Today's news has been inevitable for over 11 months now: Cliff Lee plans to retire. Since being placed on the 60-day disabled list last spring for a tear in his elbow and electing a rest-and-rehab approach over surgery, the prudent emotional approach for fans of the Phillies and Cliff Lee was to assume he would never return to pitching again. That way one wouldn't have to get excited about every update or bullpen session only to be let down by the inevitable set-back or delay. In my world, Cliff Lee has been retired since mid-March of 2015.
Yet, when Ken Rosenthal tweeted the following, I still experienced some emotional pangs:
Sounds like Cliff Lee’s career is over. His agent, Darek Braunecker, told me, “We don’t anticipate him playing at this point.”— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) February 23, 2016
Every couple weeks this offseason, rumors have surfaced of Lee trying to latch on to a contender in one last quest for the World Series title that had eluded him for his 13-year career. That plan seems to be in the trash as Lee and his agent have presumably determined that he is either unable to recover from his elbow injuries of the past two years or unable to pitch at a high level as a 37 year old.
Again, this doesn't exactly come as a surprise. 37 year olds don't easily come back from missing nearly two seasons. What this does afford us is an opportunity to briefly look back on Cliff Lee's quietly excellent career. When the Phillies traded Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Lou Marson, and Jason Knapp for Lee at the 2009 trade deadline, it wasn't met with the excitement it deserved. The Phillies had been rumored to be in hot pursuit of Roy Halladay and, failing that, seemed to have fallen back on Lee. Sure, Lee was good and had won a Cy Young the year prior, but he wasn't Roy Halladay.
It's true that Lee wasn't, isn't, and never will be Roy Halladay on account of things like biology and genetics, but the argument can be made that Lee was better than Roy Halladay, at least for the Phillies purposes. From 2008 to 2013, Cliff Lee was, by many measures, the best pitcher in baseball. He led all pitchers in bWAR (37.4) over that time. He was nearly five wins better than the then-unstoppable Justin Verlander (32.6 bWAR). Roy Halladay was 5th with 30.2 bWAR, Cole Hamels was 8th with 27.4 bWAR.
Among starters with at least 500 innings pitched from 2008-2013, Lee was second in ERA (2.89 to Clayton Kershaw's 2.60), first in FIP (2.85), second in quality start percentage (72.6% to Felix Hernandez's 73%), and, of course, first in SO/BB (6.11). As a note, that last list is a fun excersise in Phillies nostalgia as all five of the "super rotation" of 2011 rank in the top 37 (Lee at 1, Halladay at 2, Hamels at 5, Oswalt at 13, and Blanton at 37).
Roy Halladay certainly had the better career, but much of that edge came before he was on the Phillies radar. For the Phillies, though, Cliff Lee was the better acquisition even if they gave up what in retrospect looks like more value to get him.
But it wasn't just the pitching that made Cliff Lee the most fun pitcher of the Phillies recent era of success. Unlike Halladay, who was super-human in his intensity and competitiveness, Cliff Lee was a laid back dude. From taking a page out of the Dwight Howard book of being a teammate and unabashedly farting in the clubhouse
@MartinoNYDN @jrfingerCSN that's actually his changeup. he usually burps.— Ryan Lawrence (@ryanlawrence21) July 22, 2014
to making nonchalant, yawning catches in the goddamn World Series
This is my favorite Cliff Lee Phillies memory. pic.twitter.com/bKGHVe40GB— Dan McQuade (@dhm) February 23, 2016
Cliff Lee kept it as real as an athlete of his caliber ever kept it. This on and off-field demeanor aligned perfectly with his effortless delivery that produced strike after strike. Cliff Lee never made it look difficult, at least not since 2008.
He'll never pitch professionally again and he doesn't have the longevity to make a compelling case for induction to the Hall of Fame, but Cliff Lee goes out as one of the greatest pitchers of an era that will likely produce a handful of Hall of Fame pitchers.
Jeff Francouer Signs With the Braves
Yesterday afternoon, former-Phillie Jeff Francoeur signed a deal with the Atlanta Braves.
Jeff Francoeur is returning to the #Braves with a Minor Lg deal and invite to big league camp— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) February 22, 2016
French will return to the team that drafted him in the first round in 2002 as he looks to continue his late-career run on teams that lose 90+ games. He hasn't been good since 2011 and, depending on your temperament, you might say he's never been good. Nevertheless, he'll always have this:
Will he make the Braves out of camp? Probably not, since the one thing the Braves have is outfield depth. At least he'll have time to spend in and around Disney World with his family for a month, flash a toothy grin or two, maybe make a last-hurrah cameo as a pitcher, and, god-willing, pose for an end-of-career remake of that now-infamous Sports Illustrated cover.