From Hero To Castoff, Lee Starts Over In Seattle
PEORIA, Ariz.—Cliff Lee was just starting to settle in to life in Philadelphia.
He had won over the usually hard-to-please local baseball fans, joining the Phillies in a late-July trade with Cleveland, and then not only giving the Phillies a much-needed lift down the stretch in the National League East, but also providing postseason highlights with his strong efforts.
His agent even came out of a meeting with the Phillies brass during the Winter Meetings in December feeling like a long-term extension was possible for Lee, who has free agent potential at the end of this season.
Then, Lee's world was sent spinning again.
After working the deal for Lee because they came up short in bidding on Toronto righthander Roy Halladay last July, the Phillies were able to make the Halladay deal in December.
And in that old theory of every action has a reaction, the Phillies shipped Lee to the Mariners in order to restock a farm system that had been stripped in the deals for the two aces.
The Phillies picked up Mariners 2007 first-round pick Phillippe Aumont, center fielder Tyson Gillies and righthander Juan Ramirez. They had, after all, given up nine prospects in less than two years to acquire Joe Blanton in 2008, Lee during the 2009 season and then Halladay.
There also was mention of the fact the Phillies signed Halladay to a three-year, $60 million extension, binding him to the Phillies through 2013, before finalizing the trade. Philadelphia officials came out of that session with Lee's agent convinced that they wouldn't be able to sign Lee to a long-term deal. They did not feel they could risk coming to the end of 2010 and having Lee, Blanton and Jamie Moyer all on the free agent market.
"That's a tough position to put yourself in when you've invested so much in position players," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro later explained.
Lee admitted disappointment.
"I thought things went pretty well there," he said. "I thought they wanted me to be there. I wanted to be there. But things change. It's the nature of the business."
With that, Lee shrugs his shoulders, and wishes Halladay and the Phillies well, smiling a bit when it is pointed out that he set a pretty high bar of expectations for Halladay among Phillies fans.
"He is probably not awed by it," Lee said with a smile. "He's done pretty well for himself. It's the fans' job and the media's job to talk about what if, and critique, and as a player you know that comes with the territory. The player's job is to focus on what he has to do to be successful, and he has shown he is capable of being very successful."
'A Better Story'
Lee knows better than to assume anything in baseball.
He has seen more than a couple of curveballs in a career in which, like Halladay, he has earned an AL Cy Young Award, but, again like Halladay, he also had his big league time interrupted by a refresher course in the minor leagues.
And both of the pitchers admit the step back was a key part of them taking a major step forward.
Originally signed by the Expos as a fourth-round pick in 2000, and then sent to the Indians in a package that also included Grady Sizemore for Bartolo Colon, Lee established himself as a key member of the Indians rotation from 2004-06. He had a 46-24 record, and signed a four-year contract.
And then came 2007, the year of the awakening. A strained abdominal muscle during the spring put Lee behind schedule, and he never recovered. Activated from the disabled list in May, he struggled through 16 starts, a 5-8 record magnified by a 6.29 ERA. While the Indians were battling for the AL Central title, Lee was shipped to the minor leagues in August, and when he did return in September he was limited to four low-key relief appearances. He was a non-factor in the postseason.
He rebounded in 2008 to win the Cy Young Award, going 22-3, the third-best winning percentage ever for a 20-game winner, and compiling a 2.54 ERA.
"It wasn't very fun," Lee said of the trip to the minor leagues, "but it makes a better story."
Actually, it made a better pitcher, too.
"I battled back to get healthy and then ended up in a big rut," Lee explained of his forgettable 2007 season. "The nature of this game is if you are not getting the job done, there's someone else ready to take your spot. The Indians obviously felt someone else could do the job better."
Lee also knew he could be better, and that became his focus at Triple-A Buffalo. He had to improve his location, and he had to refine his curveball.
"You have to try to make the best of the situation and I used that season as a motivation," he said. "Sometimes it takes a little failure to make you better in the long run. I don't know if it was necessary for me to go back to the minor leagues, but there was nothing I could do about that, except learn from it."
For Halladay, the trip back to the minor leagues was much more severe.
Toronto's first-round draft choice in 1997, Halladay appeared to make the move into the big leagues with a solid effort in 1999. Splitting time between starting and relieving he was 8-7, 3.92 in 149 innings in Toronto.
His career took a turn for the worse in 2000, which he split between the big leagues, where he was 4-7, 10.64 in 68 innings, and Triple-A Syracuse (2-3, 5.50 in 74 innings).
An intense offseason program gave Halladay hope that everything would turn around in 2001. It didn't.
"I did everything I thought I could, but there was one part I didn't understand," Halladay later explained. "I really had no comprehension of the mental part of baseball. I'd get negative things in my head. I just kind of always pitched that way. You let your mind overtake what you want to do.
"I thought what I was thinking was the last thing that had anything to do with the way I was pitching. I always thought the problem was mechanics or not making pitches."
Once the problem was identified, Halladay met with two sports psychologists, began to focus on creating a more positive outlook on all things in life, not merely baseball, and went back to high Class A Dunedin to open the 2001 season. He was put in the bullpen at Dunedin so he could work more often, even if the appearances were brief. Then came five starts at Double-A Tennessee, and finally a two-start cameo at Syracuse before returning to the rotation on July 2 that season.
He hasn't looked back since, winning 130 games over the last eight years—including an AL-best 22 wins in his 2003 Cy Young season.
"I don't know if I'd recommend it, but it did help me handle things," Lee said of his experience. "There's a cliché about never being too high and never being too low. After going through that, you realize the cliché is really true."
That, obviously, helped Lee deal with the initial frustrations about being traded from Philadelphia to Seattle.
"It took a couple of days, but it was not like I was out of whack about it," he said. "It just caught me off guard . . . It just goes to show, you are at the mercy of the team and what they decide to do. You have to try and stay positive."
Dream Rotation Dashed
Ironically, Lee was excited when talk of the Halladay trade first surfaced, because he never thought he would be traded as a result of the addition of Halladay. He envisioned a rotation in which he and Halladay would team with Cole Hamels to give the Phillies three potential No. 1 starters in the same rotation.
He wasn't the only one surprised by the trade. The Phillies' marketing department was planning a Cliff Lee bobblehead promotion when the announcement came.
Now, Lee is trying to fit in with the Mariners, where he will share top billing with homegrown phenom Felix Hernandez. Initially, Lee was slowed because of Feb. 5 surgery to remove a bone spur from his left foot. He is expected to be ready to go when the season opens.
And he is looking forward to his chance to settle in with the Mariners, not biting at the suggestion of the irony if the process is repeated next fall when he becomes a free agent. Could the Phillies end up re-signing him?
"That is a long way from now," Lee said. "I'm a Mariner. It's hard to sit and talk about another organization. I'm going to make the best of the situation.
"I'm excited about the guys we've got in this clubhouse. It looks like we are going to have a good team."