All winter, Lee's name was floated in vague and unsubstantiated trade rumors. With two other younger options for their fifth-starting job -- Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers -- the Indians could have been forgiven for sending Lee packing.
Then again, taking into account his disastrous 2007 season and the two years and $9.5 million remaining on his contract, Lee's trade value is undoubtedly at its lowest point. And the Indians never seemed inclined to part with their starting depth, anyway.
So Lee finds himself here, at Chain of Lakes Park, fighting for the final spot in the Indians' rotation, despite being just 18 months removed from signing a contract that seemed to cement his status as one of the club's core players.
"This is definitely a big spring for me," Lee said. "Last year, I struggled. I've got to come back this year and get back to being my normal self."
Lee's '07 season wasn't normal, by any stretch of the imagination.
First came the abdominal strain that sidelined him in Spring Training and the first month of the regular season. Then, upon his return, he found himself playing from behind.
Of Lee's 16 starts for the Tribe last year, a couple were worth savoring. His complete game in Anaheim on May 8 was a definitive highlight.
For the most part, though, Lee either treaded water in a sea of mediocrity or got flat-out knocked around. And when he went 0-4 with an 11.70 ERA in a four-start stretch in July, upping his season ERA to a ghastly 6.38, it was time for the Indians to cut the cord. Lee was Buffalo-bound.
"It was a shocker," Lee said. "It caught me off guard. But at the time, the team was in a situation it hadn't been in in a long time, and I wasn't performing. Part of me understands all that. But in the same sense, I thought I was a key part of the team. But I didn't have much of a defense for myself."
No, he did not. The Indians felt Lee was too stubborn about his pitch selection -- too often dipping into the well with the fastball -- and his command was spotty, at best.
The plan coming into Spring Training last year had been for Lee to add a slider to his repertoire, but the muscle strain curtailed that project.
"He missed Spring Training," pitching coach Carl Willis said, "and he was basically trying to make some adjustments he needed to make when it counted, as opposed to during Spring Training."
As far as the fastball is concerned, Lee isn't one to light up a radar gun, but the deception in his delivery had always made his fastball appear faster than it actually is. And while winning 18 games in 2005, he had shown an ability to control that fastball down in the zone, inducing more grounders.
But in '07, Lee struggled to move the fastball in and out of the zone. His insistence on using that pitch came back to bite him.
"That's his aggressive nature, going right after guys," Willis said. "It's hard to find a happy medium, because you never want to take away a guy's aggressiveness."
What the Indians have taken away from Lee is his job security, and that seems to have inspired him.
"One thing he learned that we all have to learn is you can't take anything for granted," Willis said. "You can't cheat the process. The reality of the fact is everyone has to have that mind-set. Even C.C. [Sabathia]. Because as soon as you slack off a little bit in your preparation, all of a sudden you find yourself playing catch-up."
Lee, whose contract status could make him a favorite to win the fifth spot, hopes his days of playing catch-up are behind him. While abdominal strains are fluky, he's made a concerted effort to prevent another one by doing as many extra sit-ups as his body can muster.
And he's never been more eager to get back to the form that made him a successful pitcher in the past.
"Any time any competitive person struggles at anything, they want a chance to rebound," Lee said. "That was a rough and humbling year for me, and that kind of stuff can happen to anybody. You've got to find something deep inside of you that forces you to get back to where you were."
The place he wants to get back to, though, is not Buffalo.