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2013 Phillies Exit Interview: Cliff Lee

Cliff Lee was a flower in the manure pile that was the Phillies' 2013 season. Can he maintain his excellence over the rest of that big contract--and will he play it out in Philadelphia?

Chris Gardner

Cliff Lee at Baseball-Reference

Cliff Lee at Fangraphs

For giggles, I looked up Cliff Lee’s worst single-season numbers in a bunch of categories where his performance is mostly not team-dependent (e.g. ERA is included, won/lost record is not) over the last six years (2008-2013). Here’s what came back:

211 IP (2012), 3.22 ERA (2009), 6.9 K/9 (2008), 1.6 BB/9 (2011), 1.1 HR/9 (2012), 4.5 WAR (2012)

This is a Leastest Hits sampler of Cliff Lee at his worst. And yet that season easily could merit an all-star selection, and depending on where you stand with the whole value-of-one-WAR thing, would be worth about $25 million if not a good deal more. In other words, Lee’s body of work over the last six seasons represents a fair definition of "Hall of Fame peak."

Despite all this excellence, there's a sizable segment of fan opinion that suggests Lee should be moving on. Lee has an unfortunate career habit of starring for lousy teams, and players in that situation always draw attention as potential trade candidates. With a sterling first-half performance that landed him in the all-star game for the fourth time, Lee was the biggest name on the trade market. Yet his performance faltered as the trade speculation reached its peak: in five starts and 30.1 innings between July 5 and August 10, Lee pitched to a 5.64 ERA as opponents slashed .312/.348/.576 off him, mashing a bunch of homers, and his overall ERA rose to 3.18.

I’ll admit that this bad stretch pushed me, at least temporarily, into the "trade Lee" camp. My reasoning was that for a pitcher who depends so heavily on his pinpoint control, the slight loss of precision that comes with age could be disastrous, and drop Lee from lefty version of vintage Maddux to end-stage Moyer very quickly.

In response to this concern, joecatz raised a really good, and entirely true, point: Cliff Lee does this every July. His career ERA in the month is 4.33; in no other month is he higher than 3.65. Batters OPS .745 against Lee in July; the next highest monthly figure is .718.

Who knows what the cause is. But it is interesting to note that Lee’s been traded twice in July (2009, 2010), and has been in play at least two other times (2012, 2013). For a guy who clearly values routine, maybe the uncertainty manifests between the lines—and once he knows where he’ll be for the last two (or more) months of the season, he locks back in.

In September, he was flat-out ridiculous: five starts, 39 innings, 26 hits and ONE WALK WITH 54 STRIKEOUTS. Oh, and the Phillies went 3-2 in those starts. His finale was a 1-0 loss to the Braves in which Lee worked eight innings, gave up three hits--one a solo homer--and struck out 13.

That has to get old after awhile. By his own account, Lee might well retire at the end of his current contract, which is guaranteed for two more years and very likely will vest into a third. Needless to say, the best-case scenario is that his continued brilliant work helps the Phillies stage a stunning team-wide rebound and the team storms back into the postseason. The next-best scenario, though, might be that Lee maintains his greatness while the team struggles yet again, and Amaro is forced to deal him.

It’s no fun to say, but considerable downside risk remains for the 35 year-old lefty ace. Lee’s top B-R comp is Jimmy Key, whose 3.40 career ERA through his age 34 season is pretty close to Lee’s 3.51 mark. After turning 35, Key pitched 461 innings over three seasons, posting a 4.02 ERA over that stretch. Even with the dismaying track record of pretty much everyone who’s ever been traded for Lee, those are three seasons for which you’d rather not pay $77.5 million.

And now, the Exit Interview:

This season was an unmitigated disaster. How did you contribute to the disaster?

Well, look. *I* wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. In fact, I was 32 flavors of awesome.

So… I was salt in the wound, because you wasted my excellence. Having me on the Phillies this year was like driving your gleaming Maserati on a rutted road from your condemned, foreclosed home on a poisoned lake to the rendering factory, with people running alongside clubbing puppies. Also, if you’re into the whole tanking thing, if you’d replaced me with, say, Aaron Cook, you might be drafting even higher next year.

If I had traded you mid-season, would the team have done better or worse?

I want to say worse, except that the team lost most of my excellent starts down the stretch anyway since they never scored for me. Again.

All of my options are open for next year. Should I trade you, release you, or keep you?

At the risk of giving the people what they want: Whatever.

The truth is that you probably should trade me, because you’ve cocked this up but good here and, as mentioned, I’m awesome and teams will line up for me… even if it doesn’t usually work out for the team trading me away. But you’ll keep me, because you and your bosses still think that there’s some way to get asses in seats and eyeballs on TVs other than building a winner, and you see me—not wrongly—as a "fan favorite."

Some people have questioned whether I should keep my job. Tell them to go "blank" themselves by explaining why I should keep it forever.

I’m a guy of few words, so what’s cool is I can answer this by pointing to myself. The best trade you ever made was to get me in the first place, and the "mystery team" thing that brought me back in December 2010—admittedly, after the total dumbass move of trading me away for two underachieving head cases and whatever J.C. Ramirez is—briefly made you a hero in Philly. Plus I’m actually earning my contract, which makes me unique among the vets to whom you’ve paid tens of millions of dollars. Wait, that probably doesn’t help. This is hard.

Overall, explain to me how your time with the Philadelphia Phillies has been the highlight of your life.

I’ve been a really good pitcher for a long time. But it wasn’t until I got here that everyone understood how goddamn good I am. Plus I get to hit and run the bases, which I really dig. So there’s that. Hey, maybe trade me to the Cardinals?

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