Obviously, Lee's value has never been higher, given that he's coming off a American League Cy Young Award-winning season in which he went 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA. So there might be hesitation on the Tribe's part to extend him. The possibility that Lee, who will make $5.75 million this season and $9 million if and when his 2010 option is exercised, has reached his peak as a performer certainly exists.
On the other hand, one look up and down the Indians' roster shows a dearth of starting pitchers who have the potential to step into the No. 1 starter role Lee has inherited from CC Sabathia.
Fausto Carmona, a 19-game winner in 2007, might have that potential, but he's coming off an '08 in which he struggled with his control, strained his hip and never got on track. And prospect Adam Miller has that potential as well, but his persistent health woes necessitated a move to a relief role for 2009.
This serves to inherently inflate Lee's value to the Indians, who simply don't have the financial resources to compete with big-market clubs for upper-tier starters in free agency. And if Lee rattles off an '09 season at all similar to his '08 campaign, he would likely push himself out of the Tribe's price range.
Last year's Sabathia circus aside, the Indians don't comment publicly on their plans concerning contract extensions. But rest assured the thought of approaching Lee with an offer has at least been kicked around in the offices at Carnegie and Ontario.
Lee, meanwhile, is home in Benton, Ark., and reportedly preparing just as diligently for 2009 as he did for '08, when he had to fight for a spot in the Tribe's rotation.
"He's so absolutely dead-set on repeating last year's performance, and he's the most driven individual I've ever met in my life," Braunecker said. "The night he was named the Cy Young Award winner, he left my office and went to the gym for two hours. He's a very routine-oriented and regimented guy anyway, and he's probably been more obsessed with his routine this winter than ever before."
That bodes well for an Indians team that will place Lee firmly at the top of its rotation this coming season, with the hope that he can pick up where he left off in '08.
There will, however, be some lingering concern that Lee will come back down to earth. He is, after all, the same guy who got knocked around to the tune of a 5-8 record and 6.29 ERA after starting the '07 season on the disabled list.
To that concern, Braunecker, for one, scoffs.
"[The 2007 season] was the aberration," Braunecker said. "Last year was not the aberration. As locked in and as focused and committed as he is to trying to repeat, I'd never bet against him."
And Spring Training -- a time the Indians often use for such conversations -- could be a critical time for them to decide how much they want to bet on Lee.