It's beyond obvious to say Cliff Lee could help the Red Sox. It's beyond obvious to say that Cliff Lee could help anyone.
If the Phillies dangle the left-hander on the market this summer, there should be no shortage of interested parties -- barring an avoidance for injury. What the left-hander did on Tuesday night at Fenway Park can be held up as Exhibit A in a contender's daydreams, a dazzling performance in which the 2008 AL Cy Young winner sailed through a Red Sox lineup notorious for driving up pitch counts and cackled in its face, needing just 95 pitches to buzz through eight innings with eight punch outs and no walks.
The Red Sox entered the day ranked third in the AL in runs per game (5.02) and first in pitches per plate appearance (4.09). But against Lee, an offensive approach meant to grind opposing starters to bits instead ground to a complete halt.
"That's the one way to attack our approach is to pitch to quality locations early and often and he's a guy that can do that," said Sox manager John Farrell. "I think you saw us respond by trying to go earlier in the count with some swings. You have to tip your hat where it's due. He pitched a very good game."
The game offered echoes of Lee's dominance in the 2009 postseason, when he cut through opposing lineups like a buzzsaw. Tuesday marked a vintage Lee performance, one that was, for Sox manager Farrell -- who worked with the pitcher as the director of player development in the Indians system from 2002-06 -- a familiar sight.
"You wouldn't know if it was 2007 or 2013 tonight the way he threw," said Farrell, presumably alluding to his Cy Young season of 2008 (rather than a 2007 season that represented the one real blotch on Lee's resume in the big leagues).
That agelessness -- the inability to distinguish the 29-year-old Lee of 2008 from the current 34-year-old version -- gets to the heart of the intrigue surrounding what kind of interest teams should have in the left-hander if the Phillies make him available via trade. Is he worth an immense cost, both in terms of the dollars that he would be owed and the prospects that it would take to pry him from Philadelphia, as a 34-year-old who remains one of the game's best pitchers?
After all, the talent is matched by few in the game. Consider this: Lee is 6-2 with a 2.34 ERA, 7.0 strikeouts per nine, 1.5 walks per nine and a major league-leading 80 2/3 innings pitched. In his last four starts, he's averaging just under eight innings per outing with a 0.87 ERA.
So, it seemed fair to wonder, is this as good as Lee has ever been? Presented with the question, Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee immediately shook his head in protest.
"Two years ago, he had two months where he gave up just one run in each month," Dubee said, recalling a 2011 campaign in which Lee allowed one run in 42 innings in June (0.21 ERA) and then two in 39 2/3 innings in August (0.45 ERA). "Pretty phenomenal."
Think about that: Lee's incredible four-start run doesn't even stand out as exceptional in his career. Still, at 34, he's performing close to his career peak. And right now, he looks as durable as ever, his fluid and seemingly effortless delivery putting him on pace for 250 frames this year and having him look, according to Farrell, like he did in his 20s.
Still, he's 34 years old. The odds are against him remaining such a workhorse.
If the Phillies make him available, teams must wrestle with the question of whether he will remain durable not just this year but in both 2014 (when he will be 35), 2015 (36) and, potentially, at age 37. Lee's contract calls for him to earn $25 million in both 2014 and 2015 (the same amount he will earn this year) with a $27.5 million option (which becomes guaranteed if he logs 200 innings in 2015 or 400 in 2014-15) and a $12.5 million buyout.
So, if he moves at this year's deadline, barring a subsidy from the Phillies, the team that acquires him would be on the hook for at least (approximately) $70 million through the end of 2015 (and possibly more than $85 million through the end of 2016). What kind of bet is that for a pitcher who is already in his mid-30s?
Lee is already an outlier. He is part of a small segment of pitchers who logged 200-plus innings every year between ages 29 and 33. Since 1980, Lee is the 11th pitcher to record that many innings in five straight years from ages 29-33. He's had a couple of hiccups -- an oblique injury last year, for instance, that resulted in a few weeks on the DL -- but he's in a small class of pitchers in terms of durability through their late-20s and early-30s.
Still, a pitcher's durability in his early-30s is different than his durability in his mid-30s. Of the previous pitchers in Lee's class as 200-innings-a-year contributors between ages 29-33, just four of the previous nine (Lee and Mark Buehrle have not yet pitched a complete season over the age of 33, so they don't count in this examination; Bronson Arroyo is pitching in his age 36 season right now) had a year of 200-plus innings at ages 35 or 36. Only one (Jack Morris) logged 200-plus innings seasons at ages 35 AND 36.
So, odds suggest that there's a very good chance that even a durable pitcher like Lee might not log a single 200-inning season when he's cashing some enormous paychecks in a couple of years. Even if the bar is lowered to 180 innings, the odds only improve slightly, as just five of the nine previous pitchers in Lee's age 29-33 durability class have worked a 180-inning season at ages 35 or 36, and just two (Morris, Greg Maddux) turned in two such campaigns.
Can Lee be an outlier among a group of outliers? As he gets ready to surpass the 2,000 career innings threshold later this year, can he remain healthy and productive? The Phillies certainly hope so.
"He's dedicated to his profession, keeps himself in great shape, he's always been wiry strong, he's got a good clean delivery that he repeats without a lot of stress on his arm," said Dubee. "You hope [the delivery allows him to defy typical aging patterns]. Except for a couple of obliques he's been pretty sound -- very sound. It's a combination of rhythm and timing there and a guy who keeps himself very fit."
Still, there is a considerable gamble in play for the Phillies or anyone else who might wish to acquire Lee at this year's deadline. That said, assuming the risk of the rest of his contract might not be a terrible bet.
After all, the opportunities to acquire a pitcher of Lee's ability level are increasingly few and far between. More than ever, teams are tying up elite talents (see Hernandez, Felix; and Verlander, Justin) long before they can reach free agency, with commitments that are leaving teams on the hook for six and seven years for pitchers. In that context, the opportunity to acquire Lee might be in keeping with the Sox' interest in paying top dollar for talent on shorter-term deals. The risk associated with two and a half years of Lee is considerably less than locking up, say, Zack Greinke for six years or Anibal Sanchez for five years.
That reality, in turn, means that the cost of Lee should be not just a willingness to assume his contract but also outstanding prospects, just as the Dodgers had to give up Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa while still liberating hundreds of millions of dollars in potentially disappointing contracts from the Sox last August.
That's an awful lot to put on the line for anyone, particularly someone with as much mileage as Lee has on his arm. Still, the idea of pairing Lee with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz is a fascinating one, particularly given that the Sox have the financial flexibility to take on a major, relatively short-term contract as well as the prospect pool from which to enact a summer blockbuster.
That being the case, if the Phillies do end up exploring Lee's market, it would likely be more surprising if the Sox didn't get involved than if they did. The risk is considerable, but the opportunity of such an obvious difference-maker is too rare to ignore.