As usual, Phillies banking on Lee

DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Phillies' Cliff Lee warms up before last night's game against Blue Jays.
DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Phillies' Cliff Lee warms up before last night's game against Blue Jays.
Posted: March 06, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Nights like last night can make a man think about getting a little skin in the game. Most online sports books are offering 60-to-1 odds on the Phillies winning the 2014 World Series, and when you watch Cliff Lee walk to the clubhouse with a 3-1 lead against Toronto's R.A. Dickey, you can't help but think.

You know . . .

There are plenty of good reasons why you can get these kinds of odds. They are the same reasons why the Phillies regular-season over/under is currently 76.5 wins at They are 4 weeks away from Opening Day, and Cole Hamels has yet to face his first hitter (he's scheduled to do that in batting practice tomorrow). A month ago, A.J. Burnett was contemplating retirement. Their lineup is counting on a slew of veterans to rediscover their youth.

And yet . . .

It starts with Lee, just as it has for the better part of the last 3 years. Think about all the names and body parts that you have included in your prayers during that stretch.

Chase Utley's knees, Ryan Howard's Achilles', Roy Halladay's shoulder. Through it all, Lee has never looked like anything less than the pitcher they thought they were getting when they agreed to give him a 5-year, $120 million contract prior to the 2011 season.

Since signing that deal, he is sixth in the majors in innings (666 1/3, behind Justin Verlander, James Shields, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, and Dickey), and fifth in ERA (2.80, behind Kershaw, Kris Medlen, Johnny Cueto and Jered Weaver, minimum 300 innings). Lee's 667 strikeouts during that stretch rank third behind Kershaw and Verlander.

Put a guy like that at the top of a rotation, follow him with Hamels and Burnett and a team is going to find itself in a lot of winnable games. This is the formula the Phillies are counting on. This is why manager Ryne Sandberg has spent so much of this camp emphasizing baserunning and defense and other fundamentals that can help score or prevent that pivotal run.

Lee, Hamels and Burnett, with Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez or, at some point, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez rounding out the other two spots. That is where the Phillies' hopes lie.

"I like it," Lee said last night after striking out two and walking none while allowing a run in three innings against the Blue Jays. "Obviously, Cole Hamels is a huge part of it. I'd like to see him healthy and out there pitching. But Burnett, I think he has been a huge addition. Hernandez, same thing, Gonzalez, same thing. It makes our rotation that much deeper, that much stronger."

There has been a lot of talk of any of a number of aces existing in the Phillies' rotations of the previous few seasons, but, at this point, any talk of anybody belonging in the same company as Lee is a disservice to the 35-year-old vet.

Of the six major league pitchers who have logged at least 200 innings in each of the last six seasons, he is the only one to have done so while pitching primarily in the National League. If he can top that threshold this season, he will have have more 200-inning seasons than Halladay, who retired with eight, and Pedro Martinez, who finished with seven. Over the last 6 years, only Kershaw has an ERA+ higher than Lee's 141 (minimum: 600 innings).

Look at a piece of paper long enough, and this Phillies team will look like it has a fighting chance. What it must avoid is the major injury, or the major malfunction: Lee or Hamels or Burnett going down with an injury, or Marlon Byrd reverting to the player that prompted the Red Sox to release him in 2012, or Howard or Utley or Domonic Brown doing much less than the front office expects.

The bullpen?

"With [Brad Lincoln], and all the guys that got experience for the first time on an extended basis last year, I think it's just going to make us that much stronger," Lee said.

The odds say that something unforeseen will happen, and the Phillies depth says that they will be unprepared for it. Literally, that's what the odds say. 76.5 wins. 60-to-1 title contenders.

But then there is Lee, and two other starters who would have been right at home near the top of a lot of playoff rotations last season. It's reason to hope. Which, after all, is the beauty of spring.

On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy


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