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St. Louis Cardinals Trade Rumors: Cliff Lee

The Cardinals are well-positioned to try to trade for Cliff Lee. Here is why they should do so.

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How good is he?

Cliff Lee is really good.

Source: FanGraphs -- Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright

Here are Cliff Lee's rankings in baseball since he figured out what he was doing in 2008:

ERA: 4th

FIP: 2nd

xFIP: 1st

fWAR: 1st

He has a solid argument for being the best pitcher in baseball since 2008. Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez are allowed into the room. Adam Wainwright has to listen through the door. And there's not much evidence that Lee is slowing down. In three of his last four years, including each of the last two, Lee has been better by FIP and xFIP than his overall 2008-present peak. His physical skills are going to erode at some point, but until they do, Cliff Lee has solved baseball.

He does it with a two-seam fastball, a cutter, and a change-up, all of which he puts exactly where he wants. He has a slider and curve and four-seam to toy with if he gets bored. I suspect he and Waino would probably finally master the ol' stop ball and maybe invent some new pitches over sweet tea and bourbon one fine off day.

How healthy is he?

Well, he's 35 and has been on the DL since mid-May with an elbow issue, but he's actually as healthy as "35 and has been been on the DL since mid-May with an elbow issue" can possibly be. First, he does not have an injury to his UCL. He has a grade 1/2 strain in his flexor tendon. (Read about flexor tendon injuries here.) The flexor tendon can tear and require surgery with a lengthy rehab, but a minor strain can heal well on its own. Most recently, Chris Sale had a minor flexor strain in mid-April and was back pitching very effectively in late May. Lee's rehab starts have gone by without a hitch, his velocity is normal, and he is set to start on July 21 with the Phillies. If he has no issues in his one or two starts before the trading deadline and he passes a physical, there is little reason to be concerned about his health. For all of the high profile pitchers who miss full seasons with elbow injuries, there are also those who return full strength after rest. Lee's injury should place him in the latter category.

It's also worth noting that Lee has been very durable throughout his career. He has had occasional minor abdominal strains, but prior to the flexor strain he hadn't had a single concern with his arm excepting fatigue in spring training of 2006. He has pitched at least 200 innings in each of the last six seasons, and eight of nine since 2005.

I also want to highlight a paragraph from this fangraphs piece:

We still don't know for sure what all the ingredients are that make up a pitcher injury. If you can figure it out, you'll make a lot of money, in fact. We have inclinations that high velocity and high breaking-ball usage seem to be factors to a certain extent. In this regard, Cliff Lee has avoided the pitfalls. His fastball never breached 92 MPH. His curveball usage has stayed below 10% for the most part, and his slider usage is very minimal.

Doesn't he have a no-trade clause?

Yes. He can block a trade to all but ten teams. The Cardinals are one of those ten.

Edit: The Cardinals are not on his list this year. He changed it last off-season, apparently, and it was recently reported by "a source." This doesn't mean he can't be traded to the Cardinals. He'd just have to approve it.

Okay, but do the Cardinals need him? (I thought it was their offense that stunk)

This idea has been floated around a lot lately. In the media, it was discussed as the Jake Peavy trade rumors were quashed.

Here's the full article about that news day. I call baloney from the front office. Posturing. Deceit. Malarkey. I don't blame them. "Well, we're not going to acquire Jake Peavy after all, but we really do want to add a pitcher!" isn't a good bargaining position.

Adding offense would be nice, but aside from the fact that doing so is not mutually exclusive with adding pitching, just because a team is already better in one aspect than another doesn't mean additional dominance to the good is somehow less effective than improving weaknesses. A 2-1 win is as good as a 6-5  win. But more specifically relevant, the Cardinals would probably have an easier time improving their pitching than their offense.

It's tough to see where one would improve the offense without acquiring an allstar at 2B or CF, and Kolten Wong needs to see the field to develop while Bourjos and Jay are providing good value for their paychecks. Oscar Taveras has played some center as well, and if he and Allen Craig ever start hitting at the same time, center field could be quite crowded.

On the other hand, the rotation, as good as it has been, is nothing but question marks after Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn. Michael Wacha is not yet cleared to throw, Carlos Martinez is still a little rough around the edges, Joe Kelly has unsettling peripherals and lives by way of a suspiciously high strand rate, and most concerning, Shelby Miller is broken.

Over the last calendar year, Shelby Miller is second worst in baseball in FIP, third worst in xFIP, third worst in fWAR, and has the second worst K/BB rate; and, he has not shown any consistent signs of improvement lately. Right now, Shelby Miller is a bad pitcher with unsteady mechanics and frequent physical ailments. Obtaining a good pitcher to slide into Shelby's slot would markedly improve the team, and it would let Shelby work on his game in the minors. (Just to be clear, by no means do I think anyone should give up on the guy. Roy Halladay was terrible in his second year in the majors, was sent down, and came back the next year as Roy Halladay.)

So yes, there's room for Cliff Lee. It's also worth noting that the new wild card system greatly increased the utility of a win for teams in close races. By avoiding the play-in game, a division winner is nearly twice as likely to win the world series as a wild card team, and with the condensed standings in the NL, it's relatively easy to imagine that the difference between Cliff Lee and whomever he replaces could be the difference between missing the playoffs and the wild card, or the wild card and the division.

And if when Wacha returns to form, how does Wainwright, Lee, Wacha, Lynn, Martinez make you feel?

What will he cost?

Lee is owed approximately $10M for the remainder of this year, $25M in 2015, and he has a $27.5M vesting option if he pitches 200 innings in 2015 with a $12.5M buyout. That's a lot of money. The Cardinals would be loath to cover that in entirety, but it's likely the Phillies would cover a large portion of Lee's salary if they received players back they liked. From ESPN:

Teams that have spoken with the Phillies say the club has indicated it is willing to eat a significant portion of Lee's salary if it gets the right pieces back in a trade.

Motte and Ellis take nearly $13M off the books next year, and nearly $10M can come off after 2015 for Jaime Garcia, plus the Cards are working nearly $5M below last year's payroll right now. The salary won't be the problem if the Phillies do indeed eat a portion of it.

As far as the "right pieces," the Cardinals match-up well with the Phillies in that the Phillies need both outfielders and young pitchers with some room for growth, and the Cardinals are rich in both of these things.

I hate the nebulous business of prospect valuation in trade rumor writing. James Shields got Wil Meyers and Jake Odorizzi, while Doug Fister got a decent young wild card pitcher who wasn't on any top 100 lists, a bullpen piece, and a utility guy. So I have no idea what Cliff Lee will fetch. I recently read a major Philly media site hoping for Marcus Stroman and two more of the Blue Jays' top-5 prospects. If the Phillies can get that haul and John Mozeliak is asked to match it, he should walk out of the room quickly and try not to giggle. And if the Phillies are quietly set on unloading the entire contract, we ought to wish Clifton well as he moves to New York or Los Angeles. But I think both of those things are unlikely to occur.

Despite what I said above about the merits of Cliff Lee, he is 35, and he is coming off the DL with an elbow injury. Dealing for him now, regardless of how he pitches in his two starts between now and the trade deadline, is inherently risky, and Lee should not bring in the kind of haul that David Price would, despite Lee's extraordinary track record. Ruben Amaro should have traded Lee last year, and unless two teams are desperate and neither of them are in the market for David Price, the prospect package Lee brings in will not be overwhelming.

Last year, Dan Moore wrote that the Cardinals shouldn't trade Carlos Martinez for Cliff Lee. That remains true today. I won't piece together a package, but Allen Craig and every young outfielder or pitcher other than Oscar and Martinez should be available as a centerpiece. I just wouldn't offer many of the best ones together.

No team should pay full price for Lee, and Philadelphia would be wise to move him at a partial discount to get their overdue re-building phase underway while passing the risk of Lee's sudden sublimation elsewhere. With their wealth of prospects, the Cardinals are in a good position to absorb that risk while aiming for a substantial boost to their current chances without mortgaging the future.