Cliff Lee we just saw is not going anywhere

Posted: July 22, 2014

ALL ACROSS the country this morning, major league general managers will sit down at their desks, pick up the reports that their scouts filed on Cliff Lee last night, and start considering other options for their rotations in advance of the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline.

The Phillies' veteran lefthander isn't going anywhere.

That is the only reasonable conclusion one can draw after watching his return to the mound after a 2-month absence. His stuff did not have its usual life. His command was spotty. He allowed six runs and 12 hits in 5 2/3 innings. In short, he looked nothing like a pitcher who would motivate a GM to take on $40 million in salary and part with a package of prospects. And if a GM is unwilling to do both of those things, then the sensible move for the Phillies is to make no move, with the hope that Lee will be able to use the final couple of months of this ugly season to recoup some of the value he had at this time last year.

This is not an indictment of Lee the competitor, or an obituary for his career. He had not pitched in a major league game in 2 months, and he looked the part. By all accounts, including his own, he made it through the night with his flexor tendon intact, which means he will get a chance to do it all again in 5 days. But the trade deadline is 9 days away, and that simply is not enough time for him to eliminate the doubts that still linger about his ability to be an impact pitcher for the stretch run and the postseason. The odds of his doing so were long even before last night. Teams are loath to trade away talented, young players even when the prospective return is a healthy veteran. Even if Lee's flexor tendon proves to be fully healed, it can't be proved so right now. Not after a night on which he threw first-pitch balls to 15 of the 28 batters he faced. Not after he had to wait until his 65th pitch to throw his first first-pitch called strike. Not after his fastball sat at 88 to 89 mph, a couple of ticks below usual, and his cutter lacked its usual bite.

Not to the point at which Ruben Amaro Jr. and another general manager can even begin to navigate the complexities of a deal involving a player with a 20-team no-trade clause, $40 million remaining on his contract, and a potential vesting option for 2016.

"I wasn't locating that well," Lee said. "I was behind in the count more than I would like to be. I think I spiked four fastballs in the first inning, and I don't think I've ever done that. I think it's just getting the first one out of the way, get back into the swing of pitching every 5 days here."

The only thing that can accomplish that is time, an entity with which the Phillies again find themselves engaged in a losing battle. From a certain vantage point, Lee's shaky outing might have been the best possible outcome, because it was the outcome that best reflects reality, an entity the Phillies have spent the better part of the last calendar year in denial of. While one gets the sense that the ugliness of the last month has sobered them up a bit from the deluded state that they projected in their public comments in April and May, Amaro and team president David Montgomery might still benefit from an occasional reminder about the level of difficulty of their predicament.

Rebuilding - retooling, reshaping, whatever they want to call it - was always going to be a lot more complicated than trading away Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, Marlon Byrd and A.J. Burnett. The time to trade Lee was before Opening Day, when his value was still near its peak, the same way the time to trade Chase Utley was last July.

Utley might still land the Phillies a significant piece or two, and it is worth mentioning that the team in town for the next 3 days is in dire need of a second baseman, and happens to play in the city where the All-Star makes his home. Otherwise, the organization's only blue-chip asset is lefthander Cole Hamels. Trading either of those players would represent a marked departure from the world view the Phillies professed only a couple of months ago. But it would also represent the kind of tough decisions a franchise needs to make if it hopes for anything better than a slow, painful fade into oblivion, followed by a long building up from rock bottom.

The choice the Phillies face, the choice they convinced themselves they did not face this offseason, is to spend the final years of their Golden Era surrounded by the ones they love, or to rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light. The choice does not necessarily need to be made over the next 9 days. The offseason trade market can be a lucrative one for a seller of veteran parts, given the increased number of potential buyers, and the greater payroll and roster flexibility those buyers enjoy. Utley and Hamels probably won't see their stock rise any higher, but, if they stay healthy, it could very well hold steady. Even Byrd might provide more value in the offseason, when the pool of potential suitors will not be limited to playoff contenders in need of righthanded power, and when the lack of outfield options in free agency might spur them to act.

As for Lee, he looks very much like a pitcher who will need time to finish clearing the hurdle his elbow has placed in his path.


On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy


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