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Cliff Lee fighting time and losing

CLEARWATER, Fla. - This was 10 days before Christmas 2010, and Cliff Lee had ruined the New York Mets' annual holiday party.

Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee. (Photo credit: Steve Nesius)
Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee. (Photo credit: Steve Nesius)Read more

CLEARWATER, Fla. - This was 10 days before Christmas 2010, and Cliff Lee had ruined the New York Mets' annual holiday party.

Students from six elementary schools had gathered on the Citi Field concourse to see David Wright dress up as Santa Claus and hand out presents, and Wright's teammates milled around and patted the kids' heads and signed autographs. But among the players, the season's joyful spirit was cut with dread. The day before, Lee had signed a five-year, $120 million contract with the Phillies, and every player on the Mets' roster knew what was coming in 2011.

"Yeah," outfielder Carlos Beltran said, rolling his eyes, "it's going to be fun, man."

That scene is worth remembering because of what Lee acknowledged here Monday morning: He experienced discomfort in his pitching elbow Friday and, after undergoing an ultrasound and an MRI, is waiting to hear from Phillies doctor Michael Ciccotti and renowned orthopedist James Andrews. The sensation was similar to the one Lee felt last year when he first strained a tendon in the elbow and ended up making just 13 starts.

If the discomfort is indeed an indicator that he needs elbow surgery, then his 2015 season - and maybe his career - will be over.

Lee was 32 when he agreed to that deal, the one that created the Phillies' Four Aces rotation in 2011 and was supposed to catapult them to another World Series. He is 36 now, and the Phillies never did get to that World Series, and Lee's arm is doing what 36-year-old arms often do after they've thrown 2,1562/3 innings of major-league baseball over 13 years.

It's sad, really, to contemplate the end for a pitcher who, at his best, was a marvel to watch for the rhythmic, almost-robotic way he could mow down a lineup. But it shouldn't be surprising.

Again, Lee was 32 when he rejoined the Phillies. He was on the margin of his prime. His decline was due to begin soon, and by signing him, the Phillies were taking a far more uncertain risk than a lot of people recognized at the time. They had built a team whose best and most important players were all of the same generation, and though the club was a championship contender, the homogenous makeup of its roster would limit its opportunities to win a World Series.

It's one thing to have one or two key players retire or regress. It's another to have the core of a team get too old at the same time.

Lee actually gave the Phillies all they could have hoped from him through his first three seasons of that contract: 93 starts, a 37-25 record, 667 strikeouts in 6661/3 innings, a 2.80 ERA, a 138 ERA-plus. But a forward-thinking franchise would have understood that it was living on borrowed time with Lee, that the Phillies were fading despite his efforts, and that it was best to trade him in 2013 when his value was as high as it would ever be.

Now, injury, or at least the fear of it, has compromised him and lowered that value for the second straight year. And even if it turns out the tenderness in Lee's elbow is just dispersing scar tissue, even if this is just a minor setback, it's not reasonable to think he can adjust his low-90s, strike-pouring approach to keep his place as an elite pitcher. He's past the point of tweaking.

"I don't know how to go out there and be anything other than what I am," he said. "I just wish it didn't exist. I wish it wasn't a problem."

Except it is, and it was always going to be. And yes, there were people who could see, even in the heady aftermath of Lee's return to Philadelphia, that the Phillies' period of dominance in the NL East had an expiration date, and relatively speaking, it wasn't much beyond the average cup of blueberry yogurt.

One of them was Sandy Alderson, who was a month-and-a-half into his tenure as the Mets general manager when Lee signed and who had committed the Mets to the sort of lengthy rebuilding process that the Phillies more recently had been so reluctant to initiate.

"I don't think it has any impact on where we're headed," Alderson said then. "When you look at any team, you're looking at it not only from a payroll capacity. You're looking at your competition from the standpoint of player development, from the quality and age distribution of the rest of their roster, so there's a lot of things to take into account. This is a big addition for them; there's no question about that. But there are other things that are in play and will come into play this year as well as future years."

Those things that Alderson spoke of included the inexorable march of time, and for the last three years, they have driven the Phillies to the bottom of their division and perhaps a great pitching career to its breaking point.

No matter what the doctors tell Cliff Lee, no matter his immediate future, that day in December 2010 seems of another age, a wisp in the memory. It was going to be fun, man. It was going to be so much fun.