With the season fast approaching, it’s time to start thinking about what kind of team the Phillies may have in 2015. This look at Cliff Lee is the 11th in the series of articles speculating on a best and worst case scenario for each player that is likely to be on the 2015 Philadelphia Phillies squad.
Today’s Player: P #33 Cliff Lee
Well, just like my last piece in the series, on Cole Hamels, this may be pointless. There is a chance that Lee will be gone by the start of the season. Even if he isn’t, if he stays healthy and pitches well, there is an even greater chance that he will be gone by the trade deadline. If Lee does start the year with the club, and Hamels is here too, the lefty duo will be one of the best one-two punches in the league.
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2014 was a weird season for Cliff Lee. He started off very much unlike himself, going 4-4 through 10 starts and just not looking right on many nights. He then was shut down halfway through May until the end of July. He came back for three more starts, then was shut down for good. Lee ended 2014 with a 4-5 record, 3.65 ERA, 81.1 IP, and 72 Ks.
In many ways 2014 was a career low for Lee. Some of the numbers were obviously attributable to his elbow injury, but Lee had a seven-year high of 1.377 WHIP (walks+hits/IP), a career-high 11.1 hits per nine innings, and 8 strikeouts per nine innings, his lowest K rate since 2010.
How Lee rebounds from his elbow strain will not only define his place with the 2015 Phillies, but also likely the length of his career. We saw what injury suddenly did to Roy Halladay at age 35, and Lee is now age 36. Anyway, let’s jump into the best and worst case.
Best Case Scenario: 15-8/2.80 ERA/ 220 IP/ 230 Ks/ and healthy the entire year
Cliff Lee could very well come back from his injury as good as new. He is one of the most resilient and consistent pitchers of the 21st century. For the decade prior to 2014, Lee logged 200 innings each season.
For the past eight years, Lee averaged at least 8 Ks per nine. For the past seven years, his ERA was under 4.00. The six seasons prior to 2014, he averaged less than a hit per inning. You get the drift.
There is no reason to believe that Lee wouldn’t be able to continue this consistency. He will have had nine months to recover from the shoulder strain, and he otherwise hasn’t shown much evidence of regression in his performance.
These ‘best case’ numbers are similar to his 2013 results. In 2013, Lee had a 2.87 ERA, 222 strikeouts, 222.2 IP, and allowed just 7.8 hits per nine. If Lee were to repeat, or even improve on those, he would be a clear number one pitcher in the league for most teams, teaming with Hamels to give the Phils an enviable pair of aces.
If Lee stays healthy the entire season and doesn’t show his age with any performance regression, then it will be interesting to see if he stays with the team. Similar to the Hamels situation: if he does well, he becomes valuable trade bait. Less likely, the Phillies may contend and elect to keep Lee.
On the other hand Lee could regress or not rebound effectively from his injury. Let’s look at how that scenario would look.
Worst Case Scenario: 4-8/ 4.20 ERA/ 110 IP/ retires from baseball
Woah woah woah, don’t freak out. I did say an absolute worst case scenario for Lee is that he retires, using Halladay as an example. Doc was dealing with a back injury at age 35 that eventually forced his retirement.
Lee is dealing with an elbow injury at age 36. If the elbow doesn’t heal, teams don’t come knocking. The Phillies won’t want to have him continue pitching. If fact, he simply may not be able to continue pitching, and Lee could indeed retire.
These worst-case 110 innings represent that based on his personality, Lee will likely continue pushing himself to the limit. But a lack of command will lead to the Phillies shutting him down, as happened last season, and he would be forced to make some career decisions.
The other worst case above doesn’t come with retirement, but with regression. We have already seen Lee’s WHIP shoot up in 2014, and the cynic in me says that’s because of age and not injury. (In fact I would say his age was a major contributing factory to his injury.) His hits/9 shot up, his walks/9 were high for his career, his K/BB ratio was low, and his complete game total has begun to go down.
Regression and injury. The two thorns in most pitcher’s sides are now the thorns in Cliff Lee’s side. I don’t believe he will regress if healthy, but I doubt his ability to stay healthy. I think Lee will push himself too hard and injure himself again.
In the end, I think Lee won’t get traded. I do fear an early retirement, but not until he pushes himself hard again in 2016, trying to come back after another injury-shortened season this year.