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Philly could regret keeping Cliff Lee

12/26/2012
The Phillies might have missed their only chance to dump Ryan Howard's enormous contract. Howard Smith/USA TODAY Sports

Today in the Philadelphia Daily News, Ryan Lawrence takes stock of Ruben Amaro's offseason moves.

The Philadelphia Phillies are kind of in an odd place on the baseball landscape right now. It would've been a mistake for Amaro to throw some pricey older free agents onto a roster that's already older and too expensive. But at the same time, Philadelphia has too many good players -- Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, in particular -- to completely retreat.

So Amaro has worked within the parameters defined by the team's budget limitations. Because of the salary obligations to Lee (owed at least $87.5 million over the next three seasons), Ryan Howard (owed at least $105 million over the next four seasons), Hamels (who will make about $24 million annually over the next six seasons) and Chase Utley (who is entering the final year of his contract, and will make $15 million), the Phillies went for more modest upgrades.

Amaro traded for Michael Young to play third base (most of his salary will be paid by the Texas Rangers), traded for center fielder Ben Revere and signed reliever Mike Adams. So they look something like this:

1B: Ryan Howard

2B: Chase Utley

3B: Michael Young

SS: Jimmy Rollins

OF: John Mayberry Jr. (the Phillies could add a lefty-hitting complement)

CF: Ben Revere

OF: Domonic Brown/Darin Ruf

C: Carlos Ruiz (who will open 2013 with a 25-game suspension.)

SP: Roy Halladay

SP: Cliff Lee

SP: Cole Hamels

SP: Kyle Kendrick/Tyler Cloyd

SP: John Lannan

SU: Mike Adams

CL: Jonathan Papelbon

It's a roster good enough for success; on paper, they aren't as good as the Washington Nationals or the Atlanta Braves.
The Phillies were at one of the most interesting crossroads in baseball last August, and you do wonder, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, how different Philadelphia would be if the Phillies had found a way to take advantage of the Los Angeles Dodgers' hyper aggression.

Remember the first weekend after the trade deadline -- a few weeks before the blockbuster deal that L.A. made with Boston for Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett -- when the Dodgers placed a waiver claim on Cliff Lee?
The Phillies never seriously considered the idea of allowing Lee to go to the Dodgers, choosing to pull the left-hander back from waivers.

But what if the Phillies had taken that opportunity, as the Red Sox later did, to reduce their salary obligations?

What if the Phillies had told the Dodgers: Look, you can have Cliff Lee, but you'll also have to take Howard and maybe Papelbon as well.

Which is what the Red Sox effectively did with Gonzalez: Yes, you can have him, but you also have to take Crawford and Beckett.

For Howard, 2012 was the first year of the five-year, $125 million extension he had signed with Philadelphia. If the Phillies had been able to shed all or most of that contract, as well as that of Lee and Papelbon (who is the game's highest-paid closer now, at $13 million annually, through 2015), it would have given them an immediate and incredible opportunity to remake the roster. Whether the Phillies had been able to package Howard with Lee, or Howard and Papelbon with Lee, Philadelphia might have gained payroll flexibility and set itself to move ahead with a younger roster.

There's no telling what the Dodgers' response would've been, of course. They valued Gonzalez partly because of his Mexican heritage and his Southern California roots, and perhaps they were more aggressive in the Red Sox deal than they ever would've been with the Phillies.

But they had been turned down by the Red Sox just before the July 31 trade deadline, and the Dodgers' ownership was devoted to the idea of making the team better, whatever the cost -- and they clearly had targeted Lee, repeatedly, and they did so again once his name popped up on waivers in early August.

At the time, some rival executives thought the Phillies' best play would've been to simply dump Lee's contract -- "A no-brainer," said one -- and that was before the industry was fully aware of how much money the Dodgers were willing to take on.

Maybe it would have been possible for the Phillies to move Lee, Howard and Papelbon; maybe not. There's really no way of knowing, because those decisions are made in real time.

The Phillies didn't really explore the Dodgers' interest in Lee after he was claimed on waivers, choosing to keep the pitcher. The Dodgers moved in another direction a few weeks later, in a big way, leaving the Lee claim as one of the great what-ifs lingering from the 2012 season.

Whiteside's wild journey

Baseball agents will tell you that the holidays can be a really anxious time of year for their clients who face uncertain futures. Oh, sure, it's nice to be Zack Greinke, with a $147 million contract in the books. But if you're in your early 30s and you don't know where you're going to be in 2013, the questions from family at Christmastime can gnaw.

But longtime catcher Eli Whiteside sounded completely at ease on the phone the other day, despite the fact that he has had four different employers this winter; has yet to speak directly to anyone from his current employer; and understands that he may soon be working for somebody else.

"Wherever I end up, I'll go into camp ready to go," said Whiteside. "All I really want is a chance to make a team out of camp."

Whiteside, 33, has played the past four seasons with the Giants, accumulating 208 games, and he took part in San Francisco's championship parade after the Giants closed out Detroit. It wasn't long after that, however, that his agent, Joe Bick, called with the news that Whiteside had been claimed on waivers by the Yankees. Bobby Evans, the Giants' assistant general manager, called him to thank him for his time with San Francisco, and shortly after that Whiteside heard from Yankees assistant GM Billy Eppler, who welcomed him to the Yankees. For Whiteside, this wasn't earth-shaking news. "I was kind of expecting that I wouldn't be back with the Giants," he said, "because Hector Sanchez had gone in there and done a good job."

The Yankees, of course, were preparing for the possibility that Russell Martin would depart as a free agent and they wanted to stockpile as much catching as possible.

But during the winter meetings, Bick called Whiteside again, with more news: He was on waivers, again. This time, the Toronto Blue Jays claimed him. Whiteside turned on his computer and checked out Toronto's roster, and saw they had no less than four catchers on their major league roster at that time -- J.P. Arencibia, John Buck, Travis d'Arnaud and A.J. Jimenez.

"I didn't understand what was going on," he said. When a Toronto official called, Whiteside remembered, "I flat-out asked him what he felt the situation was going to be. I was going to go into camp without a good chance of making the team."

Within a matter of days -- hours, really -- Bick let him know that he was on waivers again. "I don't think you're going to be with the Blue Jays much longer," said Bick, who encouraged Whiteside to check his email during an upcoming vacation in Mexico.

It was while he was away that Whiteside heard from family that he had been claimed by Texas. The Rangers had lost Mike Napoli in free agency and hadn't yet agreed to terms with Geovany Soto. Whiteside exchanged friendly messages with Thad Levine, the Rangers' assistant GM.

Whiteside had just started to think about arranging housing for spring training last week when more news broke: The Rangers, who had re-signed Soto already, also signed A.J. Pierzynski. "I don't know -- I may be back in the same situation that I've been in," Whiteside said.

He sounded completely at ease with all of this. He has enough experience to know that being claimed on waivers three times in six weeks is, in the big picture, a good thing.

"That's the way I'm looking at it -- maybe a little bit flattered," he said. "I know catching is hard to come by these days, and I'm glad people see what I do and appreciate what I do. As long as I got a jersey and a chance to make the team, that's all I can ask for."

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Chip Bailey wonders: Are the changes that the Astros have made upgrades over the 2012 team? Look, there's no other way around it -- Houston's first year in the American League figures to be extremely challenging. The Astros are coming off a year in which they had the worst record, 55-107, in what was probably the second-weakest division in the majors, and now they move into what could be the toughest division in the majors. They're probably going to get knocked around, a lot. What they do in 2015 matters a lot more, but until then, it'll probably be avert-your-eyes stuff.

2. Steve Johnson has a chance to stick with the Orioles next season.

3. Nick Piecoro is trying to make sense of Arizona's offseason, and decides to wait and see.

Other stuff

• Ugueth Urbina was reportedly released from prison.

• Molly Knight writes about the next great Oriole.

Andruw Jones was arrested.

Mike Trout is home for the holidays, writes Marcia Smith.

• Chris Jenkins has some New Year's resolutions for MLB.

The playoffs are possibility for the Kansas City Royals, in the eyes of Alex Gordon.

David Price winning the Cy Young Award was among the best stories in the Tampa Bay area this year, writes Tom Jones.

• Mark Faller is voting for nobody for the Hall of Fame.

The steroid era clouds the voting for Peter Schmuck.

• Here's a Shin-Soo Choo quiz.

• Here's the Giants' championship year in review, from Alex Pavlovic.

And today will be better than yesterday.