CLEARWATER, Fla. - On each of the last two mornings when Phillies pitchers gathered to play catch, Cliff Lee was absent. The discomfort in his pitching elbow had progressively worsened, so the 36-year-old lefthander weighed his options.
Late Monday afternoon, the Phillies announced that Lee will try for a third time to non-surgically rehabilitate the tear in his common flexor tendon. Season-ending surgery, not recommended last summer, was endorsed by doctors after the latest setback. But facing a six-to-eight month recovery while on the last guaranteed year of perhaps his final contract, Lee opted to first give rehab one last try.
If he doesn't feel it working, Lee still could undergo surgery. An operation could signal the end of an accomplished pitching career.
The Phillies, their once solid 2015 rotation now littered with question marks, placed Lee on the 60-day disabled list. He will rest and rehab back at his home in Arkansas. He probably won't pick up a baseball for at least two months. After a pair of failed nonsurgical rehabs, "it's fairly likely that it will remain the same," he admitted.
Lee said he "kind of knew when I first felt it that it wasn't good." The discomfort resurfaced March 6, the day after his lone spring start. The pitcher promptly alerted the team and an MRI exam revealed the same results as last season, when he was limited to 13 starts. He attempted to pitch through it this time, playing catch most mornings last week and throwing a bullpen session on Wednesday.
"Part of you wants to just stay in there and keep throwing until something snaps and it's completely done," Lee said, "and the other part, you want to make sure you do the smart, right thing for your body physically and for the team and for everything involved.
"You're weighing so many different things. It's definitely frustrating when you know it's basically your body is not allowing you to do it."
The discomfort "steadily worsened a little bit each day," he said. It was not drastic, he noted, but he could sense it "definitely progressively getting worse. I could feel it doing more things throughout the day."
This course of action, Lee said, is "the most conservative route." It offers him a chance, albeit increasingly slim, to avoid surgery and pitch for the Phillies later in the season. He is owed $25 million in base salary this year. His contract includes a $12.5 million buyout for 2016.
Given the Phillies' stated intentions to rebuild, surgery would all but certainly end Lee's tenure in Philadelphia. If he elects for the operation and decides he wants to pitch next season, he would likely need to go under the knife before August to give himself a chance at being ready come spring training.
"I'll have to cross that bridge when I get there," he said when asked if he would come back to pitch in 2016 if he underwent surgery. "At this point I'm going to try to get myself back to pitching this year. I'm not looking past that."
The Phillies now prepare for a rotation without the former Cy Young Award winner. Behind ace Cole Hamels, the rotation features journeymen righthanders Aaron Harang and Jerome Williams. The team will likely try to fill Lee's rotation spot internally, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said.
Cuban righthander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez and second-year righthander David Buchanan are favorites for the spots in the back end of the rotation. Non-roster invitees Kevin Slowey and Paul Clemens and 23-year-old lefthander Joely Rodriguez are also options. Chad Billingsley, coming off consecutive seasons lost to shoulder surgeries, should join the mix in mid-April or early May.
"There will be some guys that will be battling for some of those jobs at the back end and we'll go from there," said Amaro, who called Lee's injury "a big blow" to the team.
"Someone's going to have to pitch for us. Somebody's going to have to be one of the five guys in that rotation. We'll work this spring to try to develop somebody who can do that job.