Cliff Lee More Important For Philadelphia Phillies Than Ever In 2013

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Considering that he has $75 million attached to his name as one of the Philadelphia Phillies‘ trio of aces, there’s been surprisingly little focus on Cliff Lee.

That’s just fine with him, though — even if his performance in 2013 might end up being the make-or-break factor as the aging Phillies core try to make a run for the playoffs before their window closes. In fact, a little bit of relief from the pressure would be welcomed.

Sure, that might sound like a gross exaggeration for a pitcher who won six games in 2013, but with the team’s pressing concerns over Roy Halladay‘s readiness … maybe not so much.

Yes, undoubtedly, Opening Day starter Cole Hamels is going to be counted on to take most of the spotlight ahead of the two elder statesmen behind him in the rotation in 2013, but for those of us who don’t use wins and losses in pitcher evaluation, it’s Lee whose continued success as one of the league’s best pitchers is going to be relied on more so than the team’s No. 1 starter.

After all, Lee has been a much more valuable pitcher over the last few years (18.7 fWAR since 2010, second only to Justin Verlander, compared to Hamels’ 13.0), and despite having a “down” year in 2012, Lee’s 4.9 fWAR still led the team — no, he didn’t get wins, but he gave the team a good chance to almost every time out.

Should he return to his 2011 form, that 1.8 wins that Lee could be worth in 2013 could mean the difference between a playoff spot or watching it from home.

Which is to say that the Phillies probably aren’t thrilled to see that Lee has not been dominant this spring, but the positive is that between Halladay and Hamels, not much is being made of it, which means less bad news for the underdog Phillies and the under-the-radar Lee.

Lee has given up a whole lot of hits — 24 of them, to be exact — over 16.2 innings in Spring Training. He’s given up two or more runs in each of his outings this month, and the 11 total earned runs result in a not-pretty 5.94/.1.68 ERA/WHIP, which would put him in line for his worst Grapefruit League campaign yet.

Still, there’s little reason to fret yet, as the numbers indicate a pitcher going through a process rather than an indictment of his effectiveness. Lee’s velocity has been fine, and even though he’s been hit hard, the control (19 strikeouts to four walks) is coming along nicely.

And it will have to, because as good as Hamels is, the team’s new No. 1 has never been any more than a 4.9 fWAR pitcher in his career (2011). Lee, on the other hand, was consistently a 6.5-plus fWAR arm since his breakout right up until 2012.

The Phillies are going to call upon the former to take the spotlight (deservedly so), but in the end, it’s going to be the latter who may have to carry the staff — under the radar or not — 2013.

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