Is Cliff Lee ready to return to the Phillies?

Mitchell Leff

The left-hander was shelled in his final rehab start with Clearwater last night.

As Phillies fans watched Chase Utley watch other baseball players perform in the MLB All Star Game Home Run Derby last night, one of their two ace left-handers was getting rocked by Single-A hitters down in Florida.

Yes, that was Cliff Lee, in his final rehab start, getting bombed in his final tune-up for the Clearwater Threshers.

Only three of the eight runs were earned thanks to a first inning error by top prospect J.P. Crawford, but the results were still a bit unsettling. Lee gave up five runs in the first, including a two-run home run to some person named David Popkins, which is clearly a fake name or something.

Lee induced seven ground outs and four fly outs, and was pulled in the fifth after giving up two more runs on a double, two singles and a walk. Lee did retire six straight batters in the third and fourth innings, but his overall line was less than inspiring.

It was Lee's third rehab outing for Clearwater. In all, he had a 5.06 ERA in 10 2/3 innings, allowing 13 hits and one homer, while striking out eight and walking two. He is expected to rejoin the Phils' rotation in San Francisco on July 21, which would mean Lee will likely get just two starts before the July 31 trade deadline.

But after his rehab start last night, is he really ready to come back? According to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Bob Brookover, Lee thinks he is.

"I feel like I could have commanded my fastball a little better," Lee said after he allowed eight hits and eight runs (three earned) in 42/3 innings. "It wasn't great, but it wasn't bad either, so that could improve, but I did focus on using other pitches a little more. Obviously you have to be able to do that in the big leagues. The results were not what I wanted it to be, but I got the reps in and now it's time to go back and help the Phillies."

Regardless of what Lee did Monday night, it's unlikely two Major League starts at the end of this month will be enough for another team to pull the trigger on a deal for him before the July 31 deadline. Of course, the only way to know for sure if Lee is healthy enough to get Major League hitters out is to let him face Major League hitters. And everyone should get a pretty good idea where he is once he takes the mound against the Giants next Monday.

As for Lee, he said after his rehab start last night in Clearwater that he's not thinking too much about where he'll be after July 31.

"I have no expectations for [the trade deadline]," he said. "That's obviously Ruben's job to [make trades]. I'm not too worried about trying to do his job for him. Obviously, he has some decisions to make about whether to move guys or try to add some pieces or what. That's what he does and my job is to go out and try to put up zeros and help the team win and that's what I'm going to focus on."

Lee last faced big league batters on May 18 due to a flexor strain in his left elbow. He was 4-4 with a 3.18 ERA and an fWAR of 1.6 before getting hurt. And while there are potential suitors out there for his services, it is highly unlikely someone will take on his contract (owed around $12 million for the rest of this season and $25 million for next season, with a $27.5 million vesting option or $12.5 million buyout for 2016) without seeing more than just two starts from Lee.

If Cliff pitches well in August, and that's a big if, it's possible he could be traded at the waiver trade deadline, although if Cliff Lee were a betting man, I'll bet he'd say a deal over the winter is more likely.

Hopefully, the Phillies aren't rushing him back into the big league rotation before he's ready in an effort to get him in front of other teams' scouts. A struggling and rushed-back Cliff Lee will only deflate the market for him. Certainly, the coaches who watched him last night in Clearwater and the team's doctors know better than we do how ready he is to re-join the Phillies.

With any luck, Lee will be much sharper facing the Giants next week than he was last night in Clearwater.

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