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Phils boast impressive staff, but Giants carry proven winners

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com

The Phillies' feel-good re-acquisition of Cliff Lee has induced amnesia among baseball fans. The general delirium over the trumping of the Yankees' checkbook, as well as the city of Philadelphia's delightful memories of Lee's short stay there in 2009, have obscured what happened to the Phillies in this year's NL Championship Series and to Lee in the World Series. The San Francisco Giants undid both of them.

On paper, the new Phillies rotation looks indomitable, possibly the most formidable in the history of Major League Baseball. If winning the World Series -- or multiple rings -- is the standard, the high expectations might be misplaced.

The Braves' starting five of 1998 famously combined for a 2.97 ERA, and Atlanta didn't even reach the World Series. All those great Atlanta teams in the '90s yielded just one world championship, in 1995. Right after the Lee deal was done in Philadelphia, the Wall Street Journal, with an assist from STATS Inc., put out a chart showing that the five best four-man rotations in history -- as measured by their ERAs versus the league average -- had not won the Series.

Pitcher Madison Bumgarner (right) played a key role in helping the Giants win the World Series. (Getty Images)  
Pitcher Madison Bumgarner (right) played a key role in helping the Giants win the World Series. (Getty Images)  
(The five were the 1997 and '98 Braves, the 2002 and '03 Athletics and the 1930 Dodgers. The 2002 Athletics also had that year's MVP, Miguel Tejada, in their infield.)

The Phillies, of course, have two former MVPs in their everyday lineup. But even with Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins backing up three aces -- Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels -- the Phillies couldn't manage to win three playoff games against the Giants. Their left-handed hitters withered in that series, and their bullpen couldn't rival San Francisco's.

But the consequences of this deal have not been strictly measured against the challenges posed by this year's world champions. If they had been, Lee's two losses to the Giants, including a Game 1 collapse after the Rangers took a 2-0 lead in the second inning against Tim Lincecum, might have applied a brown paper bag to the hyperventilating speculation about whether the Phillies had assembled the greatest rotation of all time.

Lee's value on the free-agent market was driven primarily by his postseason dominance. Yes, he won a Cy Young Award in Cleveland in 2008. But his regular-season record the last two years has been 26-22 with a 3.20 ERA. In fact, he went just 4-6 with a 3.98 ERA for Texas after his midseason trade from Seattle, but the Rangers desperately wanted to re-sign him. Until he faced the Giants, Lee had given up only nine earned runs in eight postseason starts. Then he gave up nine to the Giants, hardly a Murderers' Row, in two games.

Clearly, the Phillies, Rangers and Yankees all chose to overlook that. Why? Because those games were an aberration? Or because Lee's most memorable postseason games came against the Yankees? He has a 3-0 record against them in the playoffs and World Series. The Rangers and, even more so, the Phillies could easily imagine that result flipping around on them.

The city of Philadelphia had already mourned Lee's trade last year. The thought of seeing him in pinstripes next season, and taking a ticker-tape parade down Broadway, would have been painful. But if the Phillies got back to the World Series against the Yankees, sent Halladay out to face Lee and then watched Howard and Chase Utley flailing at their ex-pat southpaw's pitches, the agony would have been unbearable.

So the Phillies' management went for it. The deal stretched the team's payroll, gambled on immediate gratification and both amazed and intimidated the rest of baseball -- outside San Francisco. (Actually, given the audacity of the deal, the amazement part holds up.)

But the Giants are the only team in baseball that would laugh at the idea of trading their top four starters for the Phillies' -- even if money weren't a factor. Sure, they'd be willing to part with Jonathan Sanchez, the team's No. 3 starter by autumn, for Hamels, the 2008 World Series MVP who is now considered Philadelphia's No. 4.

But all things considered, the Giants shouldn't part with Madison Bumgarner, the rookie lefty who occupied the fourth slot, for anything -- not even both Halladay and Oswalt, with 80 percent of their salaries covered by another party. At 21, Bumgarner won a World Series game by throwing eight shutout innings on the road. He came in from the bullpen to throw two shutout innings in the NLCS Game 6 clincher after Sanchez unraveled. He got himself into serious trouble in each inning, then got himself out. He established himself as The Player to Watch at the start of 2011.

All of the Giants' top four starters are under 29, and all of them came through the team's farm system, which should be a point of pride for any team. Lincecum has two Cy Youngs, a 4-1 postseason record and, perhaps most significantly, the experience of righting himself after a horrendous August and regaining his status as an ace in time for his first playoff run. Matt Cain, 26, did not allow an earned run over three starts in the postseason. Sanchez has a skittish personality, but he also has great stuff, a division clincher on his resume and a no-hitter to his name.

The prospect of seeing them tangle repeatedly with the Phillies' aces for a generation would be tantalizing, except the two Roys will turn 34 next year, and Lee will turn 33. The only thing working in their favor is more extensive experience, and hunger. After all, unlike the young Giants, those three have yet to win a World Series.

Gwen Knapp is a sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.


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