By: Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
Without benefit of throwing a competitive pitch since July of 2014, former Cy Young award winning southpaw Cliff Lee has set his sights on a comeback.
Sidelined with a partially-torn flexor tendon, Lee, 37, missed all of last season prior to being bought out by the Philadelphia Phillies come season's end. This decision rendered the five-time all star a free agent, available to any team willing to take a gamble on a low-risk/high reward pact with the once dominant hurler.
Having recently been cleared to resume baseball activities, Lee has drawn interest from a number of clubs already this fall, and his name continued to remain a topic of interest as the annual general manager meetings kicked off earlier this week in Nashville.
Looking to rebuild his stock in the market, the Benton, ARK native is in search of two things... A one-year deal, and a legitimate shot to win in 2016.
Although the former ace appears to have a list of potential suitors in place, perhaps history will play a factor with regards to his decision later this off-season.
When Lee was made a fourth round draft pick by the Montreal in 2000, Tony LaCava, Toronto's Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations and Assistant General Manager, was in charge of player development for the Expos. In 2002, he left Montreal for Cleveland, where the then 41 year-old executive served as a national cross checker under Indians General Manager, Mark Shapiro.
Perhaps having foreseen what was to become of their franchise in the years that followed, Expos management decided to deal away a fair portion of the teams future following LaCava's departure in '02. In short, this was a last ditch attempt to get their the club back into the postseason picture for the first time since the ill-fated 1994 campaign that saw the regular season stopped dead in its tracks with Montreal owning the best record in major league baseball.
At the deadline, the Expos sent Lee Stevens, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore and Lee to Cleveland in exchange for Tim Drew and an established ace in Bartolo Colon. Despite their efforts, Montreal finished the 2002 campaign 19 games behind the front-running Atlanta Braves.
Could LaCava have played an advisory role in the acquisition of Lee?
Despite impressing during minimal action with the Tribe in 2002, Lee would spend parts of the next two seasons honing his craft within the Indians farm system. During his tenure in the minors, he was monitored closely by Ross Atkins, a former Indians pitching prospect turned Assistant Director of Player Development following his retirement from between the white lines in 2000.
In the 13 years that separates his MLB debut and 2015, Lee has gone 143-91 while posting an ERA of 3.52. A four-time league leader in fewest walks per nine innings, the 6'3" lefty has been a portrait of control over his MLB career, rarely breaking 93 MPH on his fastball and using a mix of off-speed pitches to remain effective on the hill.
These days, Shapiro, Atkins and LaCava can be found headlining the front offices at One Blue Jays Way.
Is a reunion that hard to fathom? Without first hand knowledge of the relationship between the Blue Jays brass and Lee, it's hard to comment. That said, with Toronto, he would certainly get that shot to win in 2016.
With locks in Marcus Stroman, R.A. Dickey, Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ, the Blue Jays starting rotation could certainly use an added arm ahead of spring training. As it sits, the fifth spot will come down to either Drew Hutchison, Jesse Chavez or Chad Jenkins.
Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna could also be stretched out, but that reality would hamper an already-weakened bullpen following Mark Lowe's decision to sign with Detroit earlier this week.
Under the teams current front office regime, the Blue Jays appear reluctant to part with either prospects or impending draft picks, and to date, both major signings this winter (Estrada and Happ) have come without yielding either commodity.
Given his status, Cliff Lee would be nothing more than a monetary commitment. One that, in addition to having a tremendous upside, would provide the club with another left-handed starting option and the type of added depth that it is currently combing the market for in Tennessee.