Cliff Lee Can Still Be a Low-Risk, High-Reward Starter for a Contender

Anthony Witrado@@awitradoFeatured ColumnistDecember 31, 2015

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

The teams are interested and lining up. 

They can certainly smell a potential deal that benefits them when the scent wafts through the offseason air. And the aroma is strong with this one.

One-time ace Cliff Lee is back on the market as a viable rotation option for some contending club. After missing all of the 2015 season because of a partially torn flexor tendon, Lee is back to throwing and hoping to land a spot in a big league rotation for 2016.

While the bidding for Lee could rise to the point that he has a guaranteed major league deal and potentially for more than just one season, he still provides a low-risk, massive-reward kind of incentive because he can help front any rotation if healthy. After all, we are talking about a guy who pitched at an elite level as recently as 2014 when he posted a 2.96 FIP and had a 6.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio, though those numbers came in only 13 starts before the injury.

clifff lee looking for 1 year MLB deal. since upside great, he probably gets more than you'd think. main goal to win tho.

— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) December 8, 2015

Let us not be misleading or overly optimistic. Lee is a big risk in terms of staying healthy, but low-risk in terms of what a team would have to commit to land him, relatively speaking about the current free-agent pitching market.

It is more than possible Lee signs with a team and his left elbow never responds the way he or the team hopes. Maybe he makes it to Opening Day but ends up a bad pitcher. The team ends up on the hook for whatever money it assured Lee, and he is gone from baseball forever. That is the worst-case scenario.

Because Lee is 37 years old, and because he’s pitched just 13 times in the last two seasons, that is the likeliest way for all of this to play out. It would be an unfortunate end to a career but not completely shocking considering all the miles Lee has accumulated during his impressive stand.

Bringing the body, and especially the arm, back from all of that trauma taxes it even more, and the likelihood of a successful comeback is small. Or at least that’s how baseball history tells it for pitchers.

But if Lee can indeed come back and recreate what he did in 2014, he could end up being a bargain and a leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year. And in a dreamer’s world, Lee could even find enough of his old form to be one of the best pitchers in the majors, as he was as recently as 2013 when he had a 2.87 ERA and league-leading 6.94 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 222.2 innings with the Philadelphia Phillies.

The idea of that kind of bounce-back, that kind of reinvention, is why half the league is interested in what Lee brings to the table, both in terms of his medicals and his stuff, according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports. Considering it might not take much of a commitment to sign him, any contending team’s front office would not be doing its job properly if it did not at least window-shop on Lee.

At this point Lee is far removed from 2013, but going back to 2010 and right through the last time he pitched in the majors, the numbers show he is a front-of-the-rotation starter.

Since the start of 2010, Lee has a 2.95 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 7.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 133 ERA+ over 134 starts. In those five seasons, his 26.2 FanGraphs WAR mark is fourth-highest in the majors, the ERA is seventh-lowest and the K/BB ratio is by far the best.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

You can see why the interest exists. If Lee even hints at what he’s been in the recent past, a one- or two-year incentive-laden contract could end up as the biggest pitching bargain on the current markets, free-agent or trade.

That leaves plenty of teams in the mix for Lee, who wants to pitch for a contender. The Los Angeles Dodgers are probably out after agreeing to terms with Scott Kazmir on Wednesday, but every other club with a thought of playing in the postseason should be making a run at the lefty. High-payroll clubs like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and lower-payroll teams like the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates should all be seriously considering Lee.

If the comeback fails, none of those teams are crippled by it since the money and expectations are minimal. If it succeeds, Lee is a game-changing rotation piece that shifts postseason odds.

Whenever Lee signs with a team, the news might not shake the ground. But if he pitches like his recent self in 2016, it would certainly be a seismic shift in either league’s playoff picture.

All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been acquired firsthand by Anthony Witrado. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.