While it’s hard to justify paying any player on a 73-win team $25 million in retrospect, Cliff Lee made about as good of a case for it as possible this season for the Phillies. The lefty, who turned 35 in August, was the anchor of the Phils rotation from start to finish, posting an ERA over 3.23 in only one month; an injury-plagued July in which he was skipped twice in the rotation and had an ERA of 6.05 in three starts in the midst of daily trade rumors.
Lee’s performance in 2013 put to bed any notion that his six-win “down year” in 2012 was the start of an age-based decline, instead validating the claim that he was the victim of poor run support and bad luck. Still owed at least $62.5 million over the next two years — $77.5 million over three if his 2016 option kicks in – some (me included) advocated moving Lee, the Phillies best asset, at the deadline in exchange for pieces that might help build the foundation of the next Phillies contender. The Phillies set the price high on Lee, as they should have, and chose to hang onto the left-hander in an attempt to contend this past season and beyond.
In 2013, Lee finished the season 14-8 with a sparkling ERA of 2.87 (sixth in NL) and WHIP of 1.01 (fourth in the NL), both of which are well below his career averages and figure to garner at least some love for him in the vote for the NL Cy Young award. It was the third best full-season ERA of his career (2008 & 2011) and the second best WHIP (2010). Lee struck out 222 hitters and walked only 32, all while continuing to field his position at a high level and provide above-average contributions with his bat. His strikeout percentage of 25.3 percent and his ridiculous walk percentage of 3.7 percent remain elite – he ranked first among starters in baseball in BB/9 and first in K/BB (by a lot).
Lee’s durability and consistency for his age remain remarkable; particularly when you consider what we witnessed happen to 36-year-old Roy Halladay the past two seasons. The southpaw totaled 222.2 innings over 31 starts, the sixth straight season he’s hit the 200 mark and the eighth time in nine years. Assuming his left arm holds up, Lee’s $27.5 million option for 2016 will kick in with 200 innings pitched in 2015 or 400 innings pitched between 2014-15 — numbers that appear reachable considering the level of durability and athleticism he has displayed throughout his career. However, as we saw with Doc, anything is possible.
Per Fangraphs, the velocity of Lee’s fastball dipped by about a mile per hour compared to the past several seasons, but the rest of his pitches remained consistent. He again utilized four-seam, two-seam and cut fastballs to pound the strike zone in combination with a change-up and curveball. His impressive strikeout and walk percentages from 2013 are actually in line with his figures from last year. In fact, Lee’s line drive percentage actually increased in 2013 compared to 2012. His batting average against dipped, however, from .253 to .230 and his BABIP from .309 to .287, further dispelling any idea that Lee was off his game in 2012. If you want to really crunch the numbers, Lee tallied a FIP of 2.82 and a xFIP of 2.78 in 2013 (both excellent).
Grade: A. Lee was exactly what you paid him to be in 2013: an elite starting pitcher capable of leading a championship-caliber rotation. Unfortunately the pieces around him weren’t on his talent level, which is the rub in this situation. Despite his age, all indications are that Lee should continue to provide top of the rotation results. But he is due a ton of money on a team with a ton of holes. If the Phillies plug those holes and can compete, they should keep Lee. If they can’t, they should cash in their biggest trade asset and concentrate on building their next contender, regardless of how popular Lee remains in this city. For what it’s worth, I continue to believe that school of thought is best for the future of this franchise. However, the decision of whether or not this roster can be salvaged is the more difficult part.