CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Cliff Lee surprised nearly everybody in baseball when he signed a five-year, $120 million contract with the Phillies in December 2010.
One of the reasons he said he chose Philadelphia over the Yankees and Rangers is because he believed it had the best opportunity to win a World Series, maybe more than one, before his contract expired in 2015 (a $27.5 million club option could keep him in Philadelphia for 2016). But after the Phillies won a franchise-record 102 games in 2011 only to flame out in the National League Division Series, they finished 81-81 last year to miss the postseason for the first time since 2006.
Lee said Monday he still believes the Phillies can win in the long run, despite an aging core and key players -- like Chase Utley, Roy Halladay, Carlos Ruiz and Michael Young -- becoming free agents after the season.
"I think we're focused on this year, first of all," said Lee, who pitched two scoreless innings in his Grapefruit League debut, a 10-1 loss to the Tigers at Bright House Field. "I like the team we've got right now. I know the Phillies every year do everything they can to field the best team they can. So with all the free agents coming up, I know they'll take care of that, either retain some of those guys or bring in some guys that can fill those holes. I expect us to contend this year and years to come."
He will play a role in that, although Lee is one of the few players in camp without a giant question mark. He went 6-9 with a 3.16 ERA in 30 starts last season, but it's a mistake to judge Lee's season on his win-loss record.
He simply had terrible, terrible luck.
Lee ranked first in baseball in strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.39), ninth in strikeouts (207) and WHIP (1.11) and 15th in ERA and innings (211). He had a 2.14 ERA in his final 13 starts of the season. But he also ranked 85th out of 88 qualifying starting pitchers last season with an average of 3.20 runs in support per nine innings.
"That's definitely not what I would expect out of myself and a little bit disappointing but it was just one of those years," Lee said, referring to his misleading record. "I happened to be the guy that didn't get that much support and things just didn't go my way. But that's stuff that's out of my control. It can be frustrating, looking back on it, but I wasn't as frustrated as you would expect me to be. But you have to focus on the things you can control and worry about that.
"I wasn't happy with how we ended up as a team. But individually I felt pretty good by going out there and giving the team a chance to win every time I pitched, other than a handful of games. That's really all I can control. That's where my focus is."
Lee figures to start the third game of the season behind Cole Hamels and Halladay, who is trying to bounce back from a disappointing year.
"I feel like he's going to be the normal Roy Halladay," Lee said. If Lee is right, the Phillies should have one of the best rotations in baseball again.
Lee said he believes injuries hurt the Phillies more than anything else last year. So far everybody in camp this spring is healthy, other than outfielder Delmon Young. If the Phillies stay that way, they will be able to put that theory to the test.
If they win, maybe they can squeeze out another year or two from this core group. If they're healthy and struggle, there could be significant changes.
Lee remains optimistic.
"You never know what's going to happen," he said. "That's why you play the games, but having Chase and [Ryan] Howard healthy from the start is huge. Bringing in Michael Young and Ben Revere, those guys are great players. Just having Chase and Howard healthy is the biggest thing to me. Anytime you take the three- and four-hole hitter out of any lineup, the team is going to feel that pretty heavy. Having those guys from the start is going to be huge. And with the additions, I like our chances."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less