Thursday, December 18, 2014

Four aces could leave competition royally flushed

Four aces isn't the best hand in poker, and there is no guarantee it will lead to a third World Series berth in four seasons. But the potential is pretty damn impressive.

Four aces could leave competition royally flushed

Cliff Lee joins Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt in a rotation stocked with talent. (Matt Slocum/AP)
Cliff Lee joins Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt in a rotation stocked with talent. (Matt Slocum/AP)

The temperature has dipped to 20 degrees, with a biting wind that rattles windows and turns the walk outside into a Krakauer narrative. Yet even on a night made for Sherpas, with exhaust fumes and chimney smoke cutting through winter's thin air, it is impossible not to imagine that early-spring day when the prodigal son arrives.

What will the roar sound like when he trots to the bullpen and embarks upon his customary warm-up routine, when his name is introduced, when his image flashes upon the big screen, when he delivers that first pitch (which, if his history is any indication, will be called for a strike)?

Cliff Lee is back in the Phillies rotation, a place most people felt he never should have left. Turns out, he lived in exile for less than a calendar year, the trade that bid him an unceremonious adieu having transpired 363 days before news broke Monday of his return.

He returns in the same manner in which he left, his wake littered with rose petals and stunned Yankees executives who watched him wreak havoc on their squad. A year ago, he did his damage in the World Series, dominating them for 16 innings in a pair of legend-building starts. On Monday night, he did it from his home in Arkansas, spurning baseball's supposed robber barons to sign for less money with the team he never wanted to leave.

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The five-year deal, reportedly for $120 million, likely will not become official until Lee passes a physical.

Even so, you can picture Ruben Amaro Jr. standing high above the playing surface at Citizens Bank Park, holding his arms in the air and yelling to anybody who will listen: Are you not entertained?

As much excitement as the Phillies have produced on the playing surface over the past three seasons, their back-room dealings in the quest for the perfect rotation have turned baseball into a year-round sport.

There are risks, as Amaro will almost certainly remind you whenever he officially cops to the Lee signing.

But the big story from now until spring training will be the possibilities of a rotation that will feature either Cole Hamels or Roy Oswalt as its fourth starter.

Adding Lee to Hamels and Oswalt alone would leave the Phillies with the most talented on-paper rotation in the National League. Factor in 2010 NL Cy Young winner Roy Halladay and you have the potential of one of the best corps of starters in the history of the sport.

Four aces isn't the best hand in poker, and there is no guarantee it will lead to a third World Series berth in four seasons. But the potential is pretty damn impressive:

1) Over the last three seasons, 14 pitchers in the major leagues have started at least 90 games and posted an ERA of under 3.50. Four of them now pitch in the Phillies rotation.

2) Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels have combined for 17 Top 10 Cy Young finishes, 13 Top 5 finishes, 13 All-Star Games and a postseason record of 20-8.

3) Since the start of the 2008 season, the four pitchers have combined to go 176-117 with a 3.11 ERA while averaging 7.7 strikeouts-per-nine and 1.7 walks-per nine.

4) A bullpen that logged the fewest innings in the majors last season might want to start thinking about picking up some game-day side jobs at McFadden's. Over the last three seasons, the four aces have combined to average more than 6 2/3 innings-per-start.

That, my friends, is possibility.

Reality, of course, can be a fickle beast.

None of the four pitchers will provide an answer to the gaping hole behind Ryan Howard, despite the fact that they combined to produce three more hits this postseason than the three players who will be vying to replace Jayson Werth in the line-up.

In fact, you could argue (feebly, perhaps) that Lee would not have made a lick of difference against a red-hot Giants squad in the NLCS. After all, Lee, Hamels, Oswalt and Halladay combined to go 2-5 with a 4.17 ERA in eight postseason starts against San Francisco.

As for the long term, there is a reason why the Phillies have been hesitant to dole out monster deals to pitchers. Halladay, Lee and Oswalt will each be at least 32 years of age by the mid-point of next season. Oswalt turns 34 on Aug. 29. The next day, Lee turns 33. Halladay will turn 34 on May 14. Each had minor wear-and-tear injuries last season, Oswalt and Lee battling sore backs and Halladay suffering a groin injury in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series.

As long as each of them makes a living torquing their bodies in a manner in which bodies are not designed to sustain, there will exist the possibility of one or all becoming a very expensive mistake.

But future performance is much easier to predict than future health, and as long as this new-and-improved rotation remains intact, Amaro and Co. have managed to purchase themselves the best fleet of starters that money can buy.

This much is certain: a once low-budget team that plays in a bandbox of a ballpark has become a destination point for Cy Young-caliber starting pitchers, two of whom left enough money on the table to fund the entire payroll of some of the Phillies' National League competitors.

Halladay, signed through 2013 with a vesting option for 2014, and Lee, whose five guaranteed years expire after 2015, will be together for at least the next three seasons. Hamels, who is under club control through 2012, should be there for at least the next two. Oswalt is only guaranteed to be with the Phillies through next season, although the club can pick up an option on his contract for 2012.

There are still plenty of questions that must be resolved, starting with righthander Joe Blanton, who at $8.5 million over the next two seasons would make for an expensive fifth starter.

And the big lesson the Phillies re-inforced on a cold December night: they are never done dealing.

 

David Murphy Daily News Staff Writer
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