PAUL CONNORS / AP Enlarge
GOODYEAR, Ariz. Stretched out on a chair in front of his locker, Cliff Lee delicately balanced a laptop computer on his thighs. Scratching his head, the AL s reigning Cy Young Award winner plotted his next move in an online chess game before heading outside for another day of spring training.
Cleveland s ace surveyed the virtual board pieces. Sacrifice a pawn? Attack the bishop? Defend the queen?
Lee was locked in just as he was all last season. Baseball s king of the mound.
The left-hander, demoted to the minor leagues a year earlier, came out of nowhere to have a historic 2008. Lee went 22-3, led the league in wins and ERA, became the Indians first 20-game winner since 1972, started the last All-Star game at Yankee Stadium and pitched with a single-minded purpose every time out.
Unbelievable. I can t even try to explain it, said Indians catcher Kelly Shoppach, who was behind the plate for 29 of Lee s 31 starts. I ve never seen anything like it before. You rarely see it for an inning and he was able to do it for an entire season. It was pretty impressive, to say the least.
Lee spent the offseason collecting hardware for his efforts. He picked up awards from coast to coast and even had his high school jersey retired in his hometown of Benton, Ark., where they celebrated Cliff Lee Day.
It was a victory tour he ll never forget, especially the January stop in New York to accept his Cy Young plaque.
It was somewhat surreal and something that not many people get a chance to do, he said. I definitely want to go back and do it again.
The Indians would be all for that. They would love a repeat performance from Lee, but the best they can realistically hope for is that he pitches like a No. 1 starter, a role the 30-year-old inherited when CC Sabathia was traded last July.
However, just as Lee is hitting his prime, he and the Indians could be headed for trouble. He s entering the final season of a three-year, $14 million contract that will pay him $5.75 million this year. The team holds an $8 million option for 2010 and odds are it will pick that up.
Cleveland was unable to work out a long-term deal after Sabathia won his Cy Young in 2007, and faced with the prospect of losing him to free agency after last season, the club had little choice but to deal him for prospects.
This would seem to be the ideal time to offer Lee a contract extension. But the Indians, who have worked on such deals during past springs, have not yet approached the pitcher or his agent, Darek Braunecker. That could change, but for now general manager Mark Shapiro s only public stance is that Lee is in the team s long-term plans.
With no end in sight, the economic downturn could help the Indians. After seeing some high-profile free agents settle for contracts half the size or less than they expected to get, Lee may want to finalize something before things worsen. But if he waits and has another 20-win season, Lee could cash in as Sabathia did.
For a stretch, Lee had taken his eye off the proverbial ball.
An abdominal injury during spring training in 2007 sent Lee into a downward spiral nastier than any breaking pitch. He went on the disabled list, was ineffective when he returned and got demoted to the minors. He came back, was sent to the bullpen and spent October watching his teammates in the playoffs.
The Indians didn t give up on Lee, though. They knew he could pitch. He won 46 games from 2004-06 and the club was convinced he could rebound. Before last season, manager Eric Wedge suggested Lee fly to North Carolina and spend some time with pitching coach Carl Willis. During the visit, Lee and Willis played catch in the coach s backyard and talked.
Lee felt the visit helped.
I think so. We both got on the same page, he said. We got to be face to face and we talked about the things that I needed to improve and get better at.
A year ago, Lee was fighting for the No. 5 spot in Cleveland s rotation. Now, he s the unquestioned No. 1 with a booty of new plaques and trophies bearing his name.