Cliff Lee: he never wanted to leave Phillies in the first place
During what all fans of the Philadelphia Phillies have been led to believe will be one of the most significant off-season periods ever for the franchise, I’ve been taking a look back at the team’s ‘Hot Stove’ history.
Probably the most recent important Phillies move during a Hot Stove season came in the middle of December back in 2010. It was then that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. began trying to reverse a huge prior mistake from exactly one year earlier. Both decisions were among the most influential during the 2009-11 period when the club was trying to get back to the World Series.
Those two moves involved a left-handed starting pitcher named Cliff Lee. His pro career had begun after he was drafted three times. Lee finally signed after being selected by the Montreal Expos with their fourth round selection in the 2000 MLB Amateur Draft.
In June 2002, Lee was dealt to the Cleveland Indians as part of a four-prospect package that also included Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips in an overall six-player deal that brought starting pitcher Bartolo Colon to Montreal.
LEE DEVELOPS INTO AN ACE
In Cleveland’s minor league system, Lee showed enough with Buffalo of the Triple-A International League that he was given a two-start cup of coffee with the Indians in September 2002. He went 10.1 innings allowing just six hits over those two outings.
Lee won the 2008 AL Cy Young Award with Cleveland
After beginning the 2003 season back at Triple-A, Lee received a spot start with Cleveland in late June. Then in mid-August he was called to the big-leagues for good. Lee would enter the Tribe’s starting rotation and remain there for the next six years.
Lee would develop into one of the top starting pitchers in the game, culminating in a memorable 2008 season. While the Phillies were driving towards their first World Series crown in nearly three decades, Lee was putting together a Cy Young Award-winning season in Cleveland.
In that 2008 campaign, Lee went 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA and 1.110 WHIP. He also had a fabulous 170/34 K:BB ratio over 223.1 innings across 31 starts. In addition to the Cy Young honors, he was an AL All-Star for the first time, and even received AL MVP votes.
Lee was scheduled to become a free agent after the 2010 season, and it became obvious that the Indians would not be able to get him to sign a contract extension. Looking at a rebuilding situation, Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro decided to find a deal for him a year early.
LEE ACQUIRED BY CHAMPS IN-SEASON
As defending World Series champions, the Phillies were struggling to open up a lead in a tight NL East race in July 2009. A big reason was that the team’s starting pitching was looking a bit fragile.
Cole Hamels, the hero of the prior season, appeared to be going through a World Series hangover campaign. Brett Myers struggled the entire year with injuries. At age 46, Jamie Moyer was getting hit hard. Joe Blanton and rookie J.A. Happ were giving the club innings, but were not the kind of arms that a team looking to repeat as world champions wanted at the front of a rotation.
On July 15, the Phillies signed 37-year-old veteran Pedro Martinez, who had been sitting out the season to that point. It was going to take Martinez a few weeks to get into pitching shape, and in fact he would not join the team’s starting rotation until August 12.
Amaro was still rumored to be hot after both Lee and Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Roy Halladay. Finally, just before the non-waiver trade deadline, Amaro and Shapiro reached a deal. The Phillies would acquire Lee in exchange for a four-prospect package led by pitcher Carlos Carrasco.
Cito Gaston was manager of the Blue Jays at the time. Once the Phillies had traded for Lee, it meant that Gaston was likely to keep his ace in Halladay. Jayson Stark at ESPN quoted Gaston after the Lee deal was announced: “Who knows? They may come back and get [Halladay], too. That’d be a pretty good staff there, wouldn’t it?” How prescient that comment would eventually prove.
The 30-year-old Lee was everything that the Phillies hoped, and more. Over a dozen starts he went 7-4 with a 74/10 K:BB ratio. Martinez went 5-1 over nine starts with a 37/8 K:BB ratio. The two veterans gave the rotation just the shot in the arm that it needed to push the club to its third straight NL East title.
In the 2009 postseason, Lee upped his game. He made two strong starts in a tough NLDS victory over the Colorado Rockies, then a brilliant start against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game Three of the NLCS.
When Lee shut down the New York Yankees in Game One of the World Series, the Phillies appeared on their way to back-to-back championships. Alas, it was not to be. The team did win his next start in Game Five, but that only kept them alive. The Yanks would take the Fall Classic two nights later.
THE LEE HOT STOVE TRADE
After the season, Amaro resumed his pursuit of Halladay, who was scheduled to become a free agent following the 2010 season. On December 16, 2009 the Phillies acquired Halladay from Toronto in exchange for a three-prospect package.
Amaro had negotiated a four-year contract extension with the 32-year-old Halladay, who thought that he was joining Lee in the Phillies rotation. Instead, Amaro shocked everyone in the Phillies community by dealing away Lee just hours later.
The justification given by Amaro at the time was shaky from the start. He felt that Lee’s contract demands were unreasonable, and also claimed that the Phillies needed to re-stock their farm system after it had been depleted by that summer’s Lee trade and the Halladay aquistion.
However, the package that Amaro obtained from the Seattle Mariners that day of prospect pitchers Phillippe Aumontand J.C. Ramirez and young outfielder Tyson Gillies failed to convince anyone that it improved the organization to the same level as having Lee remain on the big-league pitching staff.
It would prove to be one of the worst trades in Phillies history. Our own Tim Kelly here at PN wrote in August 2018 about comments made by former outfielder Jayson Werth to a local radio station. Included among those revealing remarks were this quote:
“…they [the Phillies] offered Cliff a contract at a marginal number, we’ll say. And then he counters at a reasonable counter, far less for what he ends up signing back for. Within that day, a day or two, Ruben freaks out, he can’t believe that they would ask for that type of money – which was under-market for Cliff – and trades him to Seattle. So he was traded to Seattle for a bag of balls and a couple Fungos.”
Halladay would enjoy a memorable 2010 season in which he would capture the National League Cy Young Award while tossing a Perfect Game and a playoff no-hitter. Hamels rebounded with a solid campaign. The rest of the rotation struggled, but Amaro swung a trade to bring in three-time NL All-Star and perennial Cy Young candidate Roy Oswalt from Houston.
The Phillies struggled much of that summer. But then from late August through late September the team went on an incredible run, winning 23 of 27 games to pull away to a fourth straight NL East title.
As for Lee, he would make just 13 starts for the Mariners. With the club struggling and with Lee still scheduled to become a free agent in the coming off-season he was shipped off to the Texas Rangers following a final start for Seattle on July 4.
At the time of that deal, Lee was 8-3 with a 2.34 ERA and had been selected to the AL All-Star team. He would attend the game not as a member of the Mariners, but instead wearing a Rangers cap.
Over the rest of the season in Texas, Lee would go just 4-6 with a 3.98 ERA. He did produce solid numbers otherwise, allowing 103 hits over 108.2 innings with a 96/12 K:BB ratio in 15 starts.
The Rangers won the AL West crown and the American League pennant, reaching the World Series. However, the Phillies were not there to great their former pitcher. Halladay, Werth, and the two-time defending NL champion Phillies had been beaten in six games in the 2010 NLCS by the San Francisco Giants.
San Francisco would then take out the Rangers in five games to capture the first World Series crown for the Giants franchise in 56 years. Lee was rocked in the opener of that Fall Classic in San Francisco. He then would also lose a pitcher’s duel to Tim Lincecum in the Game Five clincher at Texas.
THE LEE HOT STOVE FREE AGENT SIGNING
The off-season got underway following that 2010 campaign with Lee entering free agency for the first time in his career. A return to the Rangers was possible, but the New York Yankees were seen by most as the early and overwhelming favorites to land his services.
The Yankees had finished in second place in the AL East in 2010, a game behind the Tampa Bay Rays but had comfortably won what was the lone Wildcard berth available at that time. The Yanks then swept the Minnesota Twins 3-0 in the ALDS, but were beaten by Texas in six games in the ALCS. Adding Lee, and subtracting him from the Rangers, would likely push them to the top of the American League favorites list.
The Phillies were not seen to be a contender for Lee at first. They already had a rotation that would include Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt coming back in 2011. It was projected at that point that Blanton and Kyle Kendrick would make up the back of their rotation.
A formal contract offer was extended to Lee by the Yankees, one that would turn out to be the highest offer that he would receive. It wouldn’t be enough.
Shock waves rolled across the game on December 15, 2010 when, seemingly out of nowhere, it was announced that the Phillies and Lee had agreed to a five-year, $120 million contract. Lee would join Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt in what the baseball world would call the “Four Aces” rotation, one of the best in the history of the game.
In Philadelphia it became known as “Merry Cliffmas”, and Phillies fans were euphoric. They would have a dominating pitching rotation that would give their still-potent offensive attack a chance to win every single day.
Not only was Lee’s signing a surprise gift to Phillies fans, but he also won their hearts forever with what he said upon agreeing to the deal: “I never wanted to leave in the first place.” It turned out that Lee and his wife Kristen had enjoyed their brief 2009 time in Philly so much that returning was a relatively easy decision.
The Phillies of 2011 would not win every day, but it seemed like it at times. That club would set a franchise record with 102 regular season wins, leading the NL East from wire-to-wire and ultimately taking the division crown by 13 games.
Lee went 17-8 with a 2.40 ERA and was named as NL All-Star, finishing third in the NL Cy Young Award voting. Halladay went 19-6 with a 2.35 ERA and finished as the Cy Young runner-up. Hamels was 14-9 with a 2.79 ERA, finishing fifth in that Cy Young Award voting.
Oswalt won just nine games and struggled some with a 3.69 ERA. In fact, he wasn’t even one of the four most effective members of the rotation that year. Neither were Blanton or Kendrick. That status was provided by 23-year-old rookie Vance Worley, who surprised everyone with an 11-3 mark and 3.01 ERA over 25 games, 21 as a starter. Worley would finish third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.
When the 2011 postseason opened, the Phillies were clear favorites to capture their second World Series title in four years. But in one of the most disheartening endings in franchise history, they were edged out in five games by the Saint Louis Cardinals in the NLDS.
Lee played a part in that loss. After the offense bailed out Halladay to take Game One, those same bats then provided Lee with an early 4-0 lead in Game Two. But the Cardinals then chipped away, scoring three runs in the top of the 4th inning and one each in the 6th and 7th, rallying for a 5-4 win to tie the series.
The Phillies took a 2-1 series lead behind a strong outing from Hamels in Game Three, but Saint Louis beat Oswalt in Game Four to once again tie the series.
In a decisive Game Five at Citizens Bank Park, a pitching battle for the ages took place. Halladay allowed just one run on six hits. It would be enough to win almost any game. But Saint Louis received an absolute gem from their starter, Chris Carpenter. He would shut the Phillies out on three hits in a complete game.
With two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning and the Cardinals clinging to a 1-0 lead, Saint Louis native Ryan Howard stepped in for the Phillies. On a 2-2 pitch, Carpenter’s 110th of the game, Howard topped a slow grounder to second base. As the final out was being recorded, the big slugger crumpled to the ground, having blown out his Achilles tendon.
It wasn’t obvious yet at that point, but history would show that the Phillies era of contention at the top of Major League Baseball would end with that play.
The 2012 Phillies struggled from the beginning but were still three games above the .500 mark and within 2.5 games of first place as June began. But the team would collapse under the weight of injuries.
Howard wouldn’t return until July and was never the same dominating slugger. Chase Utley wouldn’t begin his season until late June, and at age 33 was beginning his own slow decline. Both Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence, the latter obtained just a year earlier to bolster that 2011 team, were traded away at the non-waiver deadline as Amaro threw in the towel.
Lee would pitch well in both 2012 and 2013 as the Phillies tried unsuccessfully to quickly rebuild. He went 14-8 with a 2.87 ERA, made the NL All-Star team, and finished sixth in National League Cy Young voting in the 2013 season. Incredibly, less than a year later his career would be over.
The 2014 season opened with Lee as the Phillies primary trade candidate. At 35-years-old he still had that season and then 2015 to go on his contract, with a $25 million salary owed both years. There was a $27.5 million club option or $12.5 million buyout for the 2016 season as well.
He began the year as the Opening Day starter. Over his first 10 starts through mid-May he went 4-4 with a 3.18 ERA and a 61/9 K:BB ratio in what seemed a typical Lee season. But following a May 18 win over the Cincinnati Reds he was placed on the disabled list with discomfort in his left pitching elbow.
The Phillies tried to bring him back as the non-waiver trade deadline approached, hoping to find a deal, but he was hit hard in two late July starts. Then on July 31, the exact date of the deadline, he was given a final chance to show that he was healthy and could help someone.
It appeared to observers that things had started out well that night at Nationals Park. Through 2.2 innings, Lee had allowed just one hit and walked no one, striking out four Washington Nationals batters. And then it ended, just that suddenly.
With two outs in the third inning, Lee delivered his first pitch to Denard Span and walked off the mound, tapping his left arm. It turned out that he had been experiencing discomfort while warming up before the game, and then when warming up before each inning. This time it wouldn’t go away.
‘‘It was there every throw and I just felt like if I kept throwing something was going to snap and I just wanted to make sure that didn’t happen,” Lee said per Sports Illustrated via the AP following that game.
He tried to come back for the 2015 season but was able to throw just two innings at spring training in Clearwater. Lee would spend that entire season on the disabled list after suffering a left common flexor tear. After the season ended the Phillies declined his option for 2016, and his career was over.
In February 2016, when it was becoming obvious that Lee would never pitch again, Grant Brisbee at SB Nation wrote a fantastic piece on the pitcher who he correctly called “one of the best pitchers of his generation.” In that piece, Brisbee described what it was like for a batter facing Lee:
“Watching a pitcher move inside and out, up and down, is absolutely symphonic. But it’s even more entertaining to watch the hitters panic, knowing that the baseball can dart a foot away from the plate if it doesn’t bore right in on their damned thumbs. The hitter is acutely aware that the pitcher on the mound can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and there’s a split second to determine if the ball is going to hurt him, be hittable or be so unhittable that it will make him look like an idiot if he swings.”
Over parts of five seasons with the Phillies, Lee recorded a 48-34 record with a 2.94 ERA, 1.089 WHIP, and 2.85 FIP. He yielded just 777 hits over 827.1 innings across 118 starts, surrendering just 80 home runs while registering a 21.6 WAR mark.
He also produced an other-worldly 813/124 K:BB ratio, made a pair of NL All-Star teams, and finished among the leaders in Cy Young voting twice. In his time with the Phillies, Lee led the National League in shutouts in 2011, and twice led the league in both the K/BB and BB/9 categories.
Cliff Lee was one of the most popular players on a team populated with those types of individuals, the greatest Phillies team to never win a world championship. That popularity has never waned.
His being traded away in December 2009 may have kept the 2010 Phillies from winning another World Series crown. But neither was his return as a free agent in December 2010 enough to make that happen for a record-setting Phillies team in 2011.
It remains possible that one day we’ll be watching Lee enjoy an induction ceremony to the Phillies Wall of Fame. For the millions of fans who packed Citizens Bank Park during the final years of that heyday, it would be a well-deserved honor.