Inside the Phillies: Phillies should keep their top 3 starting pitchers

Starter Cliff Lee, who has struggled mightly this season, talks with Placido Polanco (left) and catcher Carlos Ruiz. Lee has rebounded from a poor start before, when he was with Texas.
Starter Cliff Lee, who has struggled mightly this season, talks with Placido Polanco (left) and catcher Carlos Ruiz. Lee has rebounded from a poor start before, when he was with Texas. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 14, 2012

It is quite fitting that the Phillies' season resumes Friday night with Cliff Lee scheduled to face the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field.

Lee is this team's poster child, a first-half enigma derailed by injury, victimized by a horrendous bullpen and a lack of offense, and, at times, also responsible for all that went wrong.

The game that best symbolized the Phillies' first-half frustration occurred the last time the Phillies embarked on a West Coast trip. Lee pitched 10 shutout innings against the Giants in San Francisco and all he got out of it was a no-decision and a strained oblique muscle that sent him to the disabled list for three weeks.

The Phillies, of course, lost that game, 1-0, when Antonio Bastardo allowed a run in the 11th, a sign of things to come for a reliever and bullpen that had been so reliable the year before.

Counting postseason starts, Lee's tenure in Philadelphia consists of only 64 games, but it is already among the most fascinating in franchise history.

He was general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.'s second-choice acquisition to Roy Halladay at the 2009 trade deadline, but won over the entire city during the team's second straight run to the World Series by going 5-0 with a 1.56 earned-run average in six postseason starts.

Halladay's arrival via trade two months later was tempered some by Lee's departure in a trade with Seattle the same day. To this day, it's fair to wonder whether the Phillies would have returned to the World Series in 2010 had they kept Lee. It's also fair to say that the farm system would be in far better shape had Amaro never made the deal for Roy Oswalt in 2010.

Lee's return as a free agent in December 2010 nearly triggered a parade down Broad Street, but that hoopla started to disintegrate last October, when the prized lefty coughed up a four-run lead in the National League division series against the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.

A big part of Lee's allure when he reached the free-agent market was how well he had performed in the postseason. But in his last three October starts, including two with Texas in the 2010 World Series, Lee is 0-3 with a 7.13 ERA.

Turbulent times have continued in 2012. Lee went winless in his first 13 starts before finally securing a victory over the New York Mets in his final first-half outing, on the Fourth of July.

Lee, who will turn 34 at the end of next month, has pitched better than his 1-5 record, but he is far from blameless for the Phillies' first-half voyage to the bottom of the sea. The Phillies went 9-19 in June and were 0-5 in Lee's starts. His ERA for the month was 6.12.

It became grating when Lee said several times that he could not control his won-lost record, because there were times he was the one most responsible for the losses. To Lee's credit, as the defeats mounted and the performances worsened, he pointed the finger solely in his own direction.

There have been rumblings from some among the disappointed fans that the Phillies should trade Lee in just the second year of his five-year, $120 million contract and use that money to re-sign potential free agent Cole Hamels.

That's foolish thinking. The Phillies have the money to keep Lee and re-sign Hamels, and the three-ace blueprint for winning a division remains as viable as ever, provided all three aces are throwing as well as they were a year ago and the bullpen is fixed.

For proof, look south to the nation's capital, where Washington has the best record because it also has the best pitching staff.

There's probably not enough time for the trio of Lee, Halladay, and Hamels to save this season, especially since the bullpen has not yet been fixed. But having those three in place at the start of 2013 is the best foundation to build upon.

Lee has gone through difficult stretches in the past. In fact, his first full month with the Rangers in 2010 was even worse than this June with the Phillies. He recovered and pitched the Rangers into the World Series, which triggered an offseason bidding war that the Phillies, despite the fact they were not the highest bidders, won over the Rangers and New York Yankees.

The lefty's burning desire to pitch in Philadelphia is a big reason Lee has been so tightly embraced here. Some of that luster has been tarnished, but things can change in a hurry in the world of professional sports.

Lee finished the first half by earning his first victory of the season. The Phillies desperately need him to start the second half with a similar performance and an identical result.


Inside the Phillies:

Friday's Game

Phillies

(Lee, 1-5)

at Rockies (Friedrich, 4-6), 8:40 p.m. (CSN)


Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com or on Twitter @brookob.

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