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Phillies' Lee wants to proceed slowly, not eyeing surgery yet

Despite confirmation that he has a torn elbow ligament, Phillies lefthander Cliff Lee is not certain yet he wants an operation.

Cliff Lee. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Cliff Lee. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The look was remarkably familiar.

Cliff Lee sat in front of his locker stall yesterday afternoon while his teammates took on the Detroit Tigers outside the clubhouse doors. He was in uniform, but in no position to help out.

He spoke with an uncertain voice, looked ahead with eyes unsure of what the future held for him in the game he's played, in one way or another, for 3 decades.

"It's not a good sign, obviously," Lee said of the same injury that limited him to 13 starts in 2014 returning before he even could begin 2015. "It's not good."

Lee looked a lot like Jamie Moyer in late July 2010 in St. Louis, the site of his final start with the Phillies. And like Roy Oswalt in the same Busch Stadium visiting clubhouse 11 months later. And just like Roy Halladay, who sat in the Phillies' dugout at AT&T Park in San Francisco in early May 2013 and talked about having to undergo shoulder surgery a day after his 36th birthday.

Like each of his former rotation mates, Lee has met his match in the formidable foe that is his own baseball mortality.

Yesterday, Lee learned that a second opinion from renowned orthopedic surgeon James Andrews confirmed the team's own diagnosis. Lee, 36, has a tear of his left common flexor tendon.

He played catch for the first time in 2 days yesterday, but Lee was also aware that the same problem that prevented him from pitching last season has returned this season, and that a surgical procedure to fix his left elbow just might be inevitable.

The current plan: Lee will reboot his throwing program, beginning with playing catch yesterday and attempt to progress back to throwing off the mound. But if the pain persists, Lee likely will need surgery.

"There's no timeline [on deciding about surgery]," Lee said. "I'm just going to keep doing what I've been doing and do it as long as I can. I'm not going to go out there in pain to where something bad can potentially happen. That doesn't make sense to me. So 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."

The man who once shocked the baseball world by signing Lee to a 5-year, $120 million free-agent contract shared the lefthander's pessimistic-but-realistic view.

"We're not terribly optimistic, but there is still the possibility he can come back and throw and throw with a minimal amount of discomfort," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said after announcing the latest news on Lee shortly after the first pitch was thrown in yesterday's exhibition game in Clearwater.

"But," Amaro continued, "we've tried to do this, rehab him nonsurgically twice now, and the next order of progression, I guess, would be to have a surgery, if it doesn't pan out, or at least that would, I think, be the suggestion from the doctors. Again, we're not to that point yet, because we have to see how he does with his throwing progression here moving forward."

As with two of the three pitchers mentioned above - Moyer and Halladay - Lee looks to be lined up for an eventual meeting with a physician's scalpel, barring the magical disappearance in the coming weeks of the same problem he's dealt with for 10 months.

"It may not even take a couple of weeks," Amaro said. "It may take a couple of days. If he feels discomfort, then he might have to shut it down."

"If it continues to be a problem," Lee said, "then I'm going to have to get it fixed."

A surgical procedure to fix the flexor tendon tear - not to be confused with the ulnar collateral ligament, which leads to Tommy John surgery - would require a rehab and recovery of 6 to 8 months.

A 47-year-old Moyer elected to have Tommy John surgery in the middle of the 2010 season. He didn't get back on the field until 2012, when he made 10 mostly forgettable starts with the Colorado Rockies before taking up broadcasting.

Halladay had shoulder surgery with 4 1/2 months remaining on his contract with the Phillies. He appeared in only six more games before calling it a career.

A 33-year-old Oswalt managed to return to the field 6 weeks after facing his own uncertain future in a Phillies uniform. He pitched 15 more games with the Phillies and managed to find work with two more teams in the next two seasons, but he had a 5.43 ERA in the 36 games he pitched in following that night in St. Louis.

Lee had to contemplate his own career yesterday. Lee, who turns 37 in August, is owed $25 million this year; he has a buyout clause in his contract that will give him another $12.5 million next year. If Lee were to opt for surgery this spring, his future would still be uncertain regarding when he'd be ready to return and he'd also be creeping up on his 38th birthday.

At the end of the 2013 season, Lee said he'd likely walk away from baseball when his contract expired. Last week, when his elbow still felt fine, Lee was asked once again about retirement, and sure made it sound as if he didn't want to go out like Halladay, his fellow former Cy Young Award winner.

"I definitely do not want to go out the way things happened last year, I don't want that to be the way I finish my career, but, at the same time, I'm not going to sit there and try to fight that to get it done," he said last Thursday. "I want to go out there and have fun and feel good, and make it be a positive thing, instead of it be a battle physically."

It makes you wonder whether he'd even be interested in undergoing surgery, even if that is the fait accompli of his 2015 spring training.

"I've got to factor all those things in," Lee said of that very question. "I've got a family at home, and I've been away from them for a long time, so that is part of the equation. If I were to have the surgery, am I going to go through all that to try to pitch again, or am I going to shut it down? That's a decision that I'll have to make once that time comes. If that times comes."