CLEVELAND -- A year ago, he was signing his name to a multiyear and multimillion dollar contract extension. Now, Cliff Lee is eastbound on Interstate 90. Following another in a string of disappointing performances from Lee, the Indians optioned the struggling left-hander to Triple-A Buffalo on Friday afternoon. He was replaced on the active roster by right-handed reliever Ed Mujica, who was called up from the Bisons.
The Indians' top starting option at Buffalo is left-hander Aaron Laffey (7-3, 3.22 ERA), and he is expected to replace Lee in the rotation next week. Because of Monday's off-day, the club can reshuffle its rotation and avoid having to fill Lee's spot until Aug. 4. Lee had two Minor League option years remaining. The Indians decided it was best to leave him stretched out as a starter to work on his command issues, rather than sticking him in the bullpen. "It's the right move," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "He's handled it extremely maturely. His competitiveness has always been a strength for him. He needs to use that competitiveness now to fuel himself to make adjustments." The Indians couldn't afford to be overly patient with Lee, because they have another veteran -- right-hander Jake Westbrook -- enduring a similarly tough campaign. And while having one faulty rotation spot can be overcome, having two severely hampers a club's ability to win important series down the stretch. With his club sitting 1 1/2 games back in the American League Central and four games up in the Wild Card hunt entering Friday, Shapiro is concerned about those two rotation spots. "Two spots in our rotation [held by C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona] have been so dominant that we haven't lost more than three games in a row," Shapiro said. "Without two spots in our rotation getting better, it's hard to envision us maintaining our position [in the standings]." That notion made the thought of sending Lee and his hefty contract (Lee signed a three-year, $14 million extension last summer) down to Buffalo more bearable. Lee's demotion came a day after one of his most unsightly starts in a wayward season. He gave up eight runs (seven earned) on nine hits with three walks and a strikeout in just four-plus innings against the Red Sox in a 14-9 loss Thursday night. For the season, the 28-year-old Lee was 5-8 with a 6.38 ERA in 16 starts. He missed all of Spring Training and the first month of April with a right abdominal strain and never found his form. He was 0-4 with a 11.70 ERA over his last four starts. "I really don't know [what's wrong]," Lee said Thursday night. "It seems like if it's not one thing, it's another." Lee's struggles were puzzling, given that he won at least 14 games each of the last three seasons and pitched at least 200 innings in each of the last two. He received Cy Young votes in 2005, when he went 18-5 with a 3.79 ERA. "When he's on his game, it's a no-brainer to have him out there every fifth day," manager Eric Wedge said. "He's just really been playing catch-up all year after missing Spring Training." Here's the question: Kenny Lofton is back for his third stint with the Indians. In which season with the Tribe did Lofton lead the American League in hits? Welcome news: Lofton's arrival sent a clear message through the Indians clubhouse Thursday -- the future is now. And for a group of players that has largely not been on a team looking to buy at the trading deadline, this was no small thing. "We have 60 games left, a lot of games on the road," Sabathia said. "It's a tough stretch, but [the front office] is letting us know they're going to help us any way they can." The flip side: Renting Lofton for the stretch drive also meant taking a little gamble on the future in dealing away catcher Max Ramirez. The 23-year-old, who hit .303 with 20 doubles, 12 homers and 62 RBIs at Class A Kinston this year, was one of the Tribe's two representatives in this month's Futures Game. But while the Indians were high on Ramirez, their organizational depth at catcher -- Lake County's Matt McBride and Double-A Akron's Wyatt Torregas are also highly regarded -- allowed for the move. Well, that and a win-now mentality. "Right now, we're going to give up players that we like, and as grudgingly as we do that, this is the time to do it," Shapiro said. "With the American League the way it is today, we can't take lightly the chance to make the playoffs." Lost magic: The first few days of Ben Francisco's second stint with the Indians was storybook, beginning with his game-winning home run on the night of his first start. But Francisco came back down to earth in recent weeks, notching just four hits in his last 28 at-bats. The Indians optioned Francisco down to Triple-A Buffalo to make room for Lofton and to give the youngster a chance to play every day. "I think he was trying to do a little too much," Wedge said of Francisco. "What young kid wouldn't after that [first] week?" Tribe tidbits: To create a spot on the 40-man roster for the newly acquired Lofton, the Indians designated Triple-A infielder Hector Luna for assignment. Luna was the player acquired from the Cardinals in last summer's Ronnie Belliard trade. He hit .251 and made 21 errors with Buffalo this season. ... Left-hander Aaron Fultz (rib strain) pitched to select Indians hitters Friday and felt fine. He has been deemed ready to be sent out for a Minor League rehabilitation assignment, which will likely include at least two appearances. Specifics had not yet been decided. ... Ryan Garko leads the Majors with a second-half batting average of .463 (19-for-41). He's hit in 18 of his last 19 games. Down on the farm: Laffey turned in six strong innings, giving up just two runs on three hits with three walks and three strikeouts, in a no-decision against Charlotte on Thursday. The Bisons won, 5-4, on Andy Marte's RBI single in the bottom of the ninth. ... Left-hander Shawn Nottingham gave up 10 runs on 10 hits over 5 1/3 innings in Double-A Akron's 10-5 loss to Altoona. And the answer is: Lofton led the league in hits in 1994, with 160 of them. On deck: The Indians continue their three-game set against the Twins with Saturday's 7:05 p.m. ET game at Jacobs Field. Westbrook (1-6, 6.20) will oppose left-hander Johan Santana (11-8, 2.94). It will be Tom Hamilton talking bobblehead night at the ballpark.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com and David Briggs is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.