Commentary

Rotation has Phillies dreaming big

Possibilities seem endless, but Phils' host of aces recognize much work ahead

Originally Published: February 14, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Jimmy Rollins stared at the names atop the lockers across the room:

LEE … HALLADAY … HAMELS … OSWALT … BLANTON

For a decade now, the Phillies shortstop has been playing behind pitchers of all sizes, shapes and ERAs. But on this Monday, at the dawn of another spring training, nobody had to explain to Rollins that his team had come a lonnngggg way from the days of Omar Daal and Amaury Telemaco.

"I told my wife last night, 'I've never played with anything like THIS,'" said Rollins, a man who has worn those red pinstripes longer than anyone else in his clubhouse. "This is what we used to see other teams do, and we'd say, 'I hope WE make that kind of move some day.'

"And now here it is," he said, laughing. "The Five Horsemen."

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireThe moment Cliff Lee decided to head back to Philly, the expectations for this rotation skyrocketed.

Literally at the moment Rollins uttered those words, the Five Horsemen were beginning the short journey down the corridor toward a podium at Bright House Field, where they would stare into the cameras, the light bulbs and the media interrogators, and try to make sense of what it means to pitch in a rotation four aces deep.

But there is a longer journey ahead for Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, for Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. And for the fifth Horseman, Joe Blanton, too -- assuming he isn't traded in the next 15 minutes. And that, of course, is the only journey that truly matters.

Where THAT journey leads this rotation is what makes this group such a mesmerizing subject in the land of baseball.

Are these men headed for history? For a rendezvous with ticker tape? For a place in the never-ending debate about the Greatest Rotations of All Time?

Or is it possible that this will be as good as it gets, that the names on the roster will never quite add up to the buzz they've created?

Is it possible that it will all be downhill from the introductory news conference? It is.

Is it possible that ultimately, because of injury or age or the unpredictable madness that defines baseball, this group will just wind up getting filed under What Might Have Been? It is.

So remember that. Spring training is a great time to dream. But it's a dangerous time to assume. So the assumption that the Phillies have assembled one of the greatest rotations in baseball history is about as dangerous as assumptions get. And here's why:

"I think," Lee said, astutely, "we haven't thrown a single pitch as a group yet. So it's kind of early to say we're one of the best rotations in the history of the game."

Hey, ya think?

They've been compared to the Braves of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. And with good reason, if you're adding up the career accomplishments. But those guys were teammates for 11 years. And these guys have been teammates now for -- what? -- like 11 minutes?

So "obviously," Lee said, "we're a very talented group, and there is potential for all of that. But it's just that. It's potential."

Nevertheless, in a way, this is all Lee's fault. After all, it was his decision not to take the Yankees' or the Rangers' megamillions -- and to write his own stunning little homecoming script -- that ignited this outburst of history talk.

From the moment Lee signed on the Phillies' dotted line, it's been hard not to contemplate the possibilities. So even though we've laid out the perils of this sort of thing, let's contemplate them one more time.

"

Roy Halladay had a full no-trade -- and waived it to come here. Roy Oswalt had a full no-trade -- and came here. Cliff Lee had a chance to go to 29 other teams -- and came here.

" -- Phillies GM Ruben Amaro

What have the Phillies got here? Here's what:

• These Five Horsemen have combined for three Cy Youngs, 13 top-five Cy Young finishes, a World Series MVP award, two league championship series MVP awards, six 20-win seasons and 13 trips to the All-Star Game.

• Four of the five have been good enough to start on Opening Day at some point in their careers. And the fifth (Hamels) was in line to start the Phillies' 2009 opener until he got hurt in spring training.

• Of the top six active starters in career winning percentage, the Phillies now employ three of them -- Halladay (first), Oswalt (fourth) and Lee (sixth).

• Of the six active National League starters with more than three times as many career strikeouts as walks, only two of them (Johan Santana and Javier Vazquez) AREN'T Phillies.

• Four of the top 12 NL starters on Matthew Berry's 2011 top-200 fantasy list are members of just this one rotation. Only two other NL teams -- the Giants and Cardinals -- have even two pitchers on that list. Nine teams don't have any. And the Phillies have FOUR.

• Halladay, Oswalt and Lee all have winning percentages of .620 or better. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that will make the Phillies the first NL team to enter a season with three pitchers with winning percentages that good, over at least 100 career decisions, since the 1957 Dodgers (Sal Maglie, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine).

• And, finally, you might have noticed these guys haven't shown any allergies to October, either. Lee, Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels are a combined 20-8 in the postseason, with a 3.08 ERA. And of the top 11 game scores compiled by starting pitchers over the past seven postseasons, six of them were by a current Phillies starter -- in other words, more than all other rotations in baseball combined.

So no wonder their pitching coach, Rich Dubee, joked the other day: "I was thinking about bringing a recliner to spring training."

And no wonder Phillies catcher Brian Schneider strolled into the clubhouse food room Monday morning, saw all those aces sitting at the same table and had one of those "OMG" moments, because for the first time, it hit him: "It's real."

And no wonder the manager, Charlie Manuel, gazed at the sparkling fields in front of him, so green and so full of aces, and said Monday: "We've got a chance to have a special season."

[+] EnlargePhillies
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireCole Hamels and Roy Halladay recognize there is work to be done -- but also that something special could be brewing.

The manager has been in baseball for half a century now. So he recognizes what a rarified group he's got here. But it isn't history he's pursuing. And it isn't history these pitchers are really interested in.

It's rings.

"A big part of it for me," Halladay said, "is not having the best pitching staff in history, but having the best chance to get to the postseason and the best chance to win a World Series. To be on a team that has that chance is what every player wants."

And that was a song the Five Horsemen sang Monday in five-part harmony. Which isn't shocking in and of itself. What's shocking is that three of these men had total control of their own fate -- and decided their best opportunity to grab for those rings was in Philadelphia, playing for a team that still, after 124 seasons, has won only as many World Series as the Marlins (two).

"Roy Halladay had a full no-trade -- and waived it to come here," GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "Roy Oswalt had a full no-trade -- and came here. Cliff Lee had a chance to go to 29 other teams -- and came here."

And Lee said numerous times Monday, with the help of persistent questioning from his friends in the New York media, that the reason he was sitting at this particular podium -- and not up the road at George M. Steinbrenner Field -- had nothing to do with his love for cheesesteaks, his wife's October horror show in the seats of Yankee Stadium or the unhappy ending to his 2010 World Series adventure in Texas.

"I just honestly stepped back and looked at each team and evaluated," he said. "I felt like this is the team that's going to give me the best chance to win a ring and hopefully multiple rings."

What Lee hasn't digested yet, however, is how his choice of destination has rattled the Richter scale in his new/old hometown. And you don't measure that just in buzz or ticket sales. You measure it in Amnesia Effect.

With one line in the old transactions column, his signing served as a giant eraser -- wiping out all memory of the Phillies' painful loss to the Giants in the 2010 NLCS.

OK, well maybe not ALL memory.

"It definitely helps erase that," left fielder Raul Ibanez said. "But hopefully, it doesn't erase it all the way, because I think remembering it a little bit, hanging on to the past a little bit, is a good motivator. ... But you know what it really did? It really helped put that moment in time behind you and allowed you as a player to focus 100 percent on what was ahead and not look back, because what's ahead is so exciting."

Is there any better time in life, or baseball, to dream about what lies ahead than the first day of spring training? So there's no reason these men shouldn't have been dreaming Monday. But it's a long, tough trek from Dream Land to the Promised Land. And their manager made sure to remind them of that.

"Sometimes," Manuel said Monday, "people forget how hard it is to win."

He talked about the Cubs -- a team working on its second century without a parade. He talked about the Braves -- all those great teams, all those great rotations and only one ring. He even talked about the Yankees. Yeah, maybe they've won 27 World Series -- but that's in 108 seasons.

"So that's [nearly] 100 years they lost, too," he said.

So "winning's hard," the manager repeated. "Winning's tough. You've gotta stay at it."

Well, assembling a starting rotation like the Five Horsemen is an excellent place to start. But those Five Horsemen come with no money-back guarantees. Not of a journey to the history books. And, especially, not of a journey to the parade floats.

"I know there's a lot of hype," Lee said. "Everyone expects this and expects that. But that's in October.

"And it's February right now. So we've got a lot of work to do."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com