Cliff Lee pitched one heck of a September. Hidden by a putrid offensive output from Phillies batters, Lee compiled a 1.85 ERA and struck out 54 batters while walking just one hitter. Lee has a 3-2 record this month to show for it. A little offense, Lee could have put together another one of his famous perfect months that he has compiled for the Phillies in the past. Any contender would have loved to have Lee this month.
But reflecting on his last start of the year last night to Todd Zolecki, Lee pondered his future, even going as far as to suggest that he could retire after the contract ends.
“I’m 35 years old now and when this contract’s over I plan on going home, so I’m running out of opportunities. All I can control is what I can control, and I’m going to do everything I can to help us win. That’s all I know how to do.”
“Right now I don’t,” he said. “There are a lot of things that can happen between now and then, but I just know that my kids are 12 and 10 and I’ve basically missed the first half of their lives. I’m financially able to shut it down, so … that’s how I feel right now. But when the time comes I might look at it differently. I also want to finish being good, not struggling and fumbling through at the end. I want to finish strong and take it to the house. Next year I want to win a World Series, then another one, then another one and take it to the house. That’s what I’m wanting to do.”
Lee's contract has two guaranteed years remaining. The Phillies hold an option for the third, but that would become guaranteed, should he pitch a combined 400 innings in 2014 and 2015, or 200 innings in 2015 alone. A 2014 and/or a 2015 that equaled this season would be more than enough to vest that option, and if Lee was pitching this well, the Phillies would have no problem giving it to him.
Of course, much could happen between now and then. Roy Halladay, only a year older than Lee, finished a dominant 2011 with similar contract clauses. At the time it seemed pretty likely that Halladay could achieve those.
Lee's desire for a World Series should equal that of the Phillies' front office, or they should consider letting him go. The Phillies had a 2013 payroll that was $12.5 million less than 2012. Would spending that $12.5 million on a different player? Maybe, maybe not. Looking to 2014, the Phillies have about $50-55 million to fill out a roster beyond those already signed. The Phillies need multiple offensive upgrades, two starting pitchers and a bullpen for that money. The Phillies will have to make some decisions that may not be easy or even popular if they wish to contend in 2013.
That could mean, letting a popular player go in favor of a more productive player. Take Ben Revere. Revere had a productive June and very productive July after a rough start. Fans really like Revere's personality and he is a nice piece to have on a team. That is, unless there is a better option. As older players slide, the production must be made up by others. A "good player" may not be good enough to overcome a Jimmy Rollins who posted batting averages the last five years that are well-below his All Star seasons. And Rollins isn't going anywhere.
Could Lee walk away? Maybe. It's easy to say in 2013 what you hope to do in 2016. Having seen Lee in cities on the road with his family alongside him, his commitment to family is clear. With a son in remission for Leukemia, Lee knows all too well about how evanescent life can be. Lee will indeed have plenty of money to retire with and spend time with his family. The Phillies' World Series chances are one thing, but family cannot be taken for granted.