Phillies Avoid Cliff Lee Disaster

Mitchell Leff

It's not good news that Cliff Lee is heading to the disabled list. But it is good news it's not something much worse.

You'll have to forgive Phillies fans for jumping to the worst conclusions possible. It's hard to turn off their default settings.

When the news broke late Tuesday afternoon that Cliff Lee had gotten an MRI on his pitching elbow, images of Stephen Strasburg, Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, and every other young ace that has missed or is missing major chunks of their seasons due to Tommy John surgery were dancing through their heads.

"Hey, our 35-year-old pitcher had an MRI on his elbow! Yeah, this is going to turn out great!" said no one.

Well, the Phils caught a break.

I know it doesn't feel like a break, because Lee is the best pitcher on the team and one of the 10 best pitchers in the sport. Losing him for any length of time is a setback, to be sure. But the Phils can survive losing their ace for a couple weeks.

What would have obviously been far more damaging, both for their present circumstances and their long-term future, would be to lose Lee for the next year-and-a-half. Luckily, it doesn't look like that's happening.

"I really don't know (how long I'll be out)," Lee said after last night's 6-5 win in Miami. "This is new to me. I've never had anything like this. They seem to think that not throwing for a week it should be quite a bit better. I don't know if it'll be gone, but you don't really know until you get there. Hopefully in a week it's gone, then play catch and in another week I'll be back in games.

"I was hoping it would be minor," Lee said. "I don't know if this is minor, but it's definitely not a ligament. So the Tommy John thing is not what it is. So that's good. But we knew it wasn't that from the tests they did on me. They assumed it was the flexor tendon, but you don't really know until you get an MRI and confirm it." - quotes per the Daily News' Ryan Lawrence.

Lee turns 36 in August. So yeah, Tommy John surgery could have ended his career.

Just like that.

If Lee is able to return after just a few weeks, it will certainly help the team try to stay in a tight NL East race. But, it also could potentially help the team even more at the trade deadline, if the Phillies decide to become sellers.

Lee would likely be the top starter on the market, despite his $25 million price tag this year and next. Lee is the player that would generate the best return from another team, if the Phils were willing to eat most of his salary.

But even if Lee returns fully healthy, this injury scare should force the Phils to seriously consider trading him, even if they aren't out of the race. A soon-to-be 36-year-old's pitching arm isn't going to hold up forever, and this could be the first sign that things may be breaking down. A 36-year-old pitching elbow is a ticking time bomb, and the countdown has begun. If the Phillies have ever seriously considered trading Lee, this July/August is the best time to do it, before the whole thing goes kablooey.

Of course, if the Phils are still in it, there's no way Ruben Amaro would trade him. The fanbase would revolt. You just don't trade your very best pitcher while you're technically still in a pennant race. But doing so would be the best thing for the team's long-term future and the upcoming rebuilding process, which is sure to take place in the next year or two.

Trading Lee would be a bummer and would be a very difficult decision. If Ruben decided not to deal him, I could understand the reasons for not doing so, as long as the Phillies are still in the race. They're committed to making one last run this year.

But frankly, when the Lee news first broke on Tuesday, I was more worried about losing our most valuable trade chip than a pitcher who could potentially help get the Phillies to the postseason this year. Trading Cliff is an option Amaro should think long and hard about.

For now, it appears Lee and the Phils have caught a break. Losing Clifton Phifer is not good news. But it could have been a lot worse.

Everybody exhale.

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