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Can the dream rotation handle the pressure to win in 2011?
The Phillies clubhouse was a funeral parlor after the team lost to San Francisco in the NLCS in October. This club, you see, had grown accustomed to being one of the last two standing, and falling short of a third straight trip to the World Series in 2010 was a shock.
Who knows? Maybe the shock was good for the Phils. Maybe the dull gnaw of missed chances — their hitters were 8-for-45 (.178) with runners in scoring position in the NLCS — and the challenge of unfinished business will carry this talented, veteran club back to the World Series in 2011.
If that doesn’t, then there’s always the pitching. Have you heard Cliff Lee is back? Have you heard this team has four aces? Have you heard the Phils are the favorite to win the NL pennant for a third time in four years? There are heavy expectations on this club. Anything short of the World Series will be a disappointment. “That’s perfect,” says Lee, greeting the expectations head on. “That’s what I expect. This team is more than capable of doing that.”
The Phillies sneaked in and plucked Lee off the free agent market when most had him pegged a Yankee. Within 24 hours of the signing, delirious Philadelphia fans bought 21,000 tickets — for games that already project as sellouts. Lee steps into a powerful, potentially historic rotation that already included Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. All are top-of-the-rotation, 200-plus-inning guys. Together, this foursome owns 13 top-five finishes in Cy Young voting, three Cy Young Awards, 13 All-Star selections, six 20-win seasons, three postseason MVP awards and a 20–8 postseason record. In 2010, Lee led the majors with an eye-popping strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 10.28; Halladay was second at 7.30. Halladay (.662), Oswalt (.643), and Lee (.625) enter the 2011 season ranked first, fifth and eighth in career winning percentage among active pitchers with at least 100 decisions. Joe Blanton or Kyle Kendrick will be the No. 5 starter, though Blanton could be traded. If healthy, the Four Aces project to start 132 of 162 games, and they could be lethal in a short postseason series. “This is a great staff,” a rival scout says. “There will be a lot of hitters looking at 0-for-16s when you face them in a four-game series.”
With all those potential innings in the rotation, Phillies relievers might qualify for rollover minutes on the bullpen phone. When the call does come, the Phils have three good late-game options in closer Brad Lidge and setup men Ryan Madson and Jose Contreras. Lidge rebounded from 11 blown saves in 2009 to convert 27-of-32 save chances in 2010, including 21-of-23 in the second half when he had a 2.10 ERA. Lidge has lost a couple of ticks on his fastball and slider, but he’s learned to use what he has. Madson, with his 96-mph fastball and baffling changeup, is one of the game’s best eighth-inning men. At 39, Contreras can still light up radar guns and make the ball dance. J.C. Romero re-signed in December and will be the Phils’ primary lefty out of the pen.
Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley both turned 32 in the offseason. Both missed significant time with injuries in 2010. It’s probably an overstatement to say they have reached career crossroads, but they will both be looking for rebound seasons in 2011. Though not a prototypical leadoff man, Rollins remains the team’s best option in that spot, and he showed signs of improved selectivity in 2011. He remains a money-in-the-bank defender. Though not as smooth as Rollins, Utley, too, is an excellent defender. His batting average and slugging percentage have both slipped the last three seasons, but he remains a dangerous bat in the No. 3 hole.
One of the strongest corner combinations in baseball features slugger Ryan Howard at first and steady Placido Polanco at third. Despite missing time with a sprained ankle, Howard had another season of 30-plus homers and 100-plus RBIs. Over the last five seasons, he leads the majors in homers (229) and RBIs (680). Howard is no ballerina at first, but his defense has improved in recent seasons. At third, Polanco is as sure-handed as they come. He transitioned from second base in 2010 and made just five errors in 123 games at third. A valuable contact hitter in a let-it-rip lineup, Polanco had a solid offensive season despite playing with a painful bone spur in his left elbow. Surgery has fixed the problem; he should be as good as ever.
It’s not the strength of the team, especially with Jayson Werth and his productive bat gone, but there are reasons to like this outfield. Raul Ibañez, whose 83 RBIs last season were just two fewer than Werth’s, enters the final year of his contract riding the momentum of a strong second half. Center fielder Shane Victorino remains a first-rate defender who tied for the NL lead with 11 outfield assists en route to a third straight Gold Glove. On the down side, Victorino’s batting average and on-base percentage both slipped. An aging roster will get an infusion of youth as top prospect Domonic Brown will take over in right field at some point this season, possibly as part of a platoon with Ben Francisco. Brown, 23, lit up pitching in Double-A and Triple-A last season, but struggled during a big league cameo.
A converted second baseman who signed for $8,000 out of Panama in 1998, catcher Carlos Ruiz has become an invaluable contributor. The ever-improving Ruiz signed a three-year, $8.85 million deal before the 2010 season and continued to be a bargain, hitting .302 with a .400 on-base percentage. The offense is nice, but Ruiz’ biggest contribution is his expert handling and leadership of the pitching staff. Brian Schneider is a strong backup.
Where would this team have been without Wilson Valdez in 2010? A non-roster player in March and waiver-wire resident in May, he managed to stick around and give the Phils tremendous defense — just three errors in 397 total chances — while making 88 starts at three infield positions. He returns in 2011 and will be valuable in giving Utley, Rollins and Polanco occasional rest. Francisco and Ross Gload could both see an increase in playing time as manager Charlie Manuel looks for a productive mix in right field.
It’s difficult to find a legitimate criticism of this management team. (OK, the jury is still out on Howard’s five-year, $125 million extension.) In an 18-month span, GM Ruben Amaro acquired pitching studs Lee, Halladay and Oswalt — and don’t forget 2009 contributor Pedro Martinez — then lured Lee back to Philadelphia after ownership agreed to stretch the payroll and relax a club policy of not giving pitchers deals of more than three years. In the dugout, Manuel has the respect of his players and is a folk hero to the fans who once bemoaned his hiring. He might have done his best work in 2010, surviving 18 player trips to the disabled list, many by core players.
Age is creeping up, but the championship window remains wide open thanks to the four aces. The biggest threat to a fifth straight NL East title and deep postseason run will be health. If the X-rays and MRIs pitch shutouts, this team could be charting a parade route.