SAN FRANCISCO – So many things were remarkable, improbable or downright insane about the Giants’ run to the World Series title in 2010.
Beating Cliff Lee twice? That has to rank up there.
The Giants simply cannot touch the left-hander who uses a cutter and curve like a short sword and a fighting spear. He was far too sharp for Madison Bumgarner to match as the Giants’ six-game winning streak fell aside with a 6-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies Monday night.
If not for Hunter Pence, who had three of the Giants’ five hits, then Lee would still be riding a lengthy scoreless streak here at AT&T Park. It stopped at 21 in the second inning when Pence slashed at a pitch and sent it over the left field wall for his team-leading sixth home run of the year.
Otherwise, it was more of the same for Lee, who memorably threw 10 shutout innings here last year. He is 5-0 with a 0.88 ERA in six career regular-season starts against the Giants.
So rather than plumb the depths of another Lee gem, how about putting a shine on this thought: Maybe the Giants could make a run at the left-hander at the trade deadline.
The Phillies’ $165 million payroll is the third largest in the game, after the Dodgers and Yankees, and they’re 15-18 with an aging roster that doesn’t look anywhere near firm enough to compete with the Braves and Nationals in the NL East. No, it’s not like they’re buried in the division already. But their minus-30 run differential is the third worst in the NL, behind the Marlins and Dodgers.
I can’t say I follow the Phillies closely enough to know if they’d consider a reboot trade, like the Boston Red Sox made with the Dodgers last summer or the Marlins made with the Blue Jays over the winter.
But if they want to free up funds, moving Lee would bring them salary relief and maybe a few prospects in return.
Lee is owed a lot of money, but not an unconscionable sum. He’s getting $25 million this year and each of the following two seasons, with a club option for $27.5 million in 2016 that includes a $12.5 million buyout.
He also has a limited no-trade clause that can allow him to veto deals to 21 teams. I have no idea whether the Giants are on his list or not, but I’d be curious to find out.
If recent history is any indication, the Giants go for it when they have a chance to repeat. Witness their trade of Zack Wheeler, their top pitching prospect, for what they knew would be a three-month rental of Carlos Beltran in 2011.
That move didn’t work out. But Lee, who will be 35 in August, still appears to be near the top of his game – and putting him behind a solid defense, in the wide-open parks of the NL West, and you begin to wonder just how long he could continue to be a difference maker atop a rotation.
The Giants’ constant in their two World Series titles was pitching, especially in the rotation. But Tim Lincecum will be a free agent after this season, and Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong will join him if the Giants don’t pick up their options. Lincecum, as we all know, has been in a steep decline, and Vogelsong’s slow start (7.20 ERA) is a bit more alarming when you consider he had a 6.75 ERA in his final 10 regular-season starts last year.
Meanwhile, the Giants have some terrific pitching prospects but they’re all in the low minors, where Clayton Blackburn, Martin Agosta and Chris Stratton are all but begging for a promotion. (Top prospect Kyle Crick is out for now with a strained oblique. And Chris Heston and Mike Kickham, thought to be two of the better arms at Triple-A Fresno, have ERAs over 6.)
So for the rotation to have some continuity alongside Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, the Giants probably will have to look to the outside world. And if you have to overpay for pitching these days, you might as well go for the gold standard.
That is Cliff Lee, as he displayed again Monday night.
This is a premature thought, of course. Who knows if the Phillies will listen in a few months, when the July 31 trade deadline nears. But it’s worth the Giants’ time to pick up the phone and ask.