CLEARWATER, Fla. - The word "normal" has been uttered countless times early this spring training from Cliff Lee.
That's nothing but a positive for the Phillies in the case of their 36-year-old lefthander, coming off last year's season-ending elbow strain. Thursday afternoon he will make his first start since July 31 when he pitches against the Houston Astros in Kissimmee, Fla.
Lee, one of the Phillies' potential trade chips, is expected to pitch the first two innings. Righthander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez is scheduled to follow with his first outing of the spring.
Early in spring training, the Phillies gave Lee two days between bullpen sessions as opposed to the typical one as a way to ease him into camp. He is now back on a normal five-day program and on schedule with most of the other starters in spring training.
"I feel normal," Lee reiterated Wednesday, adding he hasn't encountered any issues with his elbow this spring. "Just a regular spring training for me right now."
Lee estimated he threw about 15 bullpen sessions at home in Arkansas before reporting to spring training. He has pitched several more since arriving in Clearwater and also twice pitched live batting practice.
"It's going to be good to get back into some game scenarios and face some live hitters," Lee said.
The focus for Thursday's outing, he said, is "just throwing strikes" and locating his pitches, mainly his fastball.
Limited to just 13 starts last year, Lee recorded a 3.65 ERA before he was shut down for the final two months of the season.
"I've been doing everything I can to prevent the same thing from happening and I'm trying to be cautious," Lee said. "At this point it's about building up stamina and getting ready for a season."
A plethora of scouts are expected Thursday at Osceola County Stadium to watch Lee, still a valuable top-of-the-rotation starter upon demonstrating his health and effectiveness in live games. He will be one of baseball's highest-paid pitchers this season, with a base salary of $25 million. His contract also includes a $12.5 million buyout for 2016.
The return the rebuilding Phillies could garner by trading Lee would likely depend on how much of his salary the front office is willing to subsidize. Before anything else, though, the former Cy Young Award winner needs to take the mound, as he will for the Phillies' third Grapefruit League game of spring training.