Cliff Lee is a happy man.
Forget the fact he swindled himself out of more than $30 million to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies. Okay, maybe not swindled, because Lee voluntarily left that money on the table.
He knew what he was doing. He knew he’d be the most at peace in Philadelphia. His trial run there in 2009 — despite the fact the Phillies failed to sign him that time around — was nothing short of magical.
So, it is with shallower pockets but a lighter heart that Lee comes to Philadelphia, providing an already intimidating gang of starters with an additional bully.
Watch out, National League East: Lee’s signing may have been the ultimate kill shot. Sorry, Atlanta Braves: the division was previously a table for two, and you’ve just been asked to leave.
Not only are the Phillies unanimous favorites to win the East, odds makers in Vegas have been influenced by the Lee deal, adjusting Philadelphia’s chances of winning it all from 5-1 to 5-2 overnight — the best in baseball ahead of the Yankees.
The quartet of Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt is unrivaled in baseball: Thirteen All-Star appearances. A combined record of 481-275 and an aggregate ERA of 3.47. Two World Series titles. One perfect game. One no-hitter.
All that and at an average age of 30 — not exactly youthful in baseball years, but not yet geriatric.
The Phillies should be dominant on the mound, just as they should be proficient at the plate — even sans Jayson Werth. Though, it appears, they won’t have to score very much.
On paper, Philadelphia has the look of a 100-win team — easy. By locking up Lee, the Phillies have made the unrealistic prospect of winning four out of every five games somewhat realistic. Based on preseason projections and expectations alone, their backs will be fitted for targets before a pitch is even thrown.
Maybe that’s why the Phillies will disappoint in 2011.
Suppose they win 106 games during the regular season, breeze through the NLDS and NLCS, but come one run short of a world title. Is that, then, considered a disappointment? Some would say yes.
What if Halladay doesn’t even sniff either a perfect game or a no-hitter in 2011, and both Hamels and Oswalt, who has the best career ERA (3.18) of the four, perform like your average third and fourth starters? Does that constitute an underachieving staff?
And assume Lee finishes a hair below his numbers from a season ago (12-9, 3.18), or even those from his first go-around in Philly (3.39 in 12 starts). Will the Phillies’ shrewdness and $120 million sneak attack against the Yankees and Rangers be for naught?
No, but the goals that were set the moment Lee signed on the dotted line say otherwise.
The Phillies now have upwards of $170 million dedicated to the 2011 payroll, including more than $60 million tied up in the Big Four of Lee, Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt. Even if starter Joe Blanton, as rumors suggest, is dealt to create space, they would still leapfrog the Red Sox for the second-highest payroll in the majors.
With that sort of cash flying around, isn’t it only reasonable to expect big, big things from Philadelphia this season, much like we do annually from the Yankees, who hand out the game’s most exorbitant paychecks?
Again, most people would say yes.
And what of the offense? There’s a good chance the lineup won’t operate on auto-pilot as often as it did with Werth, who at times was like Robin to Ryan Howard’s Batman, leading the team in games played, runs, walks, doubles, and on-base percentage, and finishing second in home runs, RBI, and hits.
Already under the microscope, much like the pitching staff, how much pressure will be applied to the Phillies’ hitters if they fail to perform consistently? After all, you can't hold down the opposition's offense every night.
Philadelphia has the ingredients available for a dream season. But if things don’t go exactly according to plan, which will likely be nothing less than a World Series title, the 2011 campaign may be a recipe for disaster.
How will Lee feel then?