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Forget Cole Hamels, the Red Sox should trade for Cliff Lee

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The Red Sox don't want to give up Blake Swihart or Mookie Betts, and neither should be necessary for Lee.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Those Cole Hamels to the Red Sox trade rumors aren't dead, but they're at least going to rest until mid-season. Boston won't give up catching prospect Blake Swihart or outfielder and second baseman Mookie Betts in order to get Hamels, and, as the Phillies should do, they are refusing to give up Hamels without getting one of them. The two sides will likely keep in touch, maybe revisiting things in July when one side or the other is a little more desperate to get something done, but they should forget all of that and change targets. The Phillies have another starting pitcher they could trade to the Red Sox, and he would make a whole lot more sense for what the Sox need and what they are willing to give up.

Cliff Lee threw just 81 innings in 2014 thanks to two separate stints on the 60-day disabled list because of his forearm and elbow, but historically he's been a reliable, healthy arm. Lee had averaged 222 innings per year from 2008 through 2013, all while sporting a 140 ERA+ while leading the league in walk and strikeout-to-walk ratio on multiple occasions. He'll be 36 in 2015 and has a $25 million price tag for the season, but if he proves healthy this spring -- and early reports are that he's feeling and looking good -- then there is little reason to worry about his elbow. Or, rather, Lee's upside is high enough, and the risks low enough, that gambling on his elbow holding up for the season is worth it for the ace-less Sox, especially since they are already over the luxury tax threshold for this season.

Part of the appeal is because if Lee isn't healthy and ends up missing time in 2015, his contract is over. He has a $27.5 million vesting option for 2016, but it requires him to not be on the disabled list with an elbow or shoulder injury at the end of this season, and also for him to have thrown 200 innings in 2015. If Lee does get to 200 innings, then $27.5 million for 2016 isn't a commitment that should scare away the Red Sox: they will have the payroll space to cover it while staying under the luxury tax threshold thanks to a few departing free agents. If they decide to re-sign Mike Napoli or extend Rick Porcello or make a number of other potential moves that could change that, they could always just deal with the luxury tax one more time in the spirit of having Cliff Lee at the front of their rotation, or attempt to rework Lee's deal in order to lower the AAV for Boston in exchange for more guaranteed money for the then 37-year-old Lee.

Lee
Photo credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

There is a $12.5 million buyout on the vesting option, should the Sox decide they don't want Lee around for 2016 -- maybe he gets to 200 innings but they are just average ones, for instance -- but it won't affect them from a luxury tax perspective. That figure is already worked into the average annual value of the deal, so while the Red Sox would spend $12.5 million in real money to make Lee disappear after 2015, it wouldn't count as a $12.5 million towards the luxury tax threshold since it's already been accounted for in the previous years of the deal.

Ruben Amaro didn't heed his assistant's advice in the Cole Hamels' negotiations, but he might for Lee

So, Lee is guaranteed $37.5 million, and has a chance to make $52.5 million over two years. That's a huge amount of money, but it's worth the risk for a pitcher of Lee's ability, especially since the Red Sox just don't have someone with the same combination of elite performance and work rate. The recent elbow trouble won't come up all that much in negotiations if he looks good this spring -- or if the Sox wait until mid-season to get him after months of healthy pitching -- but it's going to be just enough of a factor to keep the Phillies from asking for someone like Swihart or Betts in return. That's good news for the Sox, and can still be good news for the Phillies, as there other Red Sox prospects that they like in the system even if they aren't at the level of those two.

Former Phillies' manager and current assistant to the general manager Charlie Manuel is a fan of third baseman Garin Cecchini, and believes he's a "rising star". Ruben Amaro didn't heed his assistant's advice in the Hamels' negotiations, but he might for Lee, who, thanks to his elbow and the shorter nature of his deal, is more of a risk to hold on to than Hamels is. The Phillies have previously performed background work on right hander Matt Barnes and backstop Christian Vazquez, and while the Sox are probably loathe to deal Vazquez while Swihart is still in the minors, that could change by July.

The Red Sox also have shortstop Deven Marrero, whose plus glove is big-league ready right now even if his bat has to solve Triple-A still. It would be disappointing to part with center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and his tremendous defense, but if the Phillies want to take a shot on his bat developing in exchange for Lee, the Sox have to make that deal: they need a front line starter much more than they need another promising young outfielder, and Bradley has his own risks that make holding on too long a problem. Boston already tried to move infielder Sean Coyle to the Phillies in exchange for reliever Antonio Bastardo, and while that didn't work, the diminutive yet powerful Coyle as part of a larger package might entice Philly.

Lefty pitchers like Brian Johnson and Edwin Escobar are not going to replace Lee in Philadelphia, but six-to-seven years of either future back-end starter might be more appealing to Amaro than four years of maybe starter, maybe swing man Joe Kelly. Maybe the Phillies would be intrigued by taking a chance on a low-level positional prospect or two alongside someone like Cecchini, such as Wendell Rijo or Javier Guerra. Maybe the Sox add another prospect to the pile if the Phillies kick in some money, as they were willing to do for a Lee deal last July. The point is that the Sox have plenty for the Phillies to shop for, if they're inclined to hit up the B-prospect aisle, and should be willing to give up any of them to acquire Lee.

None of these prospects have the kind of shine to them that Swiharts and Betts do, but Lee is not in the same class as Hamels at this stage of his career. He might be just as productive over the next two seasons, if not more, but between his elbow maybe having the Phillies in more of a rush to move him and the shorter nature of his deal, they aren't equally valued trade pieces. If the Sox want to trade quantity over quality, then Lee should be the target. They have the pieces, the Phillies won't take the public relations hit for accepting that kind of deal for Lee as they would for Hamels, and both sides have a need the other can rectify with a phone call. Whether it's now or it's this summer, Cliff Lee is the pitcher the Red Sox should be targeting.