Lee's return means high-stakes game about to begin for Phillies

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cliff Lee, shown here in May just before he got hurt, spent 2 months recovering from an elbow injury.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cliff Lee, shown here in May just before he got hurt, spent 2 months recovering from an elbow injury.
Posted: July 21, 2014

ATLANTA - Cliff Lee shrugged. It's the best way to handle these kinds of questions. Plus, it is Lee's natural state.

"Whatever," Lee said when asked whether he was ready for a return to the mound that some are billing as an audition for teams looking to trade for a top-of-the-rotation starter.

"I'm just ready to try to help the team win. That's what I want to do."

The reality of the situation is different from the hype. While Lee has spent the last 6 years as one of the top starters in the game, his start against the Giants on Monday will be his first big-league action in 2 months. He will make one other start before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, giving general managers very little time to discern whether his elbow is healthy enough to warrant the hefty commitment the Phillies would require to part with their ace. Lee's audition could run all the way up to Aug. 31, the last day he would be able to be traded and still be eligible for the postseason with his new team. But after July 31, the Phillies would have to expose Lee to waivers before they could even start talking about a deal with a team.

The process presents many obstacles. When a player hits waivers, each team gets a chance to claim him, with priority going to the team with the worst record. If nobody in his own league claims him, he repeats the process in the opposite league (in this case, the American League).

If a team were to claim Lee, the Phillies would have three options: allow the team that claimed him to pick up the rest of his contract, remove Lee from waivers and keep him in the fold, or work out a trade with the claiming team, which would give the Phillies a chance to secure a package of players in exchange for letting Lee walk, and the claiming team a chance to negotiate how much of the roughly $40 million remaining it would pay, with the Phillies assuming the rest. A certain level of gamesmanship is involved. For example, the Cardinals could claim Lee without any intention of giving the Phillies prospects in return. While they would risk inheriting all $40 million owed him through next season, they also would prevent the Dodgers from getting a chance to land him, since the Dodgers have a better record, and, thus, a lower waiver priority. At this point, the Phillies would have to choose between letting Lee walk without receiving anything in return, or holding on to him with the hope of trading him in the offseason.

That last scenario is the most likely one. At that point, it probably would be worth the risk of Lee reinjuring himself in the last month of the season in order to shop him on an open market in the offseason.

"It's out of my control," Lee said.

If Lee were to finish the season the way he started - a 3.18 ERA, 8.1 K/9, 1.2 BB/9 and 0.7 HR/9 in 68 innings over 10 starts - the Phillies would be in a better position to demand a significant return for his services. Of course, that depends on his staying healthy, never a sure bet with a pitcher, particularly one who is 35 and coming off a 2-month layoff with an injury to his flexor tendon.

For his part, Lee seems unconcerned with his elbow. While he spent much of his 2 months of rehab saying he still felt something minor in his arm, he said yesterday that, by his second rehab outing at Class A Clearwater, the sensation was gone.

"Maybe a little in the first one a little bit, but I think I just needed to throw hard for a while to loosen it up," Lee said. "I feel like I've done that now, and it doesn't really get sore at all. So that's good."

Lee will be one of the most important story lines in the final couple of months of this lost season. Eleven games under .500 entering last night, with a farm system devoid of starting pitchers, the Phillies desperately need to maximize the return on their current assets to build a base of young talent for the future. Lee would play a major role in that process if he were able to land the organization a pitcher capable of stepping into the rotation next season and a hitter with the potential to join the lineup at some point in the next couple of years. Given all of the hurdles involved, it is hard to imagine such a package materializing before the end of the season. On the other hand, if the Phillies keep Lee and he suffers another elbow injury, his value will be close to nothing, and they will still owe him $25 million next year and a $12.5 million buyout of a vesting option for 2016.

It is a high-stakes game, and it begins Monday.

More Phils: A.J. Burnett loses another.

On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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