After a long, arduous and for the Philadelphia Phillies, somewhat confusing and disappointing offseason, the days until the first pitch of 2013 is thrown are finally winding down. Simply put, the baseball season is almost upon us.
As we speak, pitchers and catchers have already reported to duty and their position player teammates are sure not to be far behind. Already the weather in Philadelphia is improving and every one in the city is awaiting the return of their beloved Phils.
For fans this brings hope, joy, excitement, anticipation and of course, questions.
How will Chase Utley's knees hold up? Will Ryan Howard's power return? How in the world will the new outfield platoon work out? Where will the runs come from? What will come of the new bullpen?
And perhaps the most important and most immediate question, one that its answer will no doubt set the tone for the season: Which of the Big Three will get the nod to start Opening Day?
Each of the three aces has an impressive enough resume to get the start but unlike in the past few years, it is not a clear cut choice. Roy Halladay is no longer the clear cut #1 on this team, Cliff Lee has been inconsistent and Cole Hamels is primed to be the ace of the future.
Still, there is no easy answer as all three aces will enter the 2013 season with a clean slate and on even ground. Any of the three can be given the start and when it comes down to it, there really is no bad choice. What there is however is a best choice.
Here are the pros and cons to each of the big three getting to throw the first pitch of the 2013 Phillies' season.
Roy Halladay is a veteran, the consummate pro. If the Phillies asked him to jump, not only would he say "how high?" but he would also find out how he can jump in a way that would best benefit the team. More than any other player on the team, Halladay aspires for perfection. He is a hard worker, a true horse. When he has the ball, his imposing frame on the mound, you'd be hard pressed to get him to give it up.
But all of that said, is Halladay the best man for the job?
Opening Day Track Record
Since 2002, Halladay has been the opening day starter eight times and has a 5-3 record including winning both of his opening day starts as a Phillie. In these two starts in 2010 and 2012, Halladay has given up just one run and eight hits in 15 innings.
2012 Was an Anomaly
Believe it or not, the fortunes of the Phillies in 2012 did not start off too bad. Halladay was on pace to potentially contend for another Cy Young as he had decisive victories in the first three starts of the season. His April overall wasn't bad either as he pitched at least seven innings yielding no more than three runs, in each of his five starts. Had he not suffered a bum shoulder in May, there is no telling what his season would have been like.
With Halladay, the Phillies Win
Simply stated, when Halladay is on the mound, the Phillies win. In his 95 starts with the team, the Phillies have 63 wins and 32 losses, a winning margin of a little over 66 percent. This is by far the best mark of all starters on the team besting Cliff Lee's 58 percent and Cole Hamels' 59 percent. Plus, Halladay will be going for his 200th win and to start the season with that will certainly be a good sign for both him and the team.
Wear and Tear
As much as all Phillies fans want to believe that 2012 was the exception not the rule, the question of Halladay's age has to be in question. The older you are, the longer it takes to recover from injury and the greater the chance that decline can set in.
You don't normally consider it a bad thing when a pitcher logs a mass amount of innings except when he begins to age and the signs of wear and tear rear their ugly heads. Halladay has pitched a total of 2687.1 innings in his 14 year career and his 35 year old body might be starting to feel the effects. If he is even available to start opening day, the question of his health will certainly be prevalent.
Splitting the Lefties
This really has nothing to do with Halladay at all, but pitching coach Rich Dubee likes to split up the lefty arms of Hamels and Lee. For that reason, starting Halladay would mean that either Lee or Hamels would have to pitch as the fourth of fifth in the rotation. This was the set up last season as the Phillies waited to pitch Hamels until the team's home opener, but isn't one I can see being put in place for 2013.
The first series the team plays is against the rival Atlanta Braves and there would be no better way to start the season than to throw all three of our best arms in that series and save the other two for the home series against the lesser threat in the Kansas City Royals.
How You Finish...
Halladay may have begun 2012 with three straight wins and stellar numbers but in his final starts in September, the same cannot be said. Halladay did record three wins in the four starts because as I mentioned previously, Halladay almost never wants for run support. That said, he will be facing a tough get in facing the Braves' number one and if his earned run totals from the last four starts of 2012 (5, 3, 7, 4) are a sign of more to come, starting Halladay may backfire.
Like Halladay, Cliff Lee is a true innings eater. When he starts a game, his primary goal is to be on the mound when the final pitch is thrown. He'll pitch you complete games and will never give up even if the chips are down. Lee was the unlucky victim of a lack of run support last season but it never seemed to diminish his resolve. Not to mention, he really can handle the bat.
Does this mean he should get the opening start?
Numbers Don't Tell the Whole Story
A 6-9 record is certainly nothing to be proud of, but in the case of Cliff Lee, it is something that easily could have been much worse. You see unlike the rest of the Phillies staff in 2012, Lee actually lost the games he should have lost. He didn't get away with giving up five runs like Halladay did on occasion. Run support was few and far between and he knew that. He had to pitch as well as he could and overall, although the record doesn't show it, 2012 was a good year for Cliff.
With an ERA of 3.16 and a strikeout total once again topping 200, Lee was top ten in the National League in four different pitching categories. When he is on the mound, the Phillies almost always have a chance to win and that is something you look for in your number one starter.
Big Game, Statement Pitcher
More than anyone else on the Phillies staff, Lee really has been the guy the team has wanted on the mound, especially during a big game. He has not started an opening day with the team but is 2-1 when making his first start of the season. He has also been successful in the postseason with the exception of 2011. He led back to back teams (Philly and the Texas Rangers) to the World Series with near blemish-less records. He has come up big in spots and although has struggled at times, could be the one the Phillies find themselves counting on most.
Healthy as a Horse
Of the Big Three, Lee is the only one checking into spring training with a clean bill of health. Halladay's shoulder and back issues from last year bring question into his readiness and effectiveness and the report of Hamels having a little discomfort in his throwing shoulder, leaves Lee as the only one to be at full speed. Now, Hamels' issue is probably nothing but still, all things considered, the guarantee of Lee being able to go at least seven innings has to have the Phillies contemplating giving him the nod.
No Good at Turner Field
In his past three seasons, including two full season with the Phillies, Lee has not pitched well at Turner Field, the site of the season opener. In three starts he has a 4.41 ERA and is allowing opponents to hit .290 off of him. Now obviously it is a small sample but in ballparks similar in size to Turner (401 feet to center), Lee has pitched to even worse earned run totals including a 6.16 ERA at Camden Yards (400 ft to center) and a 5.14 ERA at Chase Field (407 ft to center).
Worst Winning Percentage
As I outlined earlier, the Phillies have the worst winning percentage of the Big Three when Lee is on the mound. It doesn't mean much and it isn't all his fault but ultimately, he does not give the team the best chance to score a victory. For whatever reason, Lee barely gets any run support and with a retooled, reworked, rebuilding Phillies offense, the same could be said for much of 2013 especially in the season's first game.
The Roy Halladay/Cole Hamels Block
When most people look at the Phillies they tend to acknowledge a commonality when discussing the starting staff. Roy Halladay is the veteran, the Cy Young winner, the past. Cole Hamels is the young World Series MVP, the fresh, the future. Cliff Lee, he is the guy in the middle.
Before Halladay's injury issues last season and Hamels' rise to glory as the highest paid player in Phillies' history, Lee was always penciled in as the number two starter. It made sense. Halladay was by far the best ace on the team, followed by Lee, followed by Hamels.
Now however it is a different story. Dubee's lefty-righty-lefty plan indicates that Hamels or Lee would be the guy to start which seemingly takes Halladay out of the equation. That said, on this staff, many don't see Lee as anything other than a two and in 2013, I can't help but think this will not change.
The homegrown ace, the baby of the big three, Cole Hamels has certainly proven that he can be at the level of the big boys. Although he is the only one of the three without a Cy Young, he is also the only one of the three with a World Series and a World Series MVP, compiled in a flawless 2008 postseason. If last year's totals weren't enough to make people see him as this team's number one, the monster contract he received, certainly should have opened some eyes. Halladay may be the guy now, but Hamels is the future and he will be the number one.
Does that mean that he is the number one now, that he should have the ball to start opening day?
The Contract Says it All
When Hamels made his first major league start in 2006, the homegrown product was billed as the ace of the future for this team. He had his stumbles along the way but in 2012 with a 17-6 record and finishes in the top ten of seven pitching categories including wins, strikeouts, complete games and ERA, Hamels emerged as the best on the staff.
And he was paid accordingly to the tune of $144 M. He got a higher contract than both Lee and Halladay got and is now the highest paid player on the team. Money isn't everything but if you are go to pay the man like an ace, there is no use not having him have a chance to be the ace.
Building Off of a Career Year
It comes to a point where the argument is not really about who starts opening day but more about who is the number one on the depth chart. For Hamels, the best argument is that 2012 was a career best for him in many ways and at just 28, there is a very high chance, he gets even better in 2013.
With the exception of his own post championship hangover, Hamels has improved each season he has been in the game and has really become one of the better lefties in all of baseball. If the choice is between him and Lee, the nod goes to Hamels. If the choice is between Hamels and Halladay, I think you really do have to look at what 2012's numbers could mean. It could very well be that Hamels is on the rise and Halladay is in the decline, ready to fade into the background.
Changing of the Guard
As Hamels himself put it in an interview with WIP, pitching on opening day is "the ultimate honor" and one that I for one believe he has earned.
Hamels is in a tough situation. He is sandwiched between two of the best pitchers currently in the game and although both of their contracts are nearing to expire, he is still like the kid trying to sit at the adult table. He knows he can still learn from Lee and Halladay but at the same time he has made himself someone future players will learn from.
The guard has symbolically been passed but Hamels has never made an opening day start, something as the team's number one pitcher, he will have to do at some point. Why not let 2013 be that point?
He Lacks the Experience
Hamels has never made an opening day start in his six years with the Phillies. Of course that is not for lack of trying. He was slated to start in 2009 but was forced to have his start postponed due to an elbow issue. The same could possibly be said with the previously mentioned shoulder discomfort (slide 3) he felt at points during this offseason.
Ultimately, Hamels doesn't have the experience. Sure, he is never going to get that experience if he isn't given a chance at some point but 2013 is a going to be a statement year for the Phillies and as a result, they may want one of their proven veterans in Halladay or Lee to begin the year on the mound.
History of Losing Game One
Although Hamels is not necessarily a slow starter, with a good career track record of pitching in April, it has been well documented that in the first start of the season, Hamels is not at his best. Only once in his six years has he won that start and only twice have the Phillies won the first game of the season Hamels has pitched.
Whether it is rust or just getting back into the swing of things, Hamels is not a guy that has had success at the onset of the season.
No Good At Turner
Just like Lee, Hamels has had his share of struggles when pitching at Turner Field. In eight games, he is just 1-2 with a 4.29 ERA in a little over 35 innings pitched. While if he doesn't start game one, he could very well start games two or three also at Turner, the best bet at that point would be Hamels in the home opener.
If Hamels does't get opening day, there is almost no doubt the Phillies will save him for Citizen's Bank Park. After all, as much as Philly fans love Lee and Halladay, there is something special about homegrown talent.
ROY HALLADAY if healthy.
After a long deliberation, looking at the pros and cons, I have to say Halladay, if healthy, is a slightly better choice to start the opener than Hamels, although the final verdict could come as a result of spring performance.
No disrespect at all to Cole however. I do believe he has earned it and I do believe that he is ready to be this team's ace going forward.
And ultimately that is what this is all about. It doesn't so much come down to who gets the ball first but who is the guy you want to have the ball in that do-or-die game seven of the World Series. Right now however and this probably sounds crazy based on Cole's postseason resume, but Halladay is still the guy I want in this spot.
Halladay wins the big games, has proven that he is up to the challenge and will give you everything he has got every outing. Yes he is 35 and yes he is nearing the back end of his career, but I think 2013 will prove to be a success story for him. If healthy.
I keep repeating this caveat because I cannot stress it enough. If Halladay pitches well and can prove he is healthy in spring training, he gets the ball. if not, Hamels starts the season opener in Atlanta.
Hamels is the future and will get his chance to start the opener but not in 2013. Halladay is the present and when healthy, you can't argue against his track record. The Phillies win 66 percent of their games when he is on the mound and when he has started the opener for them, he has truly been lights out.
And for that reason, Halladay is still this team's number one and is still the guy I want with the ball when the 2013 season of redemption kicks off.