Timeout called in Lee's comeback
Elbow soreness forces Cliff Lee out of action at least until his latest MRI is seen by a renowned orthopedist.
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - On Thursday, Cliff Lee threw 22 pitches in two innings and reported afterward that all was well with a left elbow that limited him to 13 starts in 2014.
"It feels normal," he said. "So far, so good."
On Friday, he felt some discomfort in the same spot in his elbow that irritated him last year. Yesterday, he had an MRI.
Tomorrow, he will not make his scheduled start against the Detroit Tigers.
"I just don't have any idea where we're going to go from there," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said yesterday morning after announcing the Lee news in the visitors' dugout at Charlotte Sports Park.
Lee did not make the 96-mile trip to Port Charlotte yesterday. He will be available to reporters this morning.
But it's difficult to believe the 36-year-old lefthander will be optimistic, given what he went through last season.
Lee made two trips to the disabled list in 2014. He was limited to three starts after Memorial Day and was shut down for the final 2 months of the season with a flexor pronator strain.
Amaro said the MRI, reviewed by team physician Michael Ciccotti, revealed "very mild" inflammation. He said Lee's results were "very similar" to the studies on Lee's elbow last summer.
Lee's latest MRI will be examined by renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews in the coming days.
"According to Dr. Ciccotti, there's a 1-to-2-millimeter area in length that was of some issue," Amaro said. "And then the width is 1 centimeter or something like that. It's very, very small, a very pinpointed area. And, again, there's very little edema or swelling or fluid in that area. But any time it's the elbow, you've got to be concerned about it."
Less than a week into the Grapefruit League schedule, the news on Lee's elbow issues a blow to all parties: his teammates who hope to contend this year, a front office that could have had a very attractive trade chip in a healthy Lee, and Lee himself, who yearns for another chance at a World Series ring after losing in the Fall Classic with two teams in consecutive years (Phillies, 2009; Rangers, 2010).
Lee, who turns 37 in August, is in the final year of 5-year, $120 million deal.
Lee has a vesting option for $27.5 million next year (which kicks in if he pitches 200 innings this year) or can make a minimum of $12.5 million in a buyout. Lee is set to earn $25 million this season - only the Tigers' Justin Verlander and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw will make more money in 2015.
Translation: If Lee has another repeat of 2014 in 2015, it will result in a heck of a lot of wasted dollars.
But the Phillies' brass isn't going into full panic mode just yet. The brass is hopeful that Lee, who will resume throwing today or tomorrow, can look back on this as a minor blip on his spring-training progression.
"He did start to throw the next day, on Friday, and Saturday he threw, too," Amaro said. "And as he threw, he got better. Typically it's the other way around. You don't want it to get progressively worse. But you have to be alarmed, we have to be concerned because it's the same area and he feels something . . . It's the same area, the same issues he had last year."
Manager Ryne Sandberg listened in on Amaro's update before yesterday's game and, afterward, took a glass-is-half-full stance.
"There are still some positive signs: When he does warm up, he feels fine," Sandberg said. "I'm anxious to watch him play catch and see how he progresses the next few days and see if he makes a start from there."
Amaro said the soreness is once again in the flexor pronator, and not in the ulnar collateral ligament. The latter almost always results in Tommy John surgery.
Surgery has never been an option in the last year, Amaro said yesterday.
"There was no recommendation from Ciccotti, [Dr. David] Altchek, Andrews, none of those guys recommended surgery because of the nature of the injury," Amaro said. "It was such a small area that there was no recommendation for surgery at that time. All of them felt like it would resolve itself, which in essence it did. But now something in there is bothering him again, and we have to take as much precaution as possible just to make sure it doesn't progress. Hopefully it doesn't."
If Lee is sidelined for long, any hopes that the Phillies could surprise people this summer and compete would obviously vanish.
As a result, opposing teams could intensify their pursuit of rotation mate Cole Hamels. The Boston Globe identified the New York Yankees as an aggressive new pursuer yesterday; the Red Sox, Cardinals and Rangers were among the teams that had scouts in the seats Friday at Bright House Field for Hamels' first spring start.
"I haven't had any more extensive discussions," Amaro said. "I know there are teams interested . . . There's been one club I guess that's stepped up and has shown more particular interest [in the last couple of days]."
If Phillies cannot maximize the value of a healthy Lee, they will have even more reason to get the very best trade for Hamels in an effort to expedite their rebuild. But their best play might be to continue to play hard-to-get, and wait until the summer when the trade deadline comes closer and the buyers outnumber the sellers.
Of the potential pitchers available or pending free agents after the season, only Hamels and Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto are on teams that aren't likely to contend in 2015. Contending teams aren't going to trade frontline starting pitchers.
"We're keeping open-minded . . . open-minded on everything," Amaro said.
About 2 hours after Amaro broke the news on Lee, righthander Kevin Slowey took the mound in Port Charlotte for his second start of the spring and threw three perfect innings.
Slowey, 30, who had a 4.45 ERA in the last two seasons with the Marlins, hasn't allowed a run in his first two games. He's a nonroster player who entered camp on a minor league contract.
He could be in line to jump into the race for a rotation spot if the Phillies are once again saddled with an injured Lee.
"It stinks," Slowey said upon hearing about Lee. "More than anything, I feel for him . . . I hope that we find out it's nothing major and go from there."