Commentary

Only in Philadelphia …

Phillies acquire a Cy Young winner, but not the one their fans were clamoring for

Updated: July 30, 2009, 8:12 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN

Only in Philadelphia could a team trade for a Cy Young Award winner and have its fans say: "You got the wrong one."

But this time, the Phillies couldn't help themselves. They didn't get the Cy Young they wanted (Roy Halladay). But they did get the Cy Young they needed (Cliff Lee).

So even with the "wrong" Cy Young, they're now your official Team to Beat in the National League. And even though their rotation now leans further to the left than Keith Olbermann, they look almost every ounce as scary a potential October powerhouse now as they would have looked with That Other Cy Young.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCliff Lee has faced 641 batters in 22 starts this season, walking only 33 and striking out 107.
"For me, they're just as formidable with this guy as they would have been with Halladay," one NL scout said Wednesday as the impact of the four-for-two deal that will bring Lee to the Phillies began to resonate within the sport. "Heck, for me, they would have been formidable without doing anything. I just love their team -- and 'team' is the key word.

"But now they're adding another stud to that rotation, and filling another need -- a right-handed bat [Ben Francisco] -- on a very good team. So I know one thing: I wouldn't want to play them in October."

He's not alone. The Phillies are the reigning World Series champs. They're also 19-3 since July 3, a streak that includes three wins over Dan Haren, Johan Santana and Johnny Cueto by combined scores of 28-2.

They lead the league in runs scored, homers, OPS and fielding percentage. And now they've addressed their one glaring hole: a top-of-the-rotation monster to go with Cole Hamels.

So what, exactly, are they lacking, outside of a healthy bullpen?

"They're a lot better than they were," said one rival NL general manager. "They're a very, very good offensive club. The only question anybody had about them was the depth of their starting rotation. Well, not anymore."

No kidding. The Phillies' surreal problem now, unbelievably, is that they have too many starting pitchers, with Lee and Pedro Martinez arriving and nobody from the current group departing in this deal.

Early indications were that they were leaning toward bumping J.A. Happ and Rodrigo Lopez to the bullpen to make room for Lee and Pedro. But they'd rather be sorting all that out than contemplating what their prospective October rotation might look like without Cliff Lee.

This is the kind of trade the Phillies almost never make, you understand. The Elias Sports Bureau reports that Lee is only the seventh starting pitcher in the past 50 years that the Phillies acquired in midseason after he already had won five games somewhere else. The others were Joe Blanton last year, Kyle Lohse in 2007, Jamie Moyer in 2006, Cory Lidle in 2004, Kent Bottenfield in 2000 and John Denny in 1982.

Like the others, Lee arrives with a losing record (7-9). Unlike the others, Lee also arrives with a Cy Young trophy in his den and the major league lead in quality starts (18, tied with Haren) on his stat sheet.

"Once he got those first few starts out of the way, he's been exactly the same Cliff Lee as last year," one scout said of Lee, who has a 2.66 ERA since April 16. "He and Hamels are kind of similar, so they should probably make sure to split them up when they can. But Lee has that big breaking ball that's tougher on left-handed hitters than Hamels. He's got that big sweeping curveball that's really tough for left-handers to stay on."

Here's the proof: Lee has faced 181 left-handed hitters this season -- and allowed precisely one home run (to Mike Jacobs). We wish him luck maintaining that record now that he'll be hanging out at scenic Citizens Bank Park. But here's the good news: At least he gets to face the opposing pitcher now, too.

But what is he doing heading for Philadelphia, of all places? That's the question. How the heck did that turn of events come about?

For the past two weeks, everybody from the Phillie Phanatic to the prime minister of Canada thought Halladay was the Cy Young luminary bound for Philadelphia. Even the Phillies themselves seemed just about obsessed with Halladay.

In fact, from all indications, the Phillies' front-office delegation never even expressed significant interest in Lee until this week. And for two good reasons: (A) the Phillies were fixated on Halladay, and (B) they never believed the Indians were serious about dealing Lee.

But then, this past weekend, the Phillies' world began to spin in a very different orbit. Negotiations with Toronto went nowhere. In fact, by some accounts, they might even have gone backward.

There were also signs that Phillies ownership got into the mix, expressing concerns that a deal that shipped off Happ and two of this team's most beloved prospects -- pitcher Kyle Drabek and either outfielder Dominic Brown or outfielder Michael Taylor -- would make it impossible to keep the payroll under control down the road.

So just a few days ago, the Phillies began kicking the tires on Lee, if only to see what it might take. They were stunned by how much more motivated Cleveland was to move him than they had thought.

They went into those negotiations just as adamant about not including Drabek and the two outfielders in the Lee deal as they had been with Toronto. But the Indians came into those talks with a very different perspective from the Blue Jays.

[+] EnlargeBen Francisco
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesBen Francisco, 27, is batting .245 against right-handed pitchers this season and .269 against left-handers.
The Indians have done extensive studies of deals like this and found that teams which concentrate on "big league-ready" prospects as the centerpieces of these trades often make out the worst. Cleveland aims for upside -- and it ranked 18-year-old smokeballer Jason Knapp as having the highest ceiling of any arm in the Phillies' system, including Drabek's.

One scout we surveyed Wednesday compared Knapp to a young Jonathan Papelbon. Another said: "If his medicals check out, they may have gotten a young Roy Halladay."

Meanwhile, Baseball America ranked the other three players in the deal -- right-hander Carlos Carrasco, catcher Lou Marson and shortstop Jason Donald -- as the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 best prospects in the Phillies' system entering the season.

"Carrasco is a power arm with three plus pitches, and he's 22 years old," said one scout who covers the Phillies system. "I think Donald will be a very good player. I know some people think he'll have to change positions. But I still wouldn't rule out shortstop. My comparison for him has always been Rich Aurilia, a guy you look at from afar and say, 'He's not a shortstop.' Then you watch him play and say, 'Yeah, he is.' I see him as a guy who can hit 20 homers, hit .275 or .280, and play real good shortstop.

"And I really like Marson. I think he'll be a good player and a regular catcher in the big leagues. And what is he -- 23 years old? So I think both sides did well. Just because the Phillies have a good big league club and didn't fast-track these guys to the big leagues doesn't mean they're not good players. I think they are."

But from the Phillies' perspective, they were set at shortstop (with Jimmy Rollins) and catcher (Carlos Ruiz) for the near term -- and they view Drabek as their top pitching prospect. Plus, they were able to hang on to Happ, as a rotation option now and down the road.

So as the Phillies stacked up what it would cost to make the Lee deal versus the painful price of the Halladay swap, this really became no choice at all.

They were able to make this trade without subtracting Happ off their big league club and without dealing any of the guys they believe will be their next generation of starting outfielders (Brown, Taylor and Class A speed-meister Anthony Gose).

So it was all too perfect, except for one thing: The fine citizens of the town the Phillies played in lusted after Roy Halladay more than they lusted after a good cheesesteak, a sunny day at the Jersey shore or, especially, Mr. Clifton P. Lee.

But if his arrival means another trip to the World Series, our guess is: They'll get over it.

"The truth is, Halladay is the guy [the Phillies] wanted, too," one NL executive said Wednesday. "But if you don't get Roy Halladay, there's sure as hell nothing wrong with trading for the Cy Young Award winner."

And how right he is -- even in Philadelphia.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com