Cliff Lee and the Phillies may be the favorites in the National League in 2011, but that doesn't mean there aren't questions to be answered.
The organization is counting on him to do just that, to the tune of a cool $120 million.
No pressure though, Mr. Lee. Vegas and baseball enthusiasts everywhere only expect you and Phillies to turn the National League into your own personal playground en route to a World Series appearance.
And if you don’t win a title, don’t sweat it. There will be plenty of blame to travel up and down the payroll, which, as of this moment, exceeds $170 million.
But never mind the Series. Before you or any other of the New Four Horsemen hurls a ball plateward this season, there are some questions to answer.
Do the Phillies Now Own One of the Best Rotations of All Time?
If you believe in the power of sabremetrics, then yes.
According Sports Illustrated’s Cliff Corcoran, who accumulated 2011 statistics for each of Philadelphia’s Big Four using Baseball Prospectus’ Support Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Above Replacement (SNLVAR) — geez, what a mouthful — the quartet of Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt compares favorably with some of history’s best pitching foursomes.
Corcoran’s projections predict that in 2011, the Big Four will be worth 26.6 wins above replacement, a figure that compares favorably to what the numbers indicate are the two best pitching rotations since 1954: the 1966 Dodgers and 1997 Braves.
[Side note: For those not up-to-date on their scientific baseball lexicon, the WAR formula assesses how many wins a player is worth over the course of a season.]
That Dodger rotation, which included three future Hall of Famers among the foursome of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Claude Osteen, and Don Sutton, registered 32.5 wins above replacement. The Braves rotation, with the unforgettable trio of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine, was fraction behind at 32.4.
You make the call. Does the Phillies rotation deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the best of all time?
My answer is no, at least until they prove the numbers are accurate.
How Many Runs Will Lee and Co. Require?
You would think not many. None of the Big Four has a career ERA over 3.85. In fact, in 37 combined years of major league service, there have been only five instances in which any of them recorded an ERA higher than 4.32 in a given season.
The next logical question is, can the explosive Philadelphia offense, which finished 2009 ranked seventh in runs scored, get the job done more often than not?
When you average together the career ERAs of Lee, Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt, the result is 3.47. In other words, all the Phillies have to do is score four runs a game and they’ll win 130 games in 2011, right?
Easier said than done.
I went into minor detail yesterday about the possible pitfalls that may await the Philadelphia lineup in the absence of Jayson Werth, who was either first or second on the team in nearly every major statistical category last season.
Who picks up the slack? Maybe Domonic Brown, but the 23-year-old only has 62 career at-bats and may not be ready to provide the Phillies with a legitimate threat either in front of or behind Ryan Howard.
Another thing to keep in mind: assuming Brown becomes a mainstay in the place of Werth, the average age of the Phillies lineup this season is nearly 32 years of age. As many teams are trending younger to save cash, Philadelphia will be one of baseball’s older teams. Can they support the pitching staff on a consistent basis over a 162-game season?
Is the Contract Too Long?
Lee signed a deal that guarantees him $120 million over the next five seasons. It also includes a vesting option worth an additional $27.5 million for 2016. Of the three teams lobbying for Lee, Philadelphia was the only one whose offer didn’t include guaranteed money for six seasons; the Yankees offered two deals, one of which guaranteed seven years, while Rangers offered a seventh year as a vesting option.
Lee took the shortest deal. Still, is his new contract too lengthy? Assuming Lee pitches either 200 innings in 2010 or 400 innings over the course of the 2014-15 seasons, and his option vests, he’ll be pitching during the back end of his final season at age 38.
True, left handers generally last longer than right handers, but what kind of production justifies paying that sort of money to a 38 year old Lee, who would be in his 15th season in 2016?
I suppose that’s why the deal also includes a buyout, valued at a slightly smaller $12.5 million.
Also consider that of the 52 free agent pitchers that have signed deals of four years or more since 1990, only five have averaged 30-plus starts and posted an ERA 20 percent better than the league average, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
If Not No. 1, Then Where?
There’s more than one numbers game involving Lee in Philadelphia, the first of which has to do with the terms of his contract. The other is which slot of the rotation he fills: No. 1 or No. 2?
In all fairness to Roy Halladay and his recent historical heroics last season, he should be the undisputed ace of the staff. He has proven more consistently over the course of his career that he is deserving of that role. But disregarding the whole right-left-right-left setup, wouldn’t Oswalt, whose career ERA of 3.18 trumps Lee’s 3.85, have just as much a right to that second spot? And what about Hamels, whose 3.53 career ERA would fit nicely in the No. 3 hole?
I suppose in the grand scheme of things it really doesn’t matter, but isn’t $20 million just a tad too much to be paying a pitcher that, statistically, is only your rotation’s fourth-best performer?
Does Lee Really Make the Phillies Better?
There’s something to be said for team chemistry. It doesn’t necessarily come in the form of dollars and cents or home runs and on-base percentage. And some managers will tell you they’d rather have a second-tier player who meshes well with the remainder of the locker room than a superstar whose antics threaten to tear at the fabric of the team.
Often times, camaraderie trumps talent. Just ask the 2008 Yankees, who finished third in the AL East and missed the playoffs despite a payroll that neared $210 million.
I’m not insinuating that Lee has been or will be a destructive force. He clearly made the Phillies better in 2009, and there’s no reason to believe his likeable character won’t gel with his teammates this time around.
But there are no promises. Perhaps more in baseball than in any other professional sport, teams have to coalesce into a single, cohesive unit from season to season in order to be successful.
The Phillies had that make up each of the past three seasons. It was one of the biggest driving forces behind their success, and maybe the main reason why they came so close to becoming the first NL team to win three consecutive pennants since the St. Louis Cardinals of the 1940s.
The Phillies may ultimately win 100-plus games with Lee on the roster for a full season. But as the dog days of August give way to playoff races in September, will the Phillies—who welcome back roughly the same cast of characters as in recent seasons—have the right chemistry to propel them into October?
Or will the addition of one single player, even one of Lee’s modesty, be enough to derail what has been the most successful run in team history?