By Tim Casey
PHILADELPHIA -- Before the 2011 season, the cover of Sports Illustrated's baseball preview issue featured the Phillies' rotation with the caption: No Hitters. How the Phillies' Legion of Arms Will Dominate. Cliff Lee, the team's prized offseason acquisition, stood in the middle of the photo staring straight ahead and surrounded by the four other starting pitchers. The group of Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton was considered the best in baseball and among the most hyped in recent memory.
For the Phillies, the promise of 2011 has transformed into the bleak reality of 2014. At Citizens Bank Park on Saturday night, Lee faced the Arizona Diamondbacks in what could be his final Phillies start. After a subpar performance, his trade value is about as low as it's been in a long time. Teams may not be willing to give the Phillies much in exchange for a pitcher who turns 36 in August and is coming off of an injury. Last week, ESPN's Buster Olney quoted an unnamed executive who predicted Lee would pass through waivers next month without a team claiming him, meaning he can get still get traded after the July 31 deadline.
Asked late Saturday night if he wanted to remain in Philadelphia, Lee didn't hesitate.
"I signed with the Phillies because I wanted to come here, and I'm here," he said. "I want to win here. That's what we should all want."
If Lee does stay with the Phillies, it seems unlikely he'll ever win like he expected when he re-joined the team three years ago. On Saturday, the Phillies lost 10-6, blowing a 6-2 lead and allowing four runs in the 10th inning. They fell to 45-59 and remained in last place in the National League East, a long way from the franchise that made the playoffs five consecutive times from 2007 to 2011.
Lee struggled in his second appearance since missing more than two months with a strain in his left elbow. He lasted five innings, threw 85 pitches (53 strikes), allowed nine hits and three earned runs, issued two walks and struck out four hitters. His fastball sat between 87 mph and 90 mph, and he wasn't as effective as usual at throwing strikes and getting ahead of batters. He claims that he doesn't have any lingering arm problems.
"The elbow's a non-issue at this point," said Lee, who did go 2-for-2 from the plate with an RBI and run scored. "It's just a matter of getting honed back in and getting to where I'm locating better. I know that's what I do. I'm always trying to improve on it, but the past two games haven't been even close to what I want it to be. Today wasn't that far off, but I just threw way too many balls, period."
Besides health concerns, Lee's contract may be a hindrance for a trade, although teams are only on the hook to pay him through 2016. As part of his five-year deal, he is making $25 million this year (tied for second highest in the majors) and $25 million next year (tied for the fourth highest). In 2016, the Phillies (or whichever team he's playing for at the time) can buy out his deal for $12.5 million, but Lee has a $27.5 million vesting option that year that becomes guaranteed if he pitches 200 innings in 2015 or 400 innings combined in 2014 and 2015. ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick reported last week that Lee could block trades to 20 teams, per the terms of his contract.
When Lee signed with the Phillies as a free agent in December 2010, he rejected higher offers from the Yankees and Rangers, a stunning decision that caught most in the industry off guard. Instead, he chose to return to a franchise he was comfortable with and knew well. Two days before the trade deadline in July 2009, the Indians had dealt Lee to Phillies, giving them a pitcher who had won the American League Cy Young Award the previous season.
After arriving in Philadelphia and changing leagues, Lee was even better, never more so than in the postseason. In five playoff starts, he went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA, 33 strikeouts and six walks. Against the Yankees in the World Series, Lee won both of his starts, but the Phillies couldn't win another game and failed to repeat as champions. Despite Lee's dominance, the Phillies traded him to the Mariners that December for three prospects. The following July, Lee was traded again, this time to the Rangers. His experiences changing teams and being mentioned constantly this time of year have taught him to ignore any trade chatter.
"It makes no sense for me to put any thought into it," Lee said. "I have no say in the matter. It's pointless to worry about."
On Saturday, Lee struggled at the start, allowing two hits and a walk and throwing 33 pitches in the first inning. After he hit Gerardo Parra's right elbow to load the bases with two outs, teammates Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins approached the mound and briefly spoke with Lee. Tuffy Gosewisch, the next batter, fouled out to Howard to keep the Phillies' deficit at 1-0.
In the third, Lee allowed a leadoff home run to Martin Prado on a 73 mph, 0-2 curveball and then walked Paul Goldschmidt on four consecutive fastballs, but the Diamondbacks didn't score again that inning. Prado added an RBI single in the fourth for the final run that Lee yielded.
"It looks like he's still building up the arm strength," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. "The ball's just not coming out crisp and darting with some life at home plate. He's lacking that right now along with the command."
Since Lee signed his free-agent contract, the Phillies have made only one postseason appearance, losing 3-2 to the Cardinals in the 2011 National League Division Series. In Game 2, Lee blew a four-run lead as the Phillies fell 5-4 at home and ended up getting knocked out of the opening round, a disappointing end for a team that won a franchise-record 102 regular season games.
On Saturday night, the playoffs seemed so far away. After the Diamondbacks scored four runs in the top of the 10th inning, what was left of a crowd of 29,097 booed the home team. The game finally ended after four hours and 20 minutes when Diamondbacks reliever Addison Reed struck out Marlon Byrd swinging at a slider.
Of the five Phillies' pitchers who posed for the Sports Illustrated cover photo in 2011, three (Halladay, Oswalt and Blanton) are retired. Only Hamels, who is having arguably his best year ever, seems to be in the prime of his career. Lee still has to prove he can remain a top-of-the-rotation starter.
He did mention that he would have liked to have returned from his injury pitching like he had before hurting his arm in May. He understands, though, that that's unrealistic.
"As much as I've ran and lifted weights and did everything I did in between, there's nothing that simulates actually going out there and playing the game," Lee said. "Doing that's what's going to get you back to where you need to be. I'm going to try to work as hard as I can and go out there every five days and do my best."
Whether he does so with the Phillies or another team remains to be seen.
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Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.