There was a casual moment before a game in New York last season where general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., while shooting the breeze with a few writers, mused on last December’s trade that sent Cliff Lee to the Seattle Mariners for a gaggle of supposed prospects.
“According to some people,” Amaro said jokingly, “it was the dumbest trade ever.”
The response to that was, “Well, not the dumbest.”
Sure, it was a light moment and everyone had a good chuckle, but it underscored the one theme of the 2010 season that never went away…
Just how could anyone trade Cliff Lee?
Certainly there was plenty of grumbling about the media and the fans fascination with Lee after he was dealt away only to resurface in Texas where he led the Rangers to the World Series for the first time in club history. Shoot, even while reveling in the glory of Roy Halladay’s no-hitter in the playoffs, senior advisor Dallas Green said the moment gave the Phils’ brass a chance to "go wild."
“We forgot about Cliff Lee,” Green said.
That didn’t last too long, though. Lee didn’t let anyone forget about him by tearing through the first two rounds of the playoffs with performances that topped even the greatness he put together with the Phillies in 2009. In his first 24 innings, Lee racked up 34 strikeouts and allowed just two runs. He made it very hard on Phillies fans even though no one was unhappy about their team. How could anyone be upset about replacing Lee with Halladay and Roy Oswalt?
Still, there was something about Lee. He was as cool pitching for the Rangers as he was in 2009. Unflappable might be the best word because he never, ever changed his approach or his routine. He still ran on and off the field, still pantomimed a throw into center field from behind the mound before he began to warm up before an inning, and still threw that low 90s-mph fastball.
How cool was Lee? While most pitchers cocooned their arms in ice after games, Lee showered, dressed and was gone. He didn’t treat his arm with ice like most pitchers. Even after a career-high 272 innings pitched (counting the playoffs) in ‘09, Lee never strapped his arm in an ice pack after a game. In 16 of his 39 starts Lee pitched into the eighth inning. He averaged 104 pitches per start and hardly walked anyone.
And then he got even better. Better yet, Lee got so good that the New York Yankees and the millions they offered at him wasn’t enough. Apparently Lee wants to win, too, and there was no other place he wanted to do it than Philadelphia.
What in the name of Scott Rolen is going on here?
Strangely, the Phillies now have Halladay and Lee. They have Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, too, while the comparisons to the Braves of the 1990s and Orioles of the early 1970s roll in. Actually, the talk is that the rotation that Amaro somehow put together could be the greatest ever, and that’s not just in Philadelphia where Connie Mack put together some strong teams in the first half of the last century. Instead people are talking about the top four starters as the greatest ever in baseball. Of course they have to win it first—win it all, not just get there—but the resume is nothing to sneeze at.
Amongst the Fab Four, there are three Cy Young Awards, two MVPs in the NLCS, one in the World Series, six 20-win seasons and 13 All-Star Game appearances. Already we’re talking about whether the Phillies can have three 20-game winners on the staff, a feat not pulled off in the big leagues since Oakland did it in 1973 with Ken Holtzman, Vida Blue and Catfish Hunter. Meanwhile, a team has had four 20-game winners on a team just twice in history (1920 White Sox, 1971 Orioles).
Incidentally, the Phillies were the first team to have three 20-game winners on the same team when the second-place 1901 club did it, but then again that they carried just six pitchers all season.
Nevertheless, the Lee deal begs the question as to why he even had to be traded at all. Was the 363 days spent in the American League really necessary or was it something that needed to happen in order for everyone to understand just how valuable pitching is? More importantly, with Oswalt headed into the final year of his current deal, is the fearsome foursome just a one-year rocket ship headed for October or will Amaro be able to find the cash to keep it together?
Don’t tell us that they will have to trade Oswalt only to bring him back after a season in the wilderness.
Whatever happens, 2011 is going to be pressure-packed and fun to watch. Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels have to win it, don’t they? Anything short of another WFC has to be considered a failure, right?
Is this what it feels like for Yankees and Red Sox fans, too?
Anyway, there was a valuable lesson learned since last Dec. 16 when Lee was sent packing and it is, give up on Lee at your peril. The Yankees couldn’t swing a deal for him at the deadline last July and paid for it during the regular-season and the playoffs. Tampa Bay could have used Lee, too, but in the end he beat them twice in the postseason. Halladay and Oswalt were spectacular during the second half of the season, but if Amaro thought for a second that the offense would be outdone by the Giants’ in the NLCS, do you think he would have given up on Cliff Lee?
They Giants won the World Series with a rookie, Pat Burrell and Aubrey Huff in the middle of their batting order and that just ain’t right.
Maybe the better question is just what was it about Lee that keeps folks in Philly talking? After all, Lee arrived at the end of July in 2009 and was gone by the second week of December. That’s not a long time at all and yet it’s a wonder an impromptu parade down Broad Street didn’t break out when news of his reacquisition hit like wild fire.
Yes, Lee is back only this time it has to be better than before.