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Was Cliff Lee Really What the Phillies Needed?

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Let me begin by saying that the addition of Cliff Lee  was one oCliff Lee photo: AP/Gayf the more exciting maneuvers in the history of Philadelphia sports.

For Ruben Amaro Jr. to sneak into the Lee sweepstakes at the last minute and add a fourth ace to the Phillies’ starting rotation was practically unfathomable.
 
Since that memorable December day, Phillies tickets have actually managed to become hotter items than the 3.7 million that were snatched up last season. The anticipation that accompanies the 2011 season is so great that it almost makes one forget all of those lean years when 90 Phillies losses were a forgone conclusion.

So, what I’m about to ask could be viewed as blasphemous in light of the hysteria that we have all shared in over the last few months. Oh well, here I go anyway:

Did the Cliff Lee move do much to change the Phillies’ chances of winning a World Series in 2011?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I sound like the guy who would point out the imperfections in Miss America. I would complain that the beautiful rainbow was only there because of the crummy weather that preceded it. I would have really loved that chocolate cake if the portion wasn‘t so darned big.

Before you jump to those conclusions, understand that I have been utterly giddy for the eighty-some days since Lee returned to his rightful place in Philadelphia.

So, where am I coming from with this nonsense about the Phillies’ World Series chances not being markedly better?

I’ll begin with the pitching staff that Lee joined. The old adage that a team can never have enough starting pitching may not have been the most accurate assessment of the pre-Lee Phillies.

The truth is, their rotation was about as good as any in Major League Baseball before the return of Lee. They featured baseball’s most dominant pitcher from 2010 in Roy Halladay. Next in line was Cole Hamels, the former World Series MVP who posted a 2.23 ERA while holding hitters to a .214 batting average after last year‘s All-Star Break. Finally, there was Roy Oswalt, who merely went 8-2 with an ERA under 2.00 after his Philly arrival last July, and is universally considered a top-20 starter by baseball experts.

Make no mistake, the Lee signing did add another starting pitcher that is easily one of baseball’s ten best. It practically eliminates the likelihood of a pitching slump lasting more than a day or two for this season’s Phils. And of course, there is the intangible quality of just how friggin’ cool it is to think of the fear it has spread among the teams that aspire to win a World Series of their own.

But, as awesome as it is to have Lee back in a Phillies uniform, it doesn’t improve upon the weaknesses that ended the Phillies 2010 season. In fact, those weaknesses have not been addressed by anything other than positive thinking.

Most of us have forgotten just how frustrating the 2010 season was for the Phillies at the plate. The offseason excitement has clouded our memories of the pain that was the team’s offense last year. Despite recording the seventh best run total in baseball (772), the Fightins were held to zero or one run an incredible 35 times last season.

Even more problematic was how often their lack of offense spanned numerous consecutive games. The Phillies have always been a streaky hitting team, but the 2010 season featured more prolonged, team-wide hitting slumps than any in the team’s recent run of successful seasons.

Unfortunately for the Phillies, the arrival of Lee won’t change the fact that they will still be prone to those stretches of offensive ineptitude that can diminish the impact of their stellar starting pitching. Remember all of those Cole Hamels starts that were wasted by comatose offensive efforts last summer?

Now consider what actual changes were made to the dangerously streaky Phillies offense since that infamous called third strike to Ryan Howard. Jayson Werth is gone, as are his 27 homers, 46 doubles and 106 runs scored. Other than Werth’s departure, no other significant changes were made to the team’s lineup, as the team has mainly followed a personnel strategy known as “Hope That 2010 was an Anomaly”.

Based on what is happening in Clearwater, that strategy isn’t looking so good at the moment. Jimmy Rollins (.185 average) continues to struggle, Domonic Brown will not be wearing a major league uniform any time soon, and Chase Utley’s knee issues are now officially more chronic than acute.

Again, I’m not saying that the 2011 Phillies aren’t still a World Series favorite. What I am saying is that they seem to be entering 2011 with many of the same issues that derailed their championship dreams last fall.

Those flaws continue in the bullpen. In fact, back in November Ruben Amaro directly stated that “the biggest issue in the offseason will be the reconstruction of our bullpen“.

Well, other than reducing the number of innings they may be called on to pitch by adding Cliff Lee to the rotation, no other changes were made to the bullpen during the offseason.

What that means is that the Phillies will once again be counting on Brad Lidge to close out games on the way to a World Series. This is the same Brad Lidge whose right arm seems to produce less velocity by the day. It also means that J.C. Romero is once again the main left-handed option, and that the Phillies will rely heavily on Ryan Madson and 39 year-old Jose Contreras over the next 170 games.

Have I mentioned that I am absolutely loving that Lee is once again in a Phillies uniform?

All I’m saying is that I thought one of the “aha” moments of last year’s loss to the Giants was how valuable a shut-down bullpen is for any team that hopes to win a world title. This is also not to say that the Phillies can’t acquire some of those supporting pieces through personnel moves during the season, but they will open the season with the same cast that everyone agreed was not on par with last year‘s best teams.

So, when the Phillies finally open the 2011 season in three weeks, it will be with a starting pitching staff that went from incredible to otherworldly. The question that remains to be answered is whether or not their plan for consistent offense and a reliable bullpen was really a plan at all. Because as amazing as Cliff Lee is, even he may not be able to help the “better luck next year” strategy that the Phillies are hoping puts them over the top.


 

 

 

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  

 

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Photo Credits:
Cliff Lee: AP/Gay