Cliff Lee fallout

Posted: May 23, 2014

IF YOU'RE LUCKY, you spend your peak seasons with the same team peaking with you, contending every year, winning a championship or two even. If you're really lucky, you're Jimmy Rollins, playing your entire career with that same team, chasing cool team records, assuring iconic status in your adopted town long after your playing days are over.

And if you are neither of these . . . well, then, you're Cliff Lee.

One of two things was going to happen for Cliff Lee this season. One was that he would play a key part in a surprising season by the Phillies and their veteran core. The other, in the likely case that did not occur, was that he would play a key part of another team's playoff run, be a key piece at or near the trade deadline, his big-game reputation and the short-term financial commitment of his contract creating a bidding war that would net top-level prospects and bolster rebuilding.

For an ultra-competitive guy running out of years to win that first championship, it was win-win.

Now? Now Cliff Lee is likely to be pitching for an also-ran team when he turns 36 in August. This one. Whether Lee's recuperation from a sore elbow takes us into mid-June or, as feared, much longer, there will be missed starts that this team can ill afford to lose - but given their lack of pitching depth, probably will.

And even if Lee returns and pitches effectively, uncertainty will remain about his durability in the weeks leading up to the July 31 trade deadline, an uncertainty that will affect and maybe doom his trade status. As Lee said when it was announced Tuesday that he was headed for the 15-day disabled list, "This is new to me. I've never had anything like this. They seem to think that not throwing for a week, it should be quite a bit better. I don't know if it'll be gone, but you don't really know until you get there."

Something like this was bound to happen. Honestly, it's a testament to Scott Sheridan and the team's training staff that it hadn't already, and it's a testament to the work ethic and resolve of those veterans who have kept the Phillies afloat over their first 40 games.

You can postulate a lot of reasons why Ryan Howard continues to struggle against lefties. Just don't say his stomach is in the way, because he's never looked more in shape. Chase Utley stretches so much these days he could probably teach one of the yoga classes at Johari Smith Rollins' health club.

And J-Roll? He looks more taut than when he first arrived here in 2000, at age 21. And with the exception of maybe 6 inches of foot speed, he's playing that way, too.

Rollins was hitting .268 entering last night's game in Miami. The last time he hit .268 - exactly .268 - was in 2011. He had 16 home runs that season, which he is on pace to equal or surpass, and he stole 30 bases, which he is not on pace to equal or surpass. He also walked 58 times and struck out 59 times that season. In the seasons since, his strikeouts have nearly doubled his walks. At his current pace, Rollins is on track to walk about 90 times, well above his career high of 62.

Imagine if he was doing this somewhere else. Which isn't hard to do if your memory traces back even a couple of months. Remember Buster Olney's report that people inside the Phillies wanted him traded amid a slow spring, his "who cares?" comment and a subsequent three-game, exhibition benching.

Remember what he said then?

"I don't plan on putting on a different uniform. That's just the way it is."

And then he went out and hit an Opening Day grand slam. And backed up his spring-training words with one of the better starts to his season. He didn't pout when he didn't bat leadoff, as so many have suggested over the years he would. As his walks and OBP suggest, he has been the polar opposite of selfish, playing the role of No. 2 hitter appropriately until Ben Revere's ineffectiveness pushed him back into the leadoff spot.

Rollins likely will surpass Mike Schmidt as the team's all-time hits leader within the next month. He is also well on pace to accumulate enough at-bats to vest his $11 million salary for next season.

It would be his 16th in the same uniform. There is a home, a wife and two small children to consider, too. But he also said this in the spring, when asked if he would consider approving a trade after he surpassed Schmidt: "I don't know. If we're in absolutely last place with nowhere to go and change is obviously on the horizon, then at that point I'd think about it. But anything short of a complete disaster, I'm wearing red and white pinstripes."

There is no complete disaster. The news on Lee is just a reminder how much this team teeters on the fine line between hope and despair. There is still some room for hope, for imagining Lee and J-Roll pouring liquids over each other's heads in late September.

It just got a little harder to do, if that's even possible.


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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