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Cliff Lee Signing Applies Pressure to Phillies Lineup

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When Phillies fans came downstairs on Tuesday morning to find Cliff Lee under their newly decorated Christmas trees, a number of things became abundantly clear.

1. Not everyone loves New York.

2. The Phillies organization is the envy of EVERY front office in major league baseball.

3. Ruben Amaro Jr. can no longer be underestimated.

The return of Cliff Lee practically erases the stomach churning memory of Brian Wilson and his historically mediocre Giants teammates celebrating their upset of our mighty Fightins just two months ago in the NLCS.

We can now anticipate the 2011 season as one in which the Phillies will be overwhelming World Series favorites. With two months until spring training begins, we are considering the otherworldly potential of a pitching staff that is headlined by three former Cy Young Award winners and a former World Series MVP who could be the greatest fourth starter in baseball history.

Cliff Lee’s signing was the kind of event that made the loss of Jayson Werth seem pretty trivial. It more than made up for the extraordinarily un-sexy signing of Denys Reyes during last week’s uneventful MLB winter meetings. And for Ruben Amaro, it has directed the questioning eyes of Phillies fans away from him and focused them very clearly on something else: the veteran core of the team’s offensive lineup.

Let’s take a moment to remember that the 2010 Phillies, despite their league-best 97 wins, featured a maddeningly inconsistent offense. While our frustration with a team that won nearly 100 games is a sign of how spoiled we have become by the team’s recent success, there is no denying that the team’s diminishing punch at the plate is one of the only question marks as it heads into 2011.

And while Lee’s signing once again taught us not to underestimate Ruben Amaro’s ability to make a big deal, it is quite possible that the 2011 Phillies lineup will feature most of the same names that posted those sagging numbers in 2010. At the moment, it appears that the team will rely on Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Raul Ibanez to increase their offensive outputs to the levels we had grown accustomed to during the 2008 and 2009 seasons.

The reality is that Howard will be expected to elevate his home run total from an uncharacteristically low 31 to his more customary 40-something. Rollins will be need to remain healthy while hitting significantly higher than .247 and crossing home plate far more than 48 times. Utley will have to knock in over 100 runs instead of just 65, and Raul Ibanez will need to hit the ball the way he did during his two very productive stretches in 2010.

Is it too much to ask for all of the Phillies core offensive weapons to return to their career best hitting statistics? The simple answer is yes.

But is it reasonable for the players who have been All-Stars and MVP’s to still produce quality offensive numbers as they reach their early 30’s? Baseball history indicates that they absolutely can.

Perhaps one of the best things about the disappointing end of the 2010 season and the return of Lee is that their combination will provide a motivation and an energy level that no other team in baseball can match.

It’s likely that Ruben Amaro’s remaining offseason moves will consist of some small tweaks to the bullpen and outfield prior to opening day. However, his acquisition of Lee should have every member of the organization approaching this season as one in which every day is step toward another World Championship.

The beauty of the Lee signing is that he brings a unique aura with him to Philadelphia. He has become legendary in this town for the four months he spent here in 2009. He made fans and teammates alike feel that this team could stand toe-to-toe with the heavyweights of baseball and not back down.

That swagger not so coincidently seemed to be missing from the Phillies last season while Lee was on loan to the Mariners and Rangers. And in no place was that absence of resolve more evident than in the Phillies’ propensity to blink when faced with crucial moments at the plate.

So, when the Phillies report to Clearwater, Florida in mid-February, the hype surrounding the four aces will be off the charts, and with good reason. This will be one of the most exciting seasons in franchise history. But, as you inevitably get caught up in the potential of this legendary pitching staff, be sure to also keep an eye on the players that started this era of Phillies baseball with their explosive bats.

Because if they reacquire their collective focus and hitting strokes, it could make the gargantuan acquisition of Cliff Lee seem puny by comparison.

Photo Courtesy of Associated Press

Matt Babiarz was born and raised in the Philadelphia area.  He graduated from the University of Alabama, but remained a very close observer of the Philadelphia sports scene.  He recently began covering the Phillies for Philly2Philly.com.   You can also read his work at Bleacherreport.com within the Philadelphia Phillies section. 

Matt can be contacted at mattbabz@comcast.net