Earlier this week, the Cardinals missed out on signing David Price, who appeared to be one of the team's top targets this offseason. With Price off the market, the Cardinals are presumably looking at a lower tier of pitchers. (Names like Mike Leake and Jeff Samardzija have been thrown out in recent days.) But what if I told you that another potentially elite left-handed starter was available on the free agent market?
Cliff Lee has been throwing and he's received medical clearance. If he finds the right fit, he will pitch in 2016.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) December 3, 2015
The last time Cliff Lee pitched, he was still one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. Unfortunately, that was in early 2014. Since then, Lee has been on the disabled list with an elbow injury that was serious enough that doctors recommended surgery. Instead, Lee opted for rest and rehab, and he finally appears ready to make a comeback.
So just how good is Cliff Lee? Here is a look at his numbers from 2008-2014.
Over this seven year stretch, which includes all of 2014, when he made just 13 starts, Lee led all major league pitchers in fWAR, beating out names like Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Felix Hernandez. He provided both a high quantity of innings and elite run prevention in those innings. He posted above average strikeout rates and microscopic walk rates without having overpowering stuff, and he continued his run of success well into his 30s. (His breakout 2008 season came at age 29.)
Lee is now 37, so it is fair to wonder how good of a pitcher he can be given his age. Here is a look at his most recent performance in 2014.
Despite being 35 and dealing with an arm injury, Lee posted stellar numbers in 13 starts with the Phillies. His ERA was inflated due to an above average BABIP (.358) and strand rate (70.7%), but his peripherals were as good as ever.
The biggest concern with Lee, of course, has to be his health. He has missed a year and a half with what was described as a strained flexor tendon. After missing the second half of the 2014 season, Lee tried to return in Spring Training this year, but his velocity was down, and it was discovered he still had a tear in his elbow. The Phillies head trainer was reportedly quoted as saying that the injury "looks exactly the same as what it did last year."
If the Cardinals (or any team) are going to sign Cliff Lee, they will have to take a long look at his medical records first. Many thought that Lee's injury was potentially career-ending, and it is hard to believe that he has put the injury completely behind him simply through rest and rehab. However, let's assume for the moment that Lee's medicals are good enough for the Cardinals.
Obviously, a healthy and effective Cliff Lee would be one of the biggest bargains on the free agent market, but even if his elbow looks to be okay at the moment, it is hard to believe that he would be able to make it through the 2016 season healthy. Given how injury prone the other Cardinals starting pitchers are, does it really make sense for the team to add another pitcher who is a question mark health-wise?
Personally, I think the Cardinals could do a whole lot worse than sign a pitcher like Lee. They have three more than capable fifth starters in Tim Cooney, Tyler Lyons, and Marco Gonzales, and top prospect Alex Reyes could also work his way into the mix by the end of the year. The Cardinals may only need a one-year stopgap, especially with Lance Lynn set to be back in 2017. The only problem is that it is hard to find a pitcher willing to sign a one-year deal who would be an improvement over the Cardinals' in-house options. In addition, a starting pitcher on a one-year deal now costs around $10 million or so, as Justin Masterson and Brett Anderson proved last offseason.
In many ways, Cliff Lee could fit the Cardinals needs because he would almost certainly sign for one year, and he offers far more upside than any of the Cardinals in-house options. If they sign him and he immediately blows out his arm, the team would take a loss financially, but it would only be for one year. If he somehow stays healthy, he would likely provide the Cardinals with a massive return on investment.