It wasn’t supposed to end this way between the Philadelphia Phillies and popular starting pitcher Cliff Lee. And however it was going to end, it was definitely supposed to end with at least one more World Series championship in the franchise’ record book.
The Phillies management team made the completely expected decision to turn down their $27.5 million option on the 37-year old left-hander, instead paying Lee a $12.5 million buyout that also makes him a free agent.
The expectation is that Lee, who was never able to fully come back from a flexor pronator strain that sidelined him back in May of 2014, is going to retire. For the team’s part, this decision was coming. As reported by Philly.com’s Ryan Lawrence today, the Phillies’ assistant GM Scott Proefrock had announced back on September 27th that this would happen. Monday’s paperwork filing simply made it official.
Lee began the 2014 season looking fine through his first nine starts. On May 13th in a 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels at Citizens Bank Park, Lee yielded no earned runs and six hits over seven strong innings. He struck out seven Halos’ hitters and walked just one.
To that point in the season, Lee had a 4-5 record, but he also had just a respectable 3.23 ERA and a 58/8 K:BB ratio over 61.1 innings. In his next start at home vs the Cincinnati Reds just five days later, Lee allowed nine hits in 6.2 innings. He would miss more than two months, derailing the team’s plans to deal him prior to that year’s MLB trade deadline.
Lee returned before the deadline in a last-ditch effort to show he was healthy. He wasn’t healthy, or effective. Lee was banged around for nine earned runs and 21 hits in two starts, with a 7/3 K:BB ratio over 10.2 innings on July 21st and 26th. In one last outing, Lee was only able to last 2.2 innings on the trade deadline date of July 31st. That is the last time he would take the mound in an MLB regular season game.
He returned this spring, hoping to re-start his career and possibly again become a trade chip for the Phillies. He seemed to pitch well in his first official outing on March 5th, allowing just two hits in two scoreless innings.
Per Meghan Montemurro for The News Journal, Lee felt good immediately following that outing. “I don’t even know how many pitches I threw, but I think it was fine. I was able to throw some fastballs, mixed in a couple off speed pitches and got through it with two zeroes, so that’s a good thing. It feels normal. So far so good.”
That “so far so good” comment was picked up and used as a Lee headline by a number of news outlets, but it turned out to be premature. Within a couple of days of that start, the Phillies were announcing that Lee had experienced elbow discomfort on the day after the outing. He hasn’t been on a mound in a Phillies uniform since.
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Lee was selected by the old Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals franchise) with their 4th round pick in the 2000 MLB Amateur Draft. In late June of 2002, the Expos shipped him off to the Cleveland Indians as part of a huge 6-player deal.
In July of 2009, Lee came to the Phillies for the first time along with Ben Francisco from the Tribe in exchange for a four-prospect package. After helping the Phils return to the World Series, a 6-game loss to the New York Yankees, the infamous date of December 16th, 2009 rolled around.
On that day just before Christmas, the Phillies announced the acquisition of longtime Toronto Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay. But just as Phils’ fans were envisioning a tri-ace rotation with Halladay, Lee, and Cole Hamels, the Phillies dropped the other shoe. Lee was dealt away that same day to the Seattle Mariners for three prospects.
The Mariners would deal Lee to the Texas Rangers in early July of 2010, and he would help the Rangers to that year’s World Series, a 5-game loss to the San Francisco Giants. That off-season, Lee returned to the Phillies, signing a free agent contract almost exactly one year after the team had traded him away.
The 5-year, $120 million guaranteed contract brought Lee finally into a rotation that included not only Halladay and Hamels, but also Roy Oswalt, whom the club had obtained from the Houston Astros via trade in the 2010 playoff run. The foursome became known as the “Four Aces”, and led the 2011 Phillies to a franchise-record 102 regular season wins.
However, once again the Phillies came up short in their efforts to add another World Series crown to that won in 2008. As the team began to deteriorate around them over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Lee and Hamels remained strong. But it all ultimately fell completely apart, Hamels was traded away this summer, and Lee is now gone as well.
Lee finishes with a 48-34 record over parts of five seasons with the Phillies, with a 2.94 ERA, 1.089 WHIP, and a 2.85 FIP mark. He allowed 777 hits in 827.1 innings over 118 games, all of them starts, with a cumulative 813/124 K:BB ratio. Overall, Lee has 143 wins in the big leagues across parts of 13 seasons between 2002-2014.