Cliff Lee: the Forgotten Man
As the clock moves closer to the start of Spring Training later this week, the status of Cliff Lee remains very much in limbo. A 36-year old pitcher coming off an elbow injury doesn’t exactly fit the long-term plans of a rebuilding team like the Philadelphia Phillies. And yet, the lefty may still play an integral role in the future success of the franchise.
Lee had a bizarre 2014 campaign. It began on Opening Day, a 14-10 victory against the Texas Rangers. He allowed eight runs on eleven hits while striking out just one batter. Even the outs were hard hit. The questions of his health and inevitable decline began as soon as the final out had been recorded. After all, Roy Halladay‘s career had come to an ugly end the year before.
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The opener was followed by a more Lee-like seven scoreless innings at Wrigley Field five days later. However, he did allow ten hits over those seven innings. Something seemed obviously amiss.
Finally, after a rocky start on May 18, Lee was placed on the disabled list with an elbow strain. The man with the bionic arm was human, after all. Historically, an ‘elbow strain’ often leads to Tommy John surgery. However, in his case, an MRI revealed no structural damage. The prescription was rest.
It was clear to all parties involved that competitively, the Phillies as a team were stuck in neutral, and that Lee would prefer to play for a contender. After receiving a clean bill of health, Lee was sent to Single-A Clearwater on a rehab assignment. After three inauspicious starts for the Threshers, Lee declared himself fit to return – a showcase for potential teams leading up to the trade deadline.
Two mediocre starts with the Phillies ensued. Then finally on July 31st, that exact date of the non-waiver trade deadline, after what to that point had been 30 effective pitches, he was removed from the game after re-injuring the same elbow. This left the Phils with yet another inflated contract for a player on the downside of his career.
Lee’s statistics in 2014 were a mixed bag. His strikeout and walk rates were on par for his career. He still rarely walked anyone – 1.3 BB/9, and his strikeout rate was still an impressive 8.0 SO/9 (slightly below his normal rate). His FIP remained steady as well. Alarming, however, was his WHIP, which ballooned to 1.38, as well as a .358 BABIP.
There are many variables and moving parts that would go into any deal involving Lee. The primary factor is cost. Lee could make as much as $52.5 million in the remaining two years on his contract. A guaranteed $25 million this season. A potential $27.5 million in 2016, if he pitches 200 innings in 2015, which seems highly unlikely if the elbow problems persist. That 2016 also includes a $12.5 million buyout.
Giving a pitcher who is north of 30 years of age a five-year deal is always risky. This is true no matter how sturdy the pitcher may have been over the course of his career, as Lee had been at the time of his signing. Eventually, most arms will break down.
Zimmermann is one of a number of attractive potential free agents next off-season
. (Photo Credit:Brad Mills
-USA TODAY Sports)
Another potential hurdle to consummating a deal is the star-studded class of starting pitchers who are scheduled to become free agents following the 2015 season. Unless signed prior, this talented group includes Jordan Zimmermann, David Price, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija.
Teams may be reluctant to trade a top prospect for a soon-to-be 37-year old pitcher such as Lee coming off an elbow injury, when they can give up just money for one of those other younger options.
Lee also has a limited no-trade clause in his contract. He can block potential trades to 20 teams per season – a list that he submits before the start of each season. That may be the easiest hurdle, as Lee has made it perfectly clear that he desires to have an opportunity to win a World Series.
So, what are the Phillies to do? One option is to have him pitch in Grapefruit League action this spring, prove that he’s healthy, then strike a deal before the start of the season. This may be tough, as the market for Lee has dried up for the most part. Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and James Shields have all found new homes this offseason, filling holes for potential Lee suitors.
More realistically, the Phillies would be best served to keep Lee at the start of the season, and let him prove that he’s 100 percent healthy while facing major league hitters every fifth day. A healthy Cliff Lee, especially with his stellar postseason resume, would be very enticing to a team with playoff aspirations later this summer.
A desperate general manager, under pressure from their fan base, might resort to giving up a blue chip prospect for a chance at a World Series. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
It would be unwise to write off Cliff Lee completely. If he truly is healthy, Lee should have a solid campaign – for some team. Especially if he smells the playoffs. If he breaks down, however, the Phillies will be stuck with another broken down Rolls-Royce – with car payments still to be made.