- like how to handle aging stars.

The window for contending for the group of Phillies' stars who won the World Series in 2008 is either closed or almost closed.

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Starlin CastroNuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty ImagesStarlin Castro and the Cubs are not getting help from their early-season schedule.

In following Tuesday's column ranking the American League's early-season schedules, Wednesday we have the National League. The teams are ranked toughest to easiest in caliber of early-season schedule.


1. Chicago Cubs

Games vs. teams with records of .500 or better in 2013: 31 of first 40.
Home/away: 18 of their first 40 are at home.
Notables: The Cubs basically get to run an NL Central gauntlet in the first quarter of the season, with 21 of their first 40 games against the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates.

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Ben WetzlerAP Photo/Greg Wahl-StephensBen Wetzler, a lefty from Oregon State, was drafted by the Phillies in the fifth round last year.
LAKELAND, Fla. -- For the third consecutive day, the Philadelphia Phillies did not comment on the decision to inform the NCAA that the college juniors they drafted in the fifth and sixth rounds last summer -- Oregon State pitcher Ben Wetzler and Washington State outfielder Ben Monda -- might have violated rules regarding agent contact.

Monda was cleared by the NCAA weeks ago, and, on Friday evening, the NCAA announced that Wetzler will become eligible to play again on March 2 after completing a suspension.

As time passes and the Phillies’ silence continues, the impression hardens within the industry -- particularly among agents and college coaches -- that the team acted out of vindictiveness, because neither Wetzler nor Monda accepted their offer. That will not have a chance to change unless the Phillies explain their side of the story.

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Ruben AmaroG Fiume/Getty ImagesRuben Amaro and the Phillies will have many interested in their explanation regarding their recent charges.
The Phillies reportedly turned in one of their unsigned draft picks to the NCAA. Here is Aaron Fitt’s story.

From Aaron’s piece:
Several sources have confirmed to Baseball America that the Phillies, who drafted Wetzler in the fifth round last June but did not sign him, told the NCAA in November that Wetzler violated the NCAA’s “no agent” rule. That rule is widely disregarded by baseball prospects, whose advisers routinely negotiate with teams on players’ behalf, against NCAA rules—because that is the industry norm. As an American League scouting director told Baseball America in 2008, “Every single player that we deal with -- I don’t care what round you’re talking about -- has representation, has an agent.”

And every year, some players drafted inside the top 10 rounds elect not to sign pro contracts, often drawing the ire of the clubs that drafted them. But major league teams almost never attempt to contact the NCAA in order to report potential violations. The Phillies, according to sources, did just that with two players they drafted last year: Wetzler and sixth-round pick Jason Monda, who opted to return to Washington State for his senior year. Monda was cleared to play by the NCAA last Thursday, the day before the college season began.

When asked about the Wetzler situation Wednesday, Phillies scouting director Marti Wolever told Baseball America, “I have no comment.”

Let’s make this clear: The Phillies or the NCAA hasn’t yet explained exactly what happened. We need to know the rest of the story.

But if the surface details are accurate

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Ervin Santana, Nelson Cruz, Ubaldo JimenezGetty ImagesErvin Santana, Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez -- members of "The Draft Pick Five" -- still wait.
TAMPA, Fla. -- An AL executive drew an analogy the other day between the situation facing "The Draft Pick Five" free agents -- Nelson Cruz, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales -- and the sale of a house.

“If the price on the house is set and it just sits there and nobody's buying at that price,” the executive said, “isn’t there a time when the reality of the market sets in and the price comes down?”

Players are reporting to spring training all over the baseball landscape, and those five players -- five veterans tied to draft-pick compensation -- remain unsigned, fueling the most-asked question in the industry these days: Where will those players land

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Cole HamelsHunter Martin/Getty ImagesThe Phillies are reportedly shopping Cole Hamels, which is at odds with some of their other moves.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Philadelphia Phillies are trying to regain their footing after a disastrous 2013 season, trying to get younger while still contending against the Braves and Nationals in the National League East, and they seem ready to try on anything, if they can make all of that happen.

Which could be why they have told other teams that they are willing to consider trades of either of their two best starting pitchers, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, as sources say.

Hamels turns 30 later this month, and it was only 17 months ago that the Phillies signed him to a seven-year, $153 million deal; he had a 3.60 ERA last season.

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Mets' struggles creating value 

September, 28, 2013
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Sandy AldersonRich Schultz/Getty ImagesThe Mets' disappointing season has likely earned Sandy Alderson's club a protected draft pick.
The New York Mets’ loss Friday was the 87th of their season. And it was a really important loss.

With that defeat, the Mets moved back into position to have the No. 10 pick in the 2014 draft -- and if this holds over the last two days of the regular season against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Mets’ first-round pick would be among those 10 that are protected against draft-pick compensation.

This past winter, the Mets’ pick was not protected, which affected their aggressiveness in trying to sign Michael Bourn and others. If they finish the year lined up for the No. 10 pick (or better), it could nudge them into pursuit of one of the better free-agent position players who will be available this winter. If they signed a Shin-Soo Choo or a Jacoby Ellsbury, the Mets would have to surrender only a second-round pick in compensation.

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The September race execs are watching 

September, 25, 2013
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Sandy AldersonRich Schultz/Getty ImagesIf Sandy Alderson wants to be a real player for free agents, he needs a protected pick.
The race that is drawing the most attention among baseball officials might not be that for the AL wild-card spots -- which increasingly appears to be a three teams-for-two-spots situation among the Rays, Indians and Rangers -- nor the final jockeying in the NL Central race.

No, the race being scrutinized is the one that will dictate how teams are going to be positioned for draft picks Nos. 7 through 14.

There are two reasons why this is crucial:

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Roy Halladay's World Series quest 

September, 14, 2013
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Roy HalladayHoward Smith/USA TODAY SportsCould Roy Halladay end up pitching for a contender next season?
It’s worth remembering how much Roy Halladay wanted to pitch for the Phillies, in successfully pushing for a trade to Philadelphia prior to the 2010 season. If he had waited to become a free agent at the end of that season, he might have been in line for a $100 million deal, but Halladay’s home is near the Phillies’ spring training facility in Clearwater, Fla.

So, his side worked out a three-year deal worth $20 million per season and he happily joined Philadelphia. He wanted some sense of normalcy for his kids, and he wanted a legitimate chance to win a World Series, and with the Phillies -- who would go on to win 97 regular-season games in 2010 and 102 games in 2011 -- he had the possibility of achieving both.

But that didn’t happen; the Phillies lost in the 2010 playoffs to the Giants and in the 2011 playoffs to the Cardinals, with both of those opponents going on to win the World Series. Some of Halladay’s friends think that if the Phillies had won the World Series in 2011, he already would be retired. “He’s all about winning the championship now,” said someone who has known Halladay for many years.

Halladay regressed in 2012, posting a 4.49 ERA, and this year has been a summer of enormous frustration for him. Halladay has been one of the game’s great plow horses in his career, repeatedly throwing deep into games; but, in 11 starts this season, he has compiled 55 2/3 innings, with 31 walks and a 7.28 ERA.

Halladay probably has enough equity with the Phillies -- and has engendered enough respect -- that he could work out something with Philadelphia. But his friends think that he’ll be open to more possibilities than that, and that money really is irrelevant at this stage. They think Halladay’s absolute priority is to land with a club capable of winning the World Series.

A club such as the following:

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