With respect to Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee is the best left-hander to wear a Philadelphia Phillies' uniform since Steve Carlton controlled the mound. That's why a strain in the flexor tendon of Lee's left elbow could be a major problem.
The Phillies' chances of being a legitimate playoff competitor this season are highly-questionable, but would surely be dashed if Lee remains on the disabled list for longer than the 15 days that he's currently required to be there. The 35-year-old has thrown more innings, has earned more wins, has posted more strikeouts and has a lower ERA and WHIP than every other starter Ryne Sandberg has used this season. In other words, the Phillies just lost their staff ace for at least two-plus weeks.
The infamous December 16, 2009 trade that sent Lee to the Seattle Mariners (for a proven paltry return) was later acknowledged as a mistake. The Phillies' humble GM, Ruben Amaro, Jr., corrected himself by stunning the baseball world one year later. Besting an enticing New York Yankees' offer with red-pinstriped persuasions, Amaro secured Lee's services. That 5-year, $120 million contract is still in effect and could potentially extend through its vesting year in 2016.
Since returning to town, Lee has started 103 games. His 1.070 WHIP and 137 ERA+ are just a few new age numbers that younger fans adore. Old-school loyalists also recognize the value and importance of 728 strikeouts across 734.33 innings. When a batter whiffs, the pitcher is in total control of that particular moment in the game. The more measured moments a pitcher creates, the more likely it is that his team will win that game.
Long-time baseball fans also like Lee's 41-29 record, because wins have been and remain important. Starters who get credit for wins tax their overly-specialized bullpens less. On a pure common sense basis, that does stand in opposition of perceived sabermetrical superiority, most pitchers also behave differently during a season when they're won-loss records are right-side up. Anyone who doubts that pure opinion should digitally review Lee's general on-field demeanor during his 6-9 campaign in 2012.
It's hardly insightful to claim that Lee's extended absence would almost-assuredly weaken the rotation every fifth day. It's also common knowledge that Amaro might be more inclined to trade Lee (again) if the Phillies fall out of contention sometime this summer.
This is Lee's first appearance on the DL for an arm-related injury. If this injury is simply a minor matter, Sandberg should be able to keep his first full-season squad hovering around, or above, the .500 line. Without one of the best pitchers of this era in the rotation for any extended period, the Phillies might be looking at last season's 73-win line. And, if that's the case, Amaro could be gone before this calendar year ends.