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Phils might break up star rotation by dealing Lee

WASHINGTON -- The Phillies are on pace to lose more than 90 games just one season removed from recording a franchise-record 102 victories, so general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and his top lieutenants are incredibly busy in advance of Tuesday's 4 p.m. ET non-waiver Trade Deadline.

The Phillies -- last place in the NL East with a 45-57 record -- said last week they consider themselves "improvers" rather than buyers or sellers, and with a run at the postseason more than a long shot, they would be best served by trading some of their top talent to improve for 2013 and beyond. And some of their efforts, whether fruitful or not, indicate the Phillies are trying to shed payroll to gain flexibility in that department for the future.

Speculation that the Phillies could trade left-hander Cliff Lee started early Monday, with the Rangers considered the most likely destination. But a source told late in the afternoon that the chance of a reunion for Lee and Texas is "less than one percent."

There are reasons for that. Sure, the Rangers have been interested in Lee for weeks, although they preferred Cole Hamels before the lefty signed his six-year, $144 million contract extension last week. Sure, Lee pitched for the Rangers in 2010, so they are familiar with him. Sure, Texas is not one of the teams on Lee's no-trade list, so the Phillies could send him there without his approval.

But one source said the Rangers would want the Phillies to pick up a chunk of the $87.5 million Lee is owed beginning next season. That would be a trade killer, because if the Phillies deal Lee, they would be doing so in part to clear payroll to fill other holes on their roster. It would be counterproductive to trade one of their biggest talents and then pay him to pitch for another team.

Any Lee deal with any team is full of complications and ramifications, so he isn't likely to be traded before the Deadline. A much more likely scenario has the club shipping him elsewhere in the offseason.

But the fact the Phillies are shopping Lee and outfielder Hunter Pence, who could make $14 million as a player eligible for salary arbitration next year, indicates the club wants to clear payroll. The Phillies have $123.5 million committed in salary to Lee ($25 million), Roy Halladay ($20 million), Ryan Howard ($20 million), Hamels ($19.5 million), Chase Utley ($15 million), Jonathan Papelbon ($13 million) and Jimmy Rollins ($11 million) next season. Add Pence to that mix, and it's more than $137 million for eight players.

The Phillies could also clear payroll for this season to fall below the luxury tax threshold by moving right-hander Joe Blanton or outfielders Shane Victorino and Juan Pierre. The three will be free agents after the season, and none is expected back.

That said, the Phillies are not in a total salary-dump mode, so they are not compelled to trade players just to trade them. In other words, they require something of value in return. The Phillies would not get a treasure trove of prospects for Blanton or Pierre, and maybe not even for Victorino. But they want more than warm bodies to fill out their Minor League system.

They want players who can contribute.

The Orioles are heavily interested in Blanton, and a deal could be close. Sources said if the Orioles want the veteran, they can have him. A quality middle reliever could get it done. Several teams have been connected with Victorino, and the Reds appear to be the strongest suitor for Pierre.

Other teams can pop up at the last minute, too. But one thing is certain: The Phillies have multiple ways to improve their roster for 2013. They just have to find the right team willing to give up the right players.

The clock is ticking.

Philadelphia Phillies, Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee, Juan Pierre, Shane Victorino