Can Cliff Lee's Body Hold Up for His Entire Deal with Philadelphia Phillies?
Two offseasons ago, the Philadelphia Phillies shocked the baseball world when they signed Cliff Lee to a five-year, $120 million contract. While Lee has since lived up to his billing on the mound, the question does linger about whether he'll be worth his contract in the long run—only this time, I'm not talking monetarily.
Throughout his career, Lee has dealt with many injuries, primarily in his abdominal region. In fact, each of the last three times Lee has been placed on the DL in his career prior to his current stint, it has been for an injury pertaining to his abdominals.
So when the Phillies announced that Lee was back on the DL again after his stellar 10-inning, no-runs-allowed loss against the San Francisco Giants, it was bad news for the team. It was especially bad since Lee, who's always had abdominal injuries on the right side of his body, tweaked his left oblique.
Per the Delaware County Daily Times, Lee stated, "I've had ab strains, but nothing like this." Talk about discouraging.
As a starting pitcher, Lee has produced on the mound and has lived up to the value of his contract for the Phillies thus far. But with a lengthy injury history that seems to have another issue piled upon it each year, will Lee reach the point where he'll sustain an injury so great that it could affect his pitching for the rest of his career?
Fortunately, Lee has only had one arm injury in the past, and that was just fatigue during spring training in 2006. But with Lee turning 34 this coming August, his body could break down as the years go by.
Will Lee be able to maintain his health for the life of his deal, or will he break down immensely year by year until he becomes a shadow of his former self? We'll examine all avenues of Lee's career that could affect his health in the future and give a "diagnosis" as to whether Lee will hold up for the next four or five years.
Innings and Durability
As a starting pitcher, Lee has been an impressive innings-eater throughout his career.
With the exception of 2007 when Lee was demoted to the minors by the Cleveland Indians and spent time on the DL to start the year, Lee has surpassed the 200-inning threshold every year since 2005.
Even with injuries arising from time to time (primarily abdominal), Lee has still been able to work through it all and get back on the mound.
In fact, Lee made the fewest starts of his 200-inning seasons in 2010, when he started just 28 times after sitting for the first month or so following an abdominal strain that required a plasma injection. Lee still managed to pitch 212.1 innings that year, leading the AL in complete games with seven as well.
Lee has logged 1664.2 innings throughout 11-year major league career. The fact that the only arm issue he's ever had is fatigue during spring training, way back in 2006, is remarkable. It just goes to show that Lee obviously takes care of his arm to ensure that he misses as few starts as possible and that he keeps his pitches themselves intact.
Okay, maybe that's more speculative than factual, but I'd like to think that's a pretty good evaluation of why Lee's arm has been so sharp for so many years.
Lee's also thrown 1,341 strikeouts and has a lifetime 3.62 ERA, compiling a 119-70 record over his 11-year career. In terms of season durability and reliability, he passes in my book—at least arm-wise.
But what about the other injuries, and even those not mentioned?
Despite only having three different stints on the DL to his name, Cliff Lee does have a somewhat lengthy injury history.
In spring training of 2003, Lee strained the right side of his abdominal region for the first time, which caused him to miss all of spring training. After spring training ended and the season began, Lee was placed on the 60-day DL for a right oblique strain, missing the first two months of the season and making only nine starts in the majors that year. All but one of his starts occurred after a major league call-up in mid-August. Lee made 14 starts in the minors that year before the call-up.
After the 2003 season, Lee had a sports hernia which required surgery, and he ended up needing another surgery on it two years later as a result of reaggravation. Later, Lee had arm fatigue during spring training of 2006, followed by another abdominal strain during camp before the 2007 season, which led to the second DL stint of his career—this time on the 15-day.
Although he was able to return April 5 of that year, it took him until May 3 to fully recover. Lee also had neck soreness in 2008, though that was nothing major and he only sat out for four games.
Then came 2010. Lee had surgery on his left foot just before the start of spring training to remove bone spurs. The real mess, though, was that Lee had yet another abdominal strain, this time in the lower abdominal region, that required the plasma injection I mentioned earlier.
Finally, we arrive at 2012, where Lee strained his abdominals yet again in early spring training. Lee's current DL stint, which is abdominally related once again, is on his left side rather than his right.
Whew. That took quite a while. But it does go to show that while Lee had a spectacular, uninterrupted 2011 season, his propensity of landing on the DL, especially with abdominal injuries, is particularly high.
We've now seen Cliff Lee's full injury history. Now it's time to take a look and see what injuries, if any, are most likely to persist in the future.
Lee has pitched over 1,600 innings in his career and he threw as many as six complete games last year, all of them shutouts. He's had one arm injury (minor fatigue) during spring training, which is often expected due to pitchers working their arms back to where they need to be for the start of the season.
Considering Lee has never had a major arm issue—both with his injury history and that his innings count hasn't affected his performance—unless he really throws a pitch the wrong way and needs Tommy John surgery, Lee seems fine in this department (knock on wood).
Now to the midsection. We're currently in 2012 in the midst of Lee's five- (and possibly six-) year contract. In 2011, Lee was injury-free, save a minor strain that seems to have occurred near his gluteal area but occurred before the start of spring training and didn't affect him.
However, Lee's had two separate issues in 2012, one of which has led him to land on the 15-day DL. Two issues and it's just the start of May. Baseball has five months still to go—six including the postseason. That's not encouraging.
With both his past injuries and his current ordeals, as much as I hate to say it, I wouldn't be shocked if Lee tore an abdominal muscle sometime in the next few years.
As for Lee's groin, the issue there is that he's had a hernia surgery and a follow-up surgery two years later to repair damage done following the first procedure. Since he's had no issue with it since 2005, I'd deem him fine there.
Lastly, there are his legs and feet. Lee has never had any sort of leg injury, and the only foot issue he's had was the presence of bone chips in his left foot. With the bone spurs removed and the problem seemingly solved, I don't expect any issues there, either.
So it comes down to the obvious: Lee's biggest enemy is his abdominal region. If he takes care of it and doesn't overwork himself as he ages, he should be fine. But if there's one slight tweak, one pitch too many, it could possibly lead to devastating results.
I'm hoping for the best here. I'm saying Lee won't have any abdominal injury to the severity of a tear, but he will spend time on the DL at least two more times over the next four or five years, most likely for something due to his abs.
Prior to the 2011 season, the Phillies brought Cliff Lee back at the price of $120 million guaranteed over five years. Lee also has a club option for 2016 worth $27.5 million with a $12.5 million buyout.
Here's how it goes down: Lee made $11 million last season, which jumped to $21.5 million here in 2012. For 2013 through 2015, Lee will make $25 million each of those three seasons. That's the guaranteed money.
Then comes 2016, which guarantees Lee $12.5 million thanks to the buyout, but the aforementioned club option is guaranteed if Lee meets certain qualifications.
In order for Lee to go from a rich man to a very rich man in 2016, his age-37 season, he'll need to make sure that he's not on the DL at the end of the 2015 season because of his left arm or shoulder.
I find it odd that the abdominals weren't included in there, since that's been the bigger issue for Lee throughout his career.
Nonetheless, there's another clause: Lee must have tallied up either 200 innings in 2015 or 400 innings from 2014-2015. If Lee fulfills both of these clauses, he makes an additional $15 million in 2016.
Lee also has limited no-trade protection and various award bonuses. So, for all you naysayers who think that the Phillies should trade Lee: His contract is way too big to ship off to almost anyone, and he signed here to stay here. He's got a say in where he goes should the Phillies attempt to deal him.
Enough with the "trade Cliff Lee" nonsense already—it's not going to happen.
The point of this slide is this: Lee has four, possibly (and most likely) five more years as a Phillie, including 2012. That means that for the better part of five seasons, Lee is expected to be healthy and pitching. But with the abdominal issues he's had, plus the future possibility of arm troubles, will he be able to pitch for the majority of each of the next five seasons?
Aging is a mysterious phenomenon in baseball, but if Lee continues to follow the track he's on, the odds seem to be in his favor.
The (Multi-) Million Dollar Question
After examining Lee's statistics, his past injury woes, the injury potential he has and his contract itself, the million-dollar (or should I say $120 million) question remains unanswered: Can Cliff Lee's body hold up for his entire deal?
Let's review here. Lee has amassed 1,664.2 innings throughout his career. He's spent time on the DL on four different occasions, all of them abdominal-related. He's got a high possibility of injuring his abdominals in the future, and with aging, there's always the possibility that a pitcher can blow out his arm.
With possibly five more years on the horizon for Lee, will he be able to get the job done each and every season of his contract?
As I said before, I think Lee will spend some more time on the DL during the life of this contract. I believe that Lee will have another abdominal issue in 2013 that makes him DL-bound, will be perfectly healthy in 2014 and in 2015 he'll have another DL stint thanks to his never-ending abdominal issues.
If Lee makes it to 2016, which I do believe he will and can, I'm not sure what to expect.
But I will tell you this: Cliff Lee is an ace, and he had to work hard to gain that title. It shows that he's determined to work hard, he's got a work ethic that must be good enough to keep him among the league leaders and he's got the persistence to keep working even when injuries bring him down. He's a top-class starting pitcher, and he should continue to be one of the top pitchers in all of baseball.
To answer that burning question, I'm going to say yes. Will I be surprised if Lee doesn't last out the contract? No. I do think he'll get injured, so if his "body holding up" means no injuries, then it's a no for me.
But I'm going to take the high road and consider it as "in condition to pitch effectively when fully healthy." With Cliff Lee, you really don't expect anything less.