Before I start rambling on about how absolutely ridiculous the Phillies pitching staff now is, let me make one thing very clear. Philadelphia is no lock to win the World Series in 2011, or even get to it for that matter. There are still 29 other teams that stand between the Phils and a second championship in the last four years. I will also promise to do my best to avoid using any of the horribly cheesy nicknames/phrases associated with this blockbuster signing such as “Merry Cliffmas,” “UnbeLEEvable,” or “R2C2.” I mean, c’mon. Really? I’m not so sure “The Big 4” wouldn’t be better than any of those.
When the Phillies announced Tuesday that Cliff Lee had agreed to a five-year, $120 million contract, the baseball world was taken by storm. I am of the general opinion that many fans have the tendency to overreact to trades and signings that benefit their favorite teams, but in this case, the mayhem that has broken out in the city of Philadelphia is certainly warranted.
The Phillies already had arguably the best pitching staff in all of baseball, and with the addition of Lee, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has put together what could be one of the best pitching rotations in MLB history. With Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, and now Cliff Lee, the Phils have three and a half, maybe four true aces by my count. Quite honestly, they could take some random guy off the streets to be their fifth starter and be just fine. Ok, maybe not, but you get the point.
To put into context just how good this pitching staff is, I’ll run through some statistics for you. As a whole, “The Big 4” has three Cy Young Awards (2 for Halladay, 1 for Lee), six 20-game win seasons (3 for Halladay, 2 for Oswalt, 1 for Lee), two NLCS MVP Awards (1 for Oswalt, 1 for Hamels), and one World Series MVP Award (Hamels). They also combined for 19 complete games and seven shutouts in 2010. Of the top ten active leaders in strikeout-walk ratio, the Phillies now own three of them (Oswalt 5th, Halladay 7th, Lee 10th). Likewise, the Phils now own three of the top eight active pitchers in career winning percentage (Halladay 1st, Oswalt 5th, Lee 8th). To top it all off, the postseason success of “The Big 4” is absolutely off the charts. They are a combined 20-8 with a 3.08 ERA, and they have accounted for six of the top 11 game scores by a starting pitcher during the playoffs over the past seven years. If that’s not impressive, than I don’t know what is.
Just one week ago, the National League looked as wide open as it has in quite some time. The World Series champion San Francisco Giants lost a key player in Juan Uribe as did the Phillies by losing their best right-handed hitter in Jayson Werth. Teams like the Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Braves, and Nationals all made significant upgrades to their respective rosters, and the NL was regaining some balance. So much for that. Suddenly, with Cliff Lee’s return to Philadelphia, the moves that other teams have made to this point appear not to be good enough.
There is no doubt that, on paper, Philadelphia is the best team in the National League. However, the last time I checked baseball games aren’t played on paper. There are no guarantees in this game, and come April, all teams will be on a level playing field. As last year’s surprising World Series match-up proved, you don’t necessarily have to have the most talented players to win. Sometimes, all it takes is consistent pitching, timely hitting, solid defense, and the ability to get hot at the right time.
With expectations that are through the roof, anything short of a World Series would be considered a disappointment. Cliff Lee may indeed have changed the landscape of the National League, but for St Louis, this is a wonderful opportunity to take on a challenge and shock the world. After all, to be the best, you have to beat the best.