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All-Aught Indians: #2 Starter: Cliff Lee (2002-2009)

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Cliff Lee (REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine)

Cliff Lee (REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine)

The top two starters for this All-Aught Indians team has been a given ever since the 2007 and 2008 A.L. Cy Young awards were given to CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee respectively.  Anybody who gives thought to putting a Westbrook or a Colon in these two slots, think again.  While Westbrook had three consistent seasons as an Indians workhorse, he was never able to show the brilliance that Sabathia showed year-after-year, and that Lee showcased during his brilliant 2008 season.  Bartolo Colon may have been as talented as the lefty duo, but his time during this decade was all to brief.

Now I could take the controversial approach and give the #2 slot to Sabathia, but it would simply be a lie to get attention.  While Lee undoubtedly had one of the best seasons as a pitcher in 2008, his career over the past seven seasons has been some kind of rollercoaster ride since the Indians acquired him in the Bartolo Colon deal in 2002.  While Lee won 14, 18 and 14 games in his first three full seasons with the Tribe, he would find himself in the minors after struggling in 2007.  While those numbers alone place him in the same category as Jake Westbrook, his sublime 2008 season would see him dominate the A.L. from day one.

The All-Aught Indians #2 starter is left-hander Cliff Lee.

Lee made his first splash with the Tribe in September of 2002 after rolling through the minors.  Lee made two starts, going 0-1, but the won-loss wasn’t indicative of how good Lee pitched.  Lee struggled a bit with control in his 10 1/3 innings, walking eight, but his 1.74 ERA gave the Tribe brass a glimpse of just how good Lee could be.  Unfortunately, Lee started the 2003 season on the DL, making only one appearance during spring training.  Lee made a spot start for the Tribe in June, getting his first major league win, then returned to the Tribe for good on August 16th.  Overall, Lee went 3-3 with a 3.61 ERA in nine starts.  In 52 1/3 innings pitched, Lee struck out 44, while walking only 20 batters.  It was clear that Lee was ready for a full season stint.

Lee won fourteen games in 2004, tying him with Jake Westbrook for the team lead.  Lee also led the Indians with 161 strikeouts, averaging eight per nine-innings pitched.  Lee started off the season like a house of fire, going 5-0.  On May 17th, the big lefty was 5-0 with a sub-3 ERA.  Lee continued his winning ways through July.  Lee won his July 16th start, making him 10-1 with a 3.81 ERA.  Lee scuffled a bit for the rest of the year, going 4-7, although he did win his last three games of the season.

Lee’s 2005 season is often overlooked, especially after his Cy Young award season in 2008.  Lee finished the season 18-5, as well as fourth in the voting for that season’s Cy Young, ironically enough, won by former Indians Bartolo Colon.  Lee was as consistent as any pitcher could be throughout the year.  On July 8th, Lee lost his fourth game of the season.  He didn’t lose another game until his last start of the season.  Lee won nine straight games before that last start.  How consistent?  When he lost on Independence Day, his ERA sat at 3.89.  His final ERA was 3.79.  Lee struck out 143 batters, and walked only 52.

Lee again won 14 games in 2006, and while it was a consistent season, it was a bit of a regression after leading the Indians staff in 2005.  While his 14-11 record may have been a step back, he was one of only four starters to win 14 or more games in the previous three seasons.

Lee entered the 2007 season at a crossroads, but seemingly ready to take a giant step into his prime.  Was he a staff ace of the 2005 season, or was he the lefty version of Jake Westbrook, as he was in 2004 and 2006.  If 2007 was any indication, he wasn’t either.  Lee injured his groin in February prior to the season, and didn’t make a spring training start.  He start the season on the DL, and after a month of rehab starts, essentially his spring training, Lee made his debut on May 3.  Lee provided a glimpse of how good he could pitch in his second start, throwing a complete game three-hitter, but there was nothing but struggle for Lee throughout that season.  Lee’s scuffling as a starter ended at the end of July after four straight losses (his second four-game losing streak of the season).  the Indians sent Lee to the minors.  He’d return in September as a reliever, but the Indians left him off their playoff roster.

If only they had the Lee of 2008 in 2007.  Lee spent the 2008 spring training battling trade rumors and fighting for the #5 slot in the rotation.  While he wasn’t the clear-cut winner in a battle with Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers, he still received likely his last shot as a starter with the Indians.  Boy would he take the ball and run with it.  Lee was scintillating during April and the first part of May.  He started off the season winning his first five starts, and after a nine-inning, no run, no decision, his record stood at 6-0 with a 0.67 ERA.  I could go on and on about this season, but the final numbers speak for themselves.  Lee ended the season at 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA, and won the Cy Young Award.  He struck out 170, and walked only 34.  His winning percentage was the third highest in the history of baseball for a 20-game winner.  It really doesn’t get any better than that.

Lee ended his Tribe career in 2009 under many, many trade rumors.  While he showcased the Cy Young talent once again, you could tell that he was struggling a bit with the rumors of his departure.  Lee won his last three starts for the Tribe in June, with two complete games and a seven inning stint that lowered his ERA nearly half a run.  It was also his final straw with the Indians.  Tribe GM Mark Shapiro dealt Lee to the Philadelphia Phillies in late June, ending his tenure with the Indians.

Overall, Lee finished his eight seasons with the Tribe with an 83-48 record, with 826 K’s, and 322 walks.  His overall ERA was 4.01.  He made one appearance in the All-Star game, finished fourth in Cy Young voting in 2005, and won the award in 2008.  If not for the brilliance of CC Sabathia, Lee would be a clear choice for the top slot in the All-Decade rotation.

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