Phillies' aces in place

Posted: February 11, 2011

The Phillies kicked off the most successful epoch in their largely undistinguished franchise history by winning the National League East title in 2007. Return with us now to those glorious days of yesteryear when the projected starters going into spring training were ...

Brett Myers, Freddy Garcia, Jon Lieber, Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer and Adam Eaton.

This didn't exactly move the baseball poets to compose paeans celebrating what was in store. Rightly, as it turned out. Myers became the closer at midseason. Garcia, injured, won a single game and was released at the end of the year. Lieber was moved to the bullpen in spring training, asked to be traded, went back into the rotation when Garcia went down, went on the disabled list and also was gone the next season. Eaton turned out to be a complete waste of the $24.5 million the Phillies paid him over 3 years.

Four years later, only Hamels remains. He's blossomed and been complemented by trades for Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt and the stunning free-agent signing of Cliff Lee. Throw in Joe Blanton or Kyle Kendrick as the fifth starter and it's not surprising that the vision of another late-October parade down Broad Street is already dancing in the collective head of Phillies Nation.

While it might be too soon to coronate this quartet as the best in baseball history, it's probably not a stretch to suggest that it's the most hyped, anticipated and analyzed group of starters in recent memory.

The Phillies starters have talent, experience, pedigree. At the same time, teams around the National League aren't conceding an inch.

New Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez is happy to be able to send Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson to the mound on a given night. The Marlins can line up Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez. The Reds have Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez, Travis Wood, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake. And the San Francisco Giants would argue that their rotation – Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner, Barry Zito – is every bit as formidable. And if you don't believe it, they'll show you their World Series rings. What many of these younger pitchers lack in accomplishment, they could make up for in potential.

This debate won't have a satisfactory answer until sometime around Halloween, of course. In the meantime the various races will be shaped by developments impossible to foresee. Which pitchers will come out of nowhere? Which will suffer through mysterious, unexplainable slumps? Which will get run support? Which won't? And, as always, which will avoid the disabled list and which will be snakebitten by injuries?

All that's certain is that the Phillies will happily take their chances with the arms they have:


Roy Halladay came into the 2010 season facing expectations that were pretty darn near unsurpassable. And then he surpassed them. Perfect game in the regular season. No-hitter in the playoffs. Led the National League with 21 wins, most by a Phillies pitcher since Steve Carlton in 1982, most by a Phillies righthander since Robin Roberts in 1955, two guys who have statues outside Citizens Bank Park. Unanimous Cy Young selection.

Now he's being asked to please do it all over again.

Halladay turns 34 in May. He pitched 250 2/3 innings during the regular season, his heaviest workload since 2003. Then he added another 22 innings in the postseason. He showed signs of tiring in September and pitched with a strained groin in the NL Championship Series.

He has adjusted his legendary workout schedule accordingly, though, and the expectations going into this season are even higher than they were a year ago. Any why not?

"Nothing ever changes, whether he throws a no-hitter, perfect game or whatever," centerfielder Shane Victorino explained last October. "The guy has a work ethic. You see him after games. He has a [routine] that he follows, and that's what makes him so good."

It might not be fair to expect him to replicate last season. But that expectation will be there anyway.


Money is a dubious measuring stick for talent, to say the least, but it says something about Cliff Lee that the Phillies made him the most highly paid pitcher in baseball history this offseason, based on the average annual value of his 5-year, $120 million contract. It also says something that the Phillies went well beyond their visceral reluctance to guarantee more than 3 years for a pitcher.

It says that the Phillies couldn't resist the opportunity to bring back a 32-year-old lefthander who made such an indelible impression on them, not to mention the fan base, when he pitched in red pinstripes for the second half of the 2009 season.

"I never wanted to leave in the first place," he declared on the day he signed.

Stats also can be misleading. Lee won only 12 games last year, was late starting spring training following surgery to remove a bone spur from his foot, opened the season on the disabled list with a strained abdomen, experienced some late-season back problems. His reputation for postseason invincibility took a hit when he went 0-2, 6.94 in the World Series for Texas, which acquired him at midseason from Seattle.

When the Phillies look at Lee, though, they don't see that guy. They project the dominant pitcher they traded on the same day they acquired Roy Halladay.


Jet-lagged and a bit uncertain after being traded from the Astros in late July, Roy Oswalt lost the first game he started for the Phillies. After that, he was as close to a sure thing as there is in baseball.

From then until the team clinched its fourth straight postseason berth, Oswalt was 7-0 with a 1.40 earned run average. The Phils were 10-0 in his starts.

"He can get kind of overlooked, because of the attention all those other starters are getting and because his record wasn't that good when he came over from Houston," one scout said. "But he really showed that he's still one of the very best pitchers in baseball after the trade. You could make a case that the Phillies don't win the division if they don't get him."

Oswalt, 33, has pitched more than 200 innings in six of the last seven seasons. His career earned run average is 3.18. He has a .644 career winning percentage and is 5-1 in the postseason. And he has some extra motivation going into this season: While there are no indications he wants to pitch elsewhere, the $16 million option on his contract for 2012 is mutual, meaning he could test the free-agent market at the end of the year if he wanted to.


Manager Charlie Manuel hasn't set his rotation yet. But if he chooses to alternate lefties and righties, there's a pretty good chance Cole Hamels could end up as the fourth starter. Which might not be the worst thing in the world for the stylish 27-year-old.

Once the season starts, the pitching matchups aren't exact. Still, the top-of-the-rotation starters end up facing each other more often than not. So if form holds, Hamels could end up pitching against some of the lesser starters in the opposing teams' rotations.

Because in 2010 Hamels did everything but win games. And the reason he was only 12-11 is pretty obvious. The Phillies scored two or fewer runs in an amazing 14 of his 33 starts. While there are no guarantees, as a rule, they should do more damage when facing fourth and fifth starters than aces.

Hamels, too, is pitching for a financial pot of gold. While he can't become a free agent until 2013, he's in the final year of his contract and if he pitches well enough, the Phillies probably will have little choice but to sign him to a lucrative, long-term deal that keeps him off the market.


The Phillies have downplayed speculation that they'd rather trade righthander Joe Blanton than pay him $17 million over the next two seasons to be their fifth starter. And it's possible that he'll stay right where he is all season and give the Phillies, on paper, an accomplished major league pitcher in a role that tends to be a sinkhole for most teams.

Short memories are ready to dismiss Big Joe after he a 4.82 earned run average last season. And it's true he didn't pitch that well after opening the season on the disabled list and never quite getting into a groove.

But, if he's healthy, there's no reason to believe he can't be the solid, if unspectacular workhorse he was before.

For the time being, the Phillies appear willing to wait. Teams will inquire about his availability before spring training ends as injuries crop up across the baseball landscape. At some point, the Phillies must decide whether he serves them better as part of a trade or pitching behind Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels as a proven insurance policy against the possibility of an injury to one of the Big Four.


Kyle Kendrick has never had the luxury of coming to camp knowing he has a job to lose. Even when he surprised almost everybody by winning 10 games after being called up from Double A Reading in 2007, he was punked the following spring by an elaborate practical joke in which he was led to believe he'd been traded to Japan.

This year will be no different. Even after signing a $2.45 million contract to avoid arbitration, the 26-year-old righthander can't be certain what his role will be. He could be in the Phillies' rotation, likely only if there's an injury or Joe Blanton is traded. He could be in the Phils' bullpen, although that's a pretty good salary for a middle reliever. Or he could be traded, in which case he could start or relieve somewhere else.

Which is a little curious considering that while Kendrick might not be a Cy Young candidate, his results generally are better than he gets credit for. He's reached double digits in wins in three of his four big-league seasons and his average line, adjusted for a 162-game schedule, is 14-9 with a 4.69 ERA.

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