The Phillies' obsession with Cliff Lee continues.
The two-time defending National League champions again are interested in acquiring Lee, according to major-league sources.
The more immediate need for the Phillies is an infielder; second baseman Chase Utley will be out eight weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a torn right-thumb ligament, and third baseman Placido Polanco will be out three to four weeks with triceps tendinitis in his right arm.
The Phils, rather than continue with Wilson Valdez at second and Greg Dobbs at third, are expected to move quickly to acquire help, targeting the Orioles' Miguel Tejada and Ty Wigginton, among others, sources say. Tejada currently is playing third, while Wigginton has played first, second and third this season.
The bigger prize, though, would be Lee.
The Phillies want to upgrade their rotation, and their focus is on top-of-the-rotation types rather than fourth and fifth starters. Lee is by far the best starter available, and Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. "will not cut off his nose to spite his face" by refusing to consider a pitcher he traded in a controversial move last offseason, according to one source.
However, the Phillies view the acquisition of Lee as "a longshot" and perhaps unrealistic, considering what the Mariners might want in return, sources say. The injuries to Utley and Polanco might even make it futile for the Phillies to even consider such a deal. The team currently is in third place in the NL East, four games out of first place.
The Phils, though, would gain two high draft picks as compensation if they lost Lee in free agency. By re-acquiring him, they also would prevent him from going to the Mets, one of the Phillies' principal competitors in the NL East.
The Mets, Rangers, Yankees and Phillies scouted Lee's most recent start at Yankee Stadium. The Dodgers also have been in regular contact with the Mariners, sources say, and other teams are expected to show interest.
The Mariners, in any discussions with the Phillies about Lee, almost certainly would ask for Triple A outfielder Domonic Brown, the Phils' top prospect. Such a move would be difficult for the Phillies to make unless they were confident of signing Lee long-term - and Amaro traded Lee last December in part because he was discouraged by a conversation with Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker, about that prospect.
Another option for the Phillies would be to involve a third club, employing the same strategy they used in their three-way deal involving Lee and right-hander Roy Halladay. The Phillies traded Lee to the Mariners for three prospects while sending three of their own young players to the Blue Jays for Halladay.
Trading right fielder Jayson Werth - who, like Lee, is eligible for free agency at the end of the season - would be one possibility for the Phillies to consider. Another possibility would be to trade lefty J.A. Happ, but Happ has not pitched in the majors since early April because of a forearm strain.
While the Phillies' public stance is that they want to re-sign Werth, they are exploring the trade market for him, according to a report on AOL Fanhouse. They could replace Werth immediately with Brown, who had a .993 OPS in 271 plate appearances at Double A and is off to a hot start at Triple A.
Werth, however, is the Phillies' biggest right-handed threat, leading the team with a .919 OPS. The team already is down one right-handed bat with the loss of Polanco. Brown bats left-handed, as do several of the Phillies' most prominent hitters - Utley, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez.
Of course, the Phillies could have had a similar rotation after they traded for Halladay, but they attempted to replenish their prospect base by trading Lee. They had acquired Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco for four young players the previous summer, and Lee helped them reach their second straight World Series.
Lee, after missing the first month of the season with a right lower abdominal strain is 7-3 with a 2.45 ERA, tied for the second best in the American League. He has pitched three straight complete games, and in 95 2/3 innings, has struck out 78 and walked only five.