Cliff Lee may be done with baseball, but the veteran southpaw has left the door open for a comeback if the 'perfect fit' should present itself. Nobody can be certain what that means, but a good guess (other than Philadelphia, the team he's shown his fondness for in years past) is a contender who's willing to guarantee him a spot in the starting rotation and who's willing to make it worth his while financially.
One month ago, the Red Sox were not in a position to offer him that. But times have changed. The Sox sent Wade Miley to Seattle for Carson Smith and Roenis Elias, and suddenly, that fifth spot in the rotation is held by Joe Kelly.
Depending on how you feel about Joe Kelly, the idea of a Cliff Lee more than a year removed from his last start as an improvement may or may not need justification. Yes, Lee's track record is obviously superior, but the question is whether or not there's anything left of the old, excellent Lee, or if it would be better for him to just call it quits and move on.
We could spend a great deal of time on that question, but the good news is that we don't need to. The Red Sox are not playing quite so fast-and-loose with their rotation in 2016 as they did in 2015 thanks to the addition of David Price, but past that front line it's still much of the same. A lot of uncertainty which, as we saw in 2015, makes the second, third, and even fourth lines of defense all that much more important. The question becomes less one of Cliff Lee vs. Joe Kelly, and more one of Cliff Lee vs. the last line of defense, or even the desperation move that comes should that last line fail.
No, Lee can't be acquired as a line of defense--he likely wouldn't sign without the promise of a rotation spot--but everyone else currently in line for that fifth spot can be kept around even if they're not in the major league rotation. Joe Kelly, Roenis Elias, Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, and even Steven Wright can all be put in either the bullpen or Pawtucket without too much trouble.
It might seem extreme to be thinking 10 deep in the rotation, but it's pretty optimistic to believe the Red Sox will need to replace fewer than two starters (not hard to imagine at least one injury and one ineffective player between Buchholz, Porcello, Rodriguez, and Kelly) for significant stretches of the season, and no guarantees whatsoever when it comes to players with limited major league experience or success managing to replace them. When the Red Sox traded Wade Miley, they were going all-in on uncertainty. And when you're dealing with these uncertain commodities, you can either hope to get lucky, or you can insure yourself against the failures by taking as many shots as possible.
Beyond that, though, Cliff Lee is also just better than the other options. The chances that he's something approaching his old self, even if it's just for some portion of the season, are higher than the chances that any of the other names on that list will come close to his past excellence.
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In a way, this would not be too different from the Justin Masterson signing last year. No, that's not exactly a ringing endorsement, but for all that Masterson failed spectacularly, that doesn't make the thought process behind his signing any less correct. Here we are, one year later, and there's no lingering effects. Masterson failed, and then he was off the team, and the deal was in the past. The Red Sox were perhaps slow to cut the cord on that one, given how clear it was that he had nothing to offer, but once that cut was made, it was clean, and it's not like Masterson was holding a ton of better options back at the time. The Red Sox aren't likely to get Lee on the "incentive-laden deal" or "spring training invite" basis that has been thrown around, but if there's room in the budget for a one-year deal like Masterson's large enough to entice him, they could do a lot worse than the four-time All-Star.
In the end, this may all be so much fantasy. It's possible Cliff Lee has no interest in playing for the Red Sox, in Fenway Park, in the American League. It's possible that Dave Dombrowski is really dead set on Joe Kelly starting the year in the Major League rotation. It's possible that the Sox really are tapped out financially, even when it comes to short-term deals.
But if this path is open to them, it no longer comes with the cost of giving up one of their better or more reliable arms just to take the gamble on Lee. The cost--aside from the contract, of course--becomes a certain number of major league starts transferring from one lottery ticket to another which, really, is no cost at all. The benefit to the depth of their rotation and, indeed, its potential quality is anything but. If the Red Sox can be that perfect fit for Lee, they should try to make it work.