Whenever Bobby Cox was asked last winter about the Phillies’ acquisition of Roy Halladay, he had the same answer: “At least they don’t have [Cliff] Lee.”
Your attention, please: Now they do. And this would seem a propitious moment not to be managing a team that has to play the Phillies 18 times a season. Which means Cox timed his retirement pretty doggone well.
The Phillies rocked the ol’ world Monday night, coming from far off the pace to land the biggest prize of this free-agent class. Lee was supposed to be bound for the Bronx, where every big-ticket ballplayer eventually lands, or back to Texas, scene of his most recent success. Instead he’s going to the Phillies, which not so long ago shipped him to Seattle because they couldn’t afford both Halladay and Lee.
Now they’ve got Halladay and Lee. And Cole Hamels. And Roy Oswalt.
This isn’t just the finest rotation in contemporary baseball; it’s the best the sport has seen since the era of Glavine and Smoltz and Maddux and Avery/Neagle. Those Braves won every division title by outpitching everybody else. The Phillies, who have already taken the past four NL East titles, should outpitch everybody now and for the foreseeable future.
This doesn’t mean the Braves have no chance. It’s baseball. Stuff happens. But even in weirdo baseball the one thing that can override all else is starting pitching. The Braves’ rotation — Hudson, Hanson, Lowe, Jurrjens and maybe Mike Minor — will be very good. The Phillies’ will be better than good. Anyone inclined to pick the Braves to win the East in 2011 has just had a re-think.
It’s the old Braves’ formula: You win over the long haul because your Nos. 3 and 4 starters are better than everybody else’s. And there’s another Braves’ precedent at play: An already-good rotation became the greatest ever because the biggest free-agent pitcher of the era took less money than the Yankees were offering to become a Brave.
And now Cliff Lee has done as Greg Maddux did 18 Decembers ago. And now a pretty decent Braves’ offseason pales in comparison. Good thing there’s the wild card, huh?
By Mark Bradley