In a move expected throughout camp, the Indians named Lee their fifth starter Monday morning. He beat out fellow left-handers Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers -- who were both optioned to Triple-A Buffalo -- because of his experience, his spring performance and his $3.75 million contract for '08. In other moves, the Tribe was waiting to make a move regarding reliever Aaron Fultz.
"[Lee] came in here in outstanding shape, very determined, and he got better as the spring went along," general manager Mark Shapiro said of Lee, who had a 5.27 ERA in five spring starts. "He didn't always get the results, but he kept getting better and better. He consistently leveraged his fastball, his command in and out got better and better, and his secondary stuff was the best it's been."
Lee, who is signed through 2009, had been a core member of the Indians' rotation, amassing 46 wins from 2004-06 and working 200 innings in '05 and '06. But he went 5-8 with a 6.38 ERA in 16 starts last year and was demoted to Buffalo.
Lee said last year's humbling experience motivated him, and that showed in the early days of camp. His stuff stood out during the early pitchers' throwing sessions. When the games started, Lee had to battle through a sinus infection and some command issues. But he looked solid in his last two outings against the Phillies and Mets.
"I had to get back to where I was before," Lee said. "I'm pretty pleased with the way things are now."
The Indians are not assigning a pecking order to Laffey and Sowers in terms of which youngster would be called upon first if a need arose in the big league rotation. Laffey, who took Lee's spot in the rotation at the end of last season, went 0-1 with a 7.62 ERA in five spring outings.
"Aaron Laffey, a year ago at this time, was in Double-A," Shapiro said. "When he came into camp this year, it was the first time he came in with expectations and people knowing who he was. It took him a while to get comfortable with that. As he got comfortable in camp, he was the same guy, just throwing ground balls, relying on his strengths and competitiveness."
Sowers, who lost his job in the rotation last year, went 0-3 with a 9.00 ERA in five games.
"He came into this camp in a much better spot than he was last year in camp," Shapiro said. "It was as good an arm strength as we've seen. His command of his secondary pitches needs to keep getting better. If it does, we have a guy who can definitely impact our big league rotation this year. I'm really excited about where Jeremy is right now."
Lee will start the Tribe's final Grapefruit League game against the Rays on Thursday at Chain of Lakes Park. He will then start a game for Class A Kinston next Tuesday as a final preparation for his first regular-season start, which should come April 6 in Oakland.