Four teams are left standing in 2010, each boasting an unseemly complement of pitching studs.
Somehow, stacked against the likes of CC and The Freak and Doc and Hamels and Oswalt and Cain and Sanchez, Cliff Lee manages to stand alone, and it’s really not even close.
On account of Lee’s sheer brilliance, his impending free agency and his Rangers’ unprecedented now-deep run into the postseason, the easy-throwing southpaw is the toast of the baseball world, eclipsing even Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum. All they’ve done is toss the second no-hitter in postseason history and a 14-strikeout shutout, respectively.
Incredibly, Lee’s ascent has been as circuitous as it has been protracted.
For a while, it looked like he’d be the least celebrated of the relevant players whom the Indians acquired from the Expos in 2002 in exchange for Bartolo Colon. Grady Sizemore was a star almost instantly upon arrival in the bigs, and Brandon Phillips came into his own once he was given a clean slate in Cincinnati.
Lee, though, was something else. His upside was always sort of there, but the results were uneven. After cups of coffee in 2002-03, the southpaw was rather mediocre in his first three full seasons in Cleveland in 2004-06 (4.50 ERA, 97 ERA+ in 98 starts).
Then, 2007 happened. Lee was any combination of injured, ineffective and controversial. His season false started on an injured groin in Spring Training. He was bad upon returning. Worse still, he took on fans who booed him and engaged in a clubhouse tiff with catcher Victor Martinez. Lee was demoted to the Minors for a stretch and was utterly invisible during the Indians’ run to the ALCS. That’s right — Lee was in the Minor Leagues as recently three seasons ago, at age 29. He should have been what he is now. He should have been in the prime of his career.
In 2008, a new Lee was born, as it were. Suddenly, everything seemed to click for him. The guy knifed through lineups effortlessly. He began striking out more batters, walking fewer, and was notably stingy with respect to allowing homers. His ERA+ jumped to 168, which was light years ahead of his next-closest single-season ERA+ of 111 (2005). A guy whose career may have been on the ropes just a season earlier — a guy who was demoted to the Minors — was named the American League Cy Young Award winner.
Even then, in 2008, folks began to wonder: When does this Lee hit the open market? And these thoughts crept in for good reason. That was Lee’s age-30 season, his fifth full campaign in the bigs, which doesn’t even take into account his brief stints in 2002 and ’03. For crying out loud: The guy was drafted by the Expos. How many of those were still kicking around in 2008, let alone now?
Now, Lee’s protracted march toward free agency is nearing its conclusion. After two additional seasons in which Lee proved 2008 was hardly a fluke, he’s on the cusp of a monstrous payday. The wait has been whittled down to perhaps as few as a precious start or two, depending upon how his Rangers fare against the Yankees in the ALCS. That his last stand prior to his date with the open market may be made against the Bronx Bombers is no small irony. It’s long been assumed that the Yanks will commence a dogged pursuit of the left-hander in the offseason.
Lee is so highly regarded by the Yankees, in fact, that they essentially had a deal in place with the Mariners to acquire him this season. Seattle pulled out at the last minute and instead chose to send Lee to Texas, but it wasn’t for lack of trying by the Bombers. They offered prized catching prospect Jesus Montero to the M’s, and Yanks general manager Brian Cashman is not one to flippantly shop around his blue-chip farmhands.
If Lee should be wooed to the Yankees (or anyone other than the Indians, Phillies, Mariners or Rangers) this offseason, it would become his fifth team in the past three seasons. That’s a lot for a pitcher of Lee’s ilk. Guys like this aren’t supposed to bounce around the league. Their teams are supposed to lock them in to long-term deals, post haste.
This transience, I suspect, plays no small role in Lee’s recently discovered perch atop the pitching pantheon. Each time we watch him pitch — each time we watch him dominate even the best teams, as he did the Rays twice in the ALDS — we are enticed by the lure of wondering where he’ll pitch next, with the (albeit dim) optimism that he could be on our respective team’s in 2011.
I’ve wondered: The Mets could make a run at this guy in the offseason, right? Of course, I know this to be highly unlikely. But the intrigue is there.
For the Bronx Bombers, that lure is very real, as they’ll almost certainly factor heavily into the Lee sweepstakes this offseason. But for now, they must contend with him, try to beat him, and that has not proven easy for them (or anyone else, for that matter). Rare and celebrated is the pitcher who has stared down the mighty Yankees on the game’s biggest stage and given them fits, but Lee is among them.
Joining the ranks of noted postseason Yankee killers Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson (2001) and Josh Beckett (2003), Lee manacled the Bombers in last season’s World Series for the Phillies, earning wins in each of his two starts and posting a 2.81 ERA. It wasn’t just that Lee beat the Yankees twice, it was also how he did it. He exuded nonchalance in a spot where so many others before him have wilted, going so far as to have the audacity to cavalierly field a comebacker behind his back. On a play of a similar tone, he could barely be bothered to cleanly field a dying quail back to the mound, nearly allowing it to pop out of his glove.
And that’s part of the draw here with Lee, too: Aside from his tangible brilliance, he owns a certain Je ne sais quoi. For all of the effortless coolness, he jogs off the mound hurriedly at the end of each inning, as if to say he can’t wait for his team to bat then get back out there for his next half-inning. It’s a boyish affectation, certainly, equal parts charming and curious. A guy this good shouldn’t move quickly for anyone, like Paulie in Goodfellas. But he does.
And now, having already taken baseball by storm and with a fat paycheck awaiting him at season’s end, he’ll again try to take down the Yankees, the team for which he may very well pitch in 2011. The contract, regardless of which team gives it to him, will bring closure to a winding journey to supremacy among the ranks of the game’s best pitchers.