Cliff Lee is now 37 years old, hasn’t pitched in a year and a half, and is coming off major elbow problems. His career is probably over, a notion that his agent seemed to reinforce when he noted that Lee was unlikely to suit up for a team in 2016 after not getting an offer he liked. Cliff Lee had a short but magnificent peak and his career will be long remembered by fans.
His story really begins back at the 2002 trade deadline deal that netted the Montreal Expos Bartolo Colon for the season’s stretch run. In one of the greatest trade hauls in history, the Cleveland Indians got back Lee, along with Brandon Phillips, Lee Stevens, and Grady Sizemore. Lee went on to win 46 games with the Indians from 2004-2006 despite a fairly high ERA. He had a miserable year in 2007, when injuries and ineffectiveness landed him back at Triple A before a brief late-season call-up when the rosters expanded in September.
Whatever lessons Lee learned in that season, he learned them well. The following year, he came back in a big way, leading the league with a 22-3 record and 2.54 ERA. He won the AL Cy Young Award that year along with Comeback Player of the Year and several other honors, and was established in the majors for good.
Lee regressed somewhat in 2009, going 7-9 for the Indians with a respectable 3.14 ERA and a somewhat-less-than-respectable 1.30 WHIP, but then got traded to the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies at the trade deadline and he found his new team pretty agreeable. He pitched well down the stretch and seemed built for the postseason. In his first three postseason games (two NLDS and one NLCS), he allowed 17 baserunners in 24.1 innings, pitching one complete game and won twice.
Manager Charlie Manuel picked him to start the first game of the World Series against the New York Yankees and boy oh boy did Lee deliver. The Yankees had scored a league-leading (by far) 915 runs in the regular season, but Lee made them look like ringers from a Sunday softball league by tossing a complete game with no earned runs, ten strikeouts and no walks. Oh, and he did this at Yankee Stadium, right in the belly of the postseason beast. It was a performance that still has Phillies and Yankees fans shaking their heads, though for vastly different reasons. Lee went on to win Game 5 as well before the Yankees wrapped up the series in the next game, but his two victories in that World Series were the only ones the Phillies got. In that 2009 postseason, Cliff Lee won four games with an absurd WHIP of 0.77.
The Phillies rewarded Lee by inexplicably trading him to the Seattle Mariners in the offseason, on the same day they acquired Roy Halladay. He pitched well for the Mariners but it was another year in their long history of going nowhere, so at the trade deadline they shipped him to the Texas Rangers. The Rangers advanced to the World Series for the first time, in no small part thanks to their newly acquired starter. He won three more playoff games in the NLDS and NLCS (the latter again at the expense of the Yankees, when he struck out thirteen batters). His magic wore off in the World Series, though, when he lost both his starts against the eventual winners, the San Francisco Giants. Still, it didn’t change the fact that here was a guy who started Game 1 of the World Series in consecutive years for two different teams (and leagues), and was utterly dominant in the runs-ups to each series. Cliff Lee won his first seven playoff starts and won them convincingly, averaging just under ten strikeouts a game under the bright postseason lights.
A free agent after the season, he turned down a better offer from the Yankees to return to Philadelphia, ending his nomadic days with a five-year contract. He joined a pitching rotation that already had Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton, leading observers to wonder if the Phillies might run the table on the season. He won 17 games with a 2.40 ERA for that team, which ultimately reached the end of the line in the Division Series. He also pitched six complete-game shutouts, a figure that seems inconceivable now, even just five years later.
He continued to earn his paycheck in 2012 with terrific ERA. strikeout and walk ratios, but was doomed to just six wins by poor run support. His (likely) final complete season in 2013 was also stellar with 14 wins, a 2.87 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP.
Assuming he doesn’t make an unlikely comeback in 2017 after more than two years off, Cliff Lee will end his career with 143 Wins against 91 Losses for a tidy .611 winning percentage, and a 3.52 ERA (which would have been lower if not for several of his Cleveland years). He has four All-Star games on his resume and a Cy Young Award to his name, achieving votes for the latter in four separate seasons (and MVP votes in two of those). He won’t make the Hall of Fame due to his too-short peak, fairly high ERA and low win total, but for a few years there his light shone as brightly as anyone’s, and did so under the hottest lights of baseball’s biggest stage.