Cliff Lee's Return Leaves More Questions Than Answers as Trade Deadline Nears

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJuly 22, 2014

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Cliff Lee carried a lot of questions out to the mound on Monday night. After surrendering six earned runs and 12 hits in 5.2 shaky innings in a 7-4 loss to the San Francisco Giants, he left most of them unanswered.

Making his first start since May 18, when a left elbow strain landed him on the disabled list, the 35-year-old southpaw looked rusty. No surprise there.

But Lee isn't just any pitcher working his way back from an injury. He's a potential trade target, coveted by an array of contending teams looking to bolster their pitching staffs ahead of the July 31 trade deadline.

Provided, that is, he still looks like Cliff Lee.

On Monday, he didn't. His command was erratic, and his fastball sat around 89-90 mph. He managed just three strikeouts. And in his final frame, he surrendered a booming home run to Giants first baseman Adam Duvall, a no-name rookie with a grand total of 23 big league at-bats under his belt, and a double to utility infielder Joaquin Arias.

"I felt good physically, I just wasn't able to locate," Lee said after the game, per Marc Narducci of The Philadelphia Inquirer. "Hopefully, I can iron that out between now and my next start."

That next start will be Lee's last before the deadline, meaning prospective suitors have precious little time to assess his abilities, or lack thereof.

His track record speaks for itself—a playoff-tested stud, Lee at his best, or even something approaching his best, would be a boon for any team with October aspirations.

The New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays sent scouts to Lee's final rehab start, per Jim Salisbury of (via Yahoo Sports), and more were on hand at Citizens Bank Park to watch his MLB return.

Mired in last place, the Phillies are in full-on sell mode. At least one of Lee's teammates, closer Jonathan Papelbon, has openly expressed his desire to be dealt to a contender.

"Some guys want to stay on a losing team? That's mind-boggling to me," Papelbon told The Philadelphia Inquirer's Matt Gelb. "I think that's a no-brainer."

"When you're close to winning, you bring guys in," shortstop Jimmy Rollins, also a subject of trade speculation, bluntly told Andy Martino of the New York Daily News. "When you're not winning at all, it's how much money can we get rid of that makes sense? What can we get rid of? And how do we rebuild with the money saved? And that's where we are. It's who can we get rid of."

Lee doesn't see it that way. Here's what he told Salisbury, when pressed about the persistent trade rumors:

I know it's the trade deadline and I know we haven't played well this year and potentially guys could get traded and I'm obviously one of those guys. I don't know what to think other than that. Right now I'm a Phillie and I'm going to try to help this team win. Hopefully we can turn it around and get on a stretch and get up close to the trade deadline and next thing you know we're closer to being back in it and it's not an issue.

Then again, it's not up to Lee whether he finishes the season in Philadelphia or somewhere else. It's up to the Phillies and any potential suitors who may be willing to part with prospects and/or swallow the roughly $50 million remaining on Lee's contract.

If he looks sharp, or at least sharper, in his next start, will it up his value and increase the likelihood of a trade? If he falters again like he did against the Giants or fares worse, will even desperate big spenders like the Yankees—who are on the fringes of the playoff picture and without injured ace Masahiro Tanakaback away?

One way or another, those questions will be answered. On Monday night, they weren't.