ST. LOUIS - Fewer than six weeks remain until the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, and you know what that means? The rumor season is about to heat up.
Because the Cardinals have a loaded farm system, plenty of financial flexibility and are primed for a pennant run, expect them to be in the middle of a lot of trade speculation. Just remember, distinguishing between fact and fiction can be difficult this time of year, especially when it concerns a team not known for sharing its intentions.
OK, with the disclaimer out of the way, let's address some speculation. One player who already has been linked to the Cardinals by scuttlebutt spreaders is Cliff Lee.
As with most rumors, the Lee talk makes some sense. If you're the Phillies, you see a 35-year-old making a ton of money on a team going nowhere. Because he's an elite starter (9-2, 2.53 ERA) in a market thin in starting pitching, he could bring the Phillies a nice haul.
Lee holds no-trade protection but, according to numerous reports, he couldn't block a trade to the Cardinals. He might not want to. He told Philadelphia reporters early this week that his priority is winning. With the Phillies three games under .500, he knows his chances of winning a World Series would be better in St. Louis than where he is. Lee knows his business-first approach would fit well in the Cardinals' world. The fact he spends his off-seasons next door in Arkansas doesn't hurt, either.
From the Cardinals' perspective, pair Lee with Adam Wainwright and no team would have a stronger duo at the top of its rotation. Despite his age, Lee would make more than a short-term asset, too. He's fit, he's athletic and with an easy delivery, he is less of an injury risk than most pitchers.
As stocked as are the Cardinals with young pitching, they need another veteran for beyond this season. Jake Westbrook and Chris Carpenter do not figure to be back in 2014 and while 26-year-old Lance Lynn no longer is a youngster, he's not exactly a battle-tested veteran yet, either.
When thinking about next year, consider this: If the Cardinals play until late October, their young starters will pile up a lot of innings. Heavy workloads one year often result in a hangover effect the following year, especially with youngsters. Counting on three youngsters behind Wainwright and Lynn in 2014 would be riskier for St. Louis than relying on only two after Wainwright, Lee and Lynn.
Now, for the naysayer side. Lee is owed 25 million for each of the following two years with a 27.5 million option for 2016. The option is fairly attainable, too, if Lee stays healthy. Even if the option isn't picked up, he gets a 12.5 million buyout. That puts the minimum he is owed after this season at 62.5 million. Throw him whatever he still would be due from his 25 million salary this year, and he would not be a cheap acquisition.
Still, the Cardinals could afford him. Carlos Beltran and Carpenter are in the final years of deals paying them 13 million and 12.5 million. There's a 9.5 million mutual option on Westbrook's contract. Remove that trio from the payroll, pay Westbrook his 1 million buyout and the Cardinals clear out 34 million.
A move for Lee would be ideal if he had only one more year on his deal after 2013. But paying him 25 million at the age of 37 is not something the Cardinals would be thrilled to do.
The Phillies, however, could eat part of Lee's contract if they returned a better haul of prospects. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. already has made clear that Philly would not unload Lee purely for financial reasons. The price for Lee figures to be at least three upper-end prospects or young players.
What a Lee deal would cost the Cardinals is flexibility. While they could afford him and have the young players to make a major deal, they would be hard-pressed to follow up with another blockbuster in the next year or so. Would they want to go all-in on Lee? Or would they want to hang onto their flexibility for when it is needed.
I'm not sure cashing in their flexibility for Lee is the way to go for the Cardinals. But he would fit so well in St. Louis that trading for him is worth a lot of consideration, not to mention several weeks of rumors.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.