Eduardo A. Encina reports on the second day of Orioles minicamp in Sarasota, Fla. (Eduardo A. Encina, Baltimore Sun video)
SARASOTA, FLA. — Orioles left-hander Chris Lee jokes about it now, but he says when he was a toddler his mother worried about him because he would constantly bump into things. Eventually she found out her son was legally blind in his right eye, a condition that couldn't be corrected by treatment or by surgery.
"I can't even see a big old 'H' on the [eye chart] screen; I have to get this close," Lee said Tuesday at Orioles minicamp in Sarasota, holding his hand about four inches from his face. "I have to get super close. If I shut one eye, everything is blurry. I can't see anything."
But the 24-year-old Lee shrugs it off. Since he was born with this way, he knows nothing else, so it's difficult to gauge how it has hindered him as a person or a pitcher. Regardless, he has never let it be an excuse.
Last spring, the Orioles — after realizing how bad the sight was in his right eye — gave him protective glasses to wear on the mound, mainly to protect his left eye. Lee initially resisted wearing the glasses and was pulled from a Grapefruit League appearance by manager Buck Showalter for not wearing them.
"Yeah," Lee said slowly and sheepishly with a smile. "That was my bad."
That was the beginning of a difficult year for Lee. He had just been added to the organization's 40-man roster and was climbing up toward the top of the team's pitching prospect ranks. But a promising season ended in May after just eight appearances for Double-A Bowie, as his 5-0 start was cut short by a lat muscle injury on his left side.
This week, Lee arrived at the Ed Smith Stadium complex determined to return stronger in 2017. The Orioles hope that's the case, because they still have high hopes for Lee, who owns a plus four-seam fastball that is complemented by a cutter, slider and changeup.
"He's intriguing," Showalter said. "If he can stay healthy, he can come quick."
Lee said last season was an important learning experience all around.
"Don't take things for granted," Lee said about what he learned. "You can be doing well and be confident, but it shows that the game can be taken away from you no matter what, so you have to stay humble and treat every day like it's your last. … [I pitched] only 50 innings [last year]. … I wasn't expecting that. I was expecting three or four times more than that. Hopefully I will stay healthy this season. I will stay healthy this season. I'll say that, because I prepared for it, and throw more than 50 innings."
Lee has invested in getting his body better prepared for the grind of the season. He arrived at this week's camp at 197 pounds, 21 pounds more than when he reported for spring training last season. For Lee, who always had trouble putting weight onto his lean frame, it has taken a concerted effort.
"I think last year was a rebuilding year, learning my body more and more," Lee said. "It just shows I have to work that much harder to stay healthy. … I've been trying to put more weight on, so I've been working hard in the offseason, trying to make sure that I'm as strong as possible. I feel a little bit stronger this year than I was last year, so I feel a little more confident coming into this year."
Though last year's lat injury prevented him from throwing, Lee concentrated on strengthening his lower body, doing squats and leg exercises that helped him pack on muscle. He embraced a new way of eating, increasing his calorie intake while still eating healthy with meals that included chicken breasts and spinach.
"With all this added weight, it feels so much better on my arm," Lee said. "It feels like it's going with my body now and it feels like I can hold up a lot longer."
Showalter said there shouldn't be any physical restrictions on Lee going into spring training. The Orioles skipper said he has noticed Lee's filled-out frame and is excited to see how that helps him this season.
"If he's healthy, he's a guy who will get on the radar screen in a hurry," Showalter said. "In fact, he's a guy that when we were thinking about left-handed pitchers and stuff last year, he has the type of fastball, he can pitch with his fastball. He's got that type of movement. As slender as he was last year, he's gotten a little bigger."
Still, the fact that Lee has gotten this far after being legally blind in one eye is somewhat remarkable. Even though it is his right eye that first turns to the plate, Lee said he naturally turned his head when he delivered. If anything, his protective glasses force him to face the plate more head-on, which he thinks helps with his control. Although it's a small sample size, Lee's walks went down last season (2.3 per nine innings) compared to 2015 (3.7 per nine).
"I might not like them, but I'm getting more comfortable with them," Lee said of the glasses. "I'm going to wear them in the offseason while I'm working out just to get a better look. ... I guess wearing the glasses made me tilt my head slightly more so I had the extended target slightly longer. I was more around the plate and I was still throwing hard, so it wasn't a bad thing, I guess. Trust me, a couple games, it took me time to adjust in spring training. I wasn't used to turning my head that much, so I just had to adjust to that, but after that it was smooth sailing."
Showalter said this might be the season it comes together for Lee, if he can stay healthy.
"He's got that type of arm," Showalter said. "I think he's got a lot of that [other] stuff behind him."