Cliff Lee‘s left elbow made it through just one spring training start—and all of two innings—last Thursday before he was shut down the following day with another bout of elbow discomfort in the same spot that plagued him for much of 2014.

The 13-year veteran went for an MRI on Sunday that revealed some inflammation, and while it’s too early to tell yet, Lee did acknowledge that surgery is at least a possibility. If that’s how this plays out, then Lee’s 2015 season will be over before it even begins—and there’s a chance his baseball career could be finished too.

“It would be 6-8 months out,” Lee said, via Matt Breen of The Philadelphia Inquirer. “So basically if I have the surgery this season will be done. Possibly my career I guess. I don’t know. We’ll have to see.”

And just like that, all the pressure is back on general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and the rest of the Philadelphia Phillies front office to do right by a rebuilding organization and make the most out of the club’s final big trade chip, Cole Hamels.

Were it only about his success, experience and postseason history, Lee would make for an enticing option for the Phillies to peddle to clubs eying a proven starter—provided, of course, they made the $37.5 million Lee is owed more palatable.

But combined with that amount of money, this latest run-in with elbow discomfort or soreness makes Lee absolutely immovable.

As Ryan Lawrence of the Philadelphia Daily News writes:

The Phillies (and Lee) obviously hoped to see the pitcher progress this spring without any issues. Had Lee stayed healthy, he could have been a nice trade chip for Amaro and Co. … and Lee himself could have potentially joined another team prior to the July trade deadline as he pursues an elusive World Series ring.

That is out the window at this point. If Lee weren’t considered damaged goods after making just 13 starts in 2014—none after July 31—due to elbow problems, well, he definitely is now.

Even if Lee were to be OK enough to pitch in the first half of the season, there’s just not going to be much interest in or market for a 36-year-old left-hander with a contract that is cumbersome (and then some) and, more importantly, an elbow that is unwilling to cooperate.

Which brings us back to Hamels, who now more than ever is Amaro’s last chance to turn the aging, injury-prone core of what was a top-notch team for several years into a batch of young, cost-controlled talent to help with a long-overdue rebuilding project that has just begun.

A 31-year-old southpaw, Hamels has been at the center of trade rumors dating back to last July and continuing all throughout this past offseason, as Jim Salisbury of notes.

While Amaro did manage to bring in some prospects, like Tom Windle, Zach Eflin and Ben Lively, by swapping longtime shortstop Jimmy Rollins and in-his-final-act outfielder Marlon Byrd, Hamels remains the lone piece that could net a return of real, franchise-altering value.

Nobody is knocking down Amaro’s door to ask about closer Jonathan Papelbon, and nobody is even picking up the phone to inquire about first baseman Ryan Howard.

The reports all along have been that Amaro has refused to budge on his terms involving Hamels, according to Jayson Stark of That means the GM won’t trade him unless the acquiring club sends an elite package of prospects and picks up most, if not all, of the $96 million Hamels is due through 2018.

“Cole Hamels is a known entity,” Amaro told Stark. “A known winner. A known World Series MVP. A known top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. If Cole Hamels continues to be Cole Hamels, which we fully expect him to be, why would [his trade value] decline?”

Funny, but a similar sentiment might have been uttered about Lee this time last year.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Hamels has a $20 million option for 2019 that he might want picked up if dealt, especially to one of the teams on his limited no-trade clause.

The good news here is that Hamels has yet to show any sort of decline or injury concern, meaning his value on the trade front remains relatively high. He is, after all, coming off a career-best 2.46 ERA last year.

That’s a big reason why Amaro needs to get it right when it comes to trading Hamels, which feels like an inevitability by now, whether it happens in the month between now and the start of the regular season or by the trade deadline at the end of July.

It’s also a big reason why Amaro should be willing to bend, if only a little bit, in his demands with regard to a return for Hamels. If nothing else, Lee—who had a 2.80 ERA while making at least 30 starts in each of his first three seasons since re-signing with Philadelphia—is an unmistakable example of how fast a pitcher’s career can be derailed.

Here’s Amaro’s bottom line: More than ever, he needs to get it right when trading Hamels, but in light of Lee’s latest ailment, the leverage is going in the wrong direction.


Statistics are accurate through Monday, March 9 and courtesy of MLB.comBaseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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