CLEARWATER, Fla. - Cliff Lee will attempt to pitch through the tendon tear in his elbow that limited him to 13 starts last season. Despite months of rest and rehabilitation, the problem resurfaced Friday.
Lee is 36 and pitching on maybe the final contract of an accomplished career. "It's hard to find a problem with going out there and just continuing to try to do it just to see what happens," he said. Surgery would sideline the lefthander for six to eight months, ending his season and perhaps his playing days.
If he feels the discomfort in his pitching elbow increasing, Lee would likely undergo surgery. He played catch Tuesday morning, the irritation lingering, he said. He hopes it remains minimal. That does not seem likely.
A second opinion on Lee's MRI from renowned orthopedist James Andrews agreed with the original assessment from Phillies team doctor Michael Ciccotti. The tear in Lee's common flexor tendon "looks exactly the same as what it did last year," said Phillies head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan, who spoke directly with Andrews.
"Right now, I think that everyone's in agreement that we would let Cliff continue to toss a little bit and see where we go with it," Sheridan said. "Ultimately, if this fails, then we have to decide medically what we do from there."
The injury cost Lee the final two months of last season. The former Cy Young Award winner twice tried nonsurgical rehab only to feel the discomfort resurface each time. On this occasion, it came back Friday, the day after his two-inning Grapefruit League start, while he played catch.
"It's not a good sign, obviously," Lee said. "It's not good."
Surgery would at the very least almost certainly end Lee's tenure with the Phillies. His contract calls for $25 million in base salary this season and includes a $12.5 million buyout for 2016. If he had proved his health in spring training and early in the season, the Phillies could have used Lee as a potentially valuable trade chip to expedite their rebuilding project.
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. conceded that the Phillies are "not terribly optimistic" that Lee will be able to throw with a minimal amount of discomfort and avoid surgery.
"Listen, it got worse the last time, so the probability of that happening again is probably pretty high," Amaro said. "But we don't know that, and we won't know until he starts to throw and goes through his progression. Once he does that, then we'll know more."
Minutes after completing an encouraging scoreless two-inning start Thursday against the Houston Astros, Lee spoke of how he did not want to go out the way he did last year. Although he now faces that grim possibility, he said Tuesday he doesn't have any regrets about his career. He took extra steps this past winter and early in spring training to try to prevent a recurrence of the injury.
"I'm not going to go out there in pain to where something bad could potentially happen," he said. "That doesn't make sense to me. I'm going to play as long as I comfortably can. When it's uncomfortable to play and it hurts to play, then it's not worth it."