Cliff Lee left his last game July 31 last year. And if he needs surgery, it's possible he won't pitch again until 2016.
Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images
Cliff Lee’s career is not over. He was in uniform with the Philadelphia Phillies here Tueday. He even did some throwing and felt “OK,” according to his general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr.
Yet it’s reasonable to wonder whether we’ve seen the last of the Lee we knew — the precision pitcher with the Cy Young Award, two sparkling postseasons and four All-Star appearances.
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He was unable to pitch after July 31 last season because of a flexor pronator strain in his left (throwing) arm. The Phillies hoped Lee would heal during the seven months he was away from game action. He didn’t. Lee, 36, made it through only one appearance this spring before the elbow flared up again.
Phillies officials confirmed Lee’s diagnosis Tuesday, following a consultation with Dr. James Andrews: His common flexor tendon has a partial tear.
Phillies head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan said Tommy John surgery wouldn’t be recommended for an injury of this type. That’s not necessarily the relief it appears to be. If Lee continues to feel pain as he resumes throwing — which is likely, given what we know — the course of action is unclear.
In that event, Amaro and Sheridan agree that some type of surgery would be recommended. But the more troubling possibility is that Lee has more than 2,100 major-league innings on his arm and feels about as good as he’s going to feel.
“The MRI has a tear in it, and he’s still feeling that (tear),” Sheridan said. “There will be some changes in his MRI for the rest of his life. … You have to understand: The MRI always doesn’t match up with the symptoms of the person you’re treating. You can’t treat the MRI. You treat the player. That’s why you do the clinical exam and functional stuff, on top of looking at the MRI.”
Later, Sheridan added: “I would say there’s a good portion of players (who) probably have pitched with something like this at some point in time, but you don’t really know it because they never come in and complain. They just assume that’s how they feel.”
In other words: Whether the MRI suggests that Lee should be able to pitch through the injury is immaterial. The fact is — at this stage — he can’t.
“We’re not terribly optimistic, but there’s still a possibility he can come back and throw with a minimal amount of discomfort,” Amaro said. “We’ve tried to do this rehab non-surgically twice now, and the next order of progression, I guess, would be to have a surgery if it doesn’t pan out. At least, that would be the suggestion from the doctors.
“Again, we’re not at that point yet. We have to wait to see how he does with his throwing progression.”
It’s worth noting that the Phillies haven’t even announced that Lee will begin the regular season on the disabled list. They are highly motivated to nurse him back to pitching health, for three reasons: He is one of the Phillies’ best pitchers, he has $37.5 million left on his contract (including the buyout of a 2016 club option), and he could be traded for prospects to help initiate the Phillies’ rebuild.
Of course, he only has value — to the Phillies or another team — if he’s on the mound. Surgery likely would cost Lee anywhere from six to eight months, at which point he’d be a 37-year-old free agent who hasn’t pitched in a year and a half.
This isn’t the way any of us want to remember Lee, after those captivating Octobers in 2009 and 2010. But that’s the sad reality for Philadelphia, where the franchise-record 102-win season of 2011 feels about as long ago as the Constitutional Convention.