Prospect Retro: Cliff Lee
Cliff Lee was drafted by the Montreal Expos in the fourth round in 2000, out of the University of Arkansas, where he'd posted a 4.45 ERA and a 77/52 K/BB ratio in 65 innings, showing a strong strikeout rate but struggling with his control. He owned a 90-94 MPH fastball, and his curve, slider, and changeup were all promising, but because of the command problem and a disciplinary suspension, he lasted until the fourth round. The Expos skipped him past short-season ball, assigning him after he signed directly to Cape Fear in the Sally League. He posted a 5.24 ERA with a 63/36 K/BB in 45 innings, again showing a strong strikeout rate but too many walks. I gave him a Grade C in the 2001 book, noting that he had a live arm but needed to throw more strikes.
Lee was much more effective in 2001, posting a 2.79 ERA with a 129/46 K/BB in 110 innings for Class A Jupiter, with just 78 hits allowed. His K/BB, K/IP, and H/IP marks were all much better than Florida State League average. I gave him a Grade B- in the 2002 book, but pegged him as a breakout candidate.
Lee was assigned to Double-A Harrisburg to begin 2003, pitching very well indeed with a 7-2, 3.23 mark and a 105/23 K/BB in 86 innings with just 61 hits allowed. Interestingly, his velocity was actually down a bit, he was throwing 87-92 MPH, a tick below his previous standards. But his secondary pitches were sharper, particularly his changeup, and he was one of the key prospects sent to Cleveland in the Bartolo Colon deal that summer. The Indians sent him to Double-A Akron (2-1, 5.40 with a 18/10 K/BB in 17 innings), then Triple-A Buffalo (3-2, 3.227 with a 30/22 K/BB in 43 innings), then gave him two starts down the stretch in the majors, where he allowed two runs on six hits with a 6/8 K/BB. I gave him a Grade B in the 2003 book, writing that I liked him a lot but that he might struggle in the majors initially.
He was bothered by a strained oblique and a hernia in 2003, splitting the year between minor league rehab outings and the majors, making just nine starts for the Indians, though he pitched well with a 3.61 ERA and a 44/20 K/BB in 52 innings, 41 hits allowed. He began 2004 with a 10-1 record, but was bedeviled by control problems and hit hard in the second half, finishing 14-8 but with a 5.43 ERA. He was much better in 2005 (18-5, 3.79, 143/52 K/BB in 202 innings), then split the difference in '06. He had a horrible year in '07, but as you know he rebounded fully in '08, going 22-3, 2.54 with a 170/34 K/BB in 223 innings and winning the Cy Young Award.
As a prospect in both college and the pros, Lee always showed excellent K/IP and H/IP marks, demonstrating the quality of his stuff and his future potential, but his command was erratic and kept him from being rated as an elite prospect most of the time. He has been up-and-down in the majors, certainly brilliant at his best, but awful when things aren't going well. Just look at his ERA+ marks for his career: 2003 +122, 2004 80, 2005 +111, 2006 +103, 2007 73, 2008 +175.
What does the future hold?
PECOTA comps (excluding right-handers) are Gary Peters, Terry Mulholland, Denny Neagle, John Smiley, Kenny Rogers, Wilbur Wood (PECOTA doesn't account for knuckleballs), Chris Hammond, Jimmy Key, Jerry Koosman, and Jon Matlack. Sim Scores give us addiional parallels to Kirk Rueter, Jarrod Washburn, Dennis Rasmussen, and Tom Browning. All of these guys had moments of success. . .the weakest of the group was Hammond. I always liked Koosman and Matlack a lot.
Given Lee's inconsistency from year to year, I'm not sure about what his durability is going to look like now that he's at age 30. He is an interesting prospect development case however, a good example of strikeout and hit rates indicating big future potential.