Wherever He May Go, Halladay Changes Playoff Picture

Wherever He May Go, Halladay Changes Playoff Picture As Friday’s trade deadline looms closer, the biggest story of the week still revolves around Blue Jays right-hander Roy Halladay. Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi’s asking price for the former Cy Young Award winner remains on an Everest-like gradient, as teams decide whether to sell the farm to acquire perhaps the most consistent pitcher this half of the decade.

Halladay’s suitors, at this point, have been whittled down to four: the Phillies, Red Sox, Yankees and Rangers. Let’s look at how Halladay would fit in to each club’s rotation.

The defending champion Phillies have been drooling over Halladay since Ricciardi merely uttered whispers of his availability earlier this month. The Phils have a comfortable seven-game lead over the Marlins in the NL East, but their rotation isn’t exactly an intimidating one come playoff time. Cole Hamels is their ace – a proven postseason commodity. But after him, there’s a sharp drop-off. Joe Blanton isn’t exactly a daunting No. 2 starter. Plus, Jamie Moyer – Philly’s current No. 3 hurler – may qualify for senior citizenship before October’s playoffs even begin. The Phillies can’t like a Hamels-Blanton-Moyer vs. Tim LincecumMatt CainBarry Zito matchup. That could very well happen in the first round.

But a one-two combination of Hamels and Halladay (a headline writer’s dream) makes the Phillies the clear favorites in the NL for this year and possibly next, since Halladay’s contract runs through 2010. But is he worth giving up several prospects, including shortstop of the future Jason Donald? That’s what the Phillies – like everyone else – will have to decide, sooner rather than later.

The Red Sox and Yankees are in very similar situations, per usual. They’re separated by only 2 1/2 games in the AL East and are poised for another possible ALCS October matchup, claiming two of the AL’s top three records. They each have a definite one-two, top-of-the-rotation punch, but after that, both squads have some question marks.

But a rotation of either Hallday, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett or Halladay, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester would make either the Yankees or Red Sox the prohibitive favorites to win the World Series for the next two seasons. That’s a pretty enticing offer.

But of course, Ricciardi is reluctant to trade Doc within the division, for fear of being haunted by the tall righty for the next several years. In order to obtain Halladay, the Red Sox will likely have to part with Clay Buchholz (and more) and the Yankees will have to say goodbye to at least Phil Hughes, who has become very consistent in the eighth-inning role, and possibly Joba Chamberlain.

Either team will be forced to give up much of their respective futures to acquire Halladay from Toronto. But imagine: Halladay, Beckett, Lester and either Brad Penny, John Smoltz or Tim Wakefield in a five and seven-game series for the next two years. Or for Yankee fans: Halladay, Sabathia, Burnett and Andy Pettite. The 2009 and ’10 championships would run through the Bronx.

Could anyone really beat either of those hypothetical staffs?

The risk is renting Halladay for the next season-plus, then watching him walk away, while your prospects flourish in Toronto. But let’s be honest: Neither the Red Sox nor Yankees have what you’d call a “rebuilding problem.” Both turn over talent faster than Usain Bolt, and both have deep enough pockets to reload if need be. So do the Phillies, for that matter.

Yes, homegrown talent like Kevin Youkilis, Lester, Robinson Cano and Chamberlain is refreshing for fans, but sometimes, they are just as valuable as trade chips, as perhaps are the cases of Buchholz, Hughes and friends. Plus, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be the future aces and multiple World Series-winning stars that they’re projected to be. Halladay provides as much of a guarantee as you can get.

The wild card (not in the baseball-literal sense) in this equation is the Texas Rangers, much like the Brewers were last season. Last summer, Milwaukee was in the playoff hunt and decided to go all-in. The Brew Crew mortgaged some of their future, sending minor league stud Matt LaPorta to Cleveland in exchange for Sabathia. The Crew never made it out of the first round, losing to Philly in the process, but GM Doug Melvin’s decision was admirable. He gave the Milwaukee fans something to be excited about, instead of being perennial “sellers” at the deadline, drowning in the mediocrity of the National League.

The Rangers are in a similar position a year later. They haven’t made the playoffs since 1999, but now sit just 2 1/2 games behind the Angels in the AL West and are only 1 1/2 games behind Boston for the wild-card lead. All decade, they’ve had one of the most potent lineups in baseball, but their pitching has held them back. Josh Hamilton was a nice addition to the middle of their order last season, but came at the expense of Edinson Volquez in a trade to the Reds, which has proved to be costly. Halladay wouldn’t necessarily make them the favorites in the AL, because Kevin Millwood and Vincente Padilla would still be their second and third starters, but perhaps it’s time for them – like the ’08 Brewers – to roll the dice. They haven’t been this close this late in a long time.

Halladay may still be a Blue Jay come Saturday. He may be a St. Louis Cardinal, for all we know. But should he shed his Toronto uniform before then, he will surely help any club become immediate contenders to win it all.

Not just this year. For next season, too.

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