On December 14th, Cliff Lee signed with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Since then, millions of words have been written concerning the team and their newly assembled, possibly historic, starting pitching staff. And a lot of questions have been asked.
Is this the best staff ever assembled? Which Phillie will win the Cy Young Award? Will there be more than one 20 game winner? How does Joe Blanton fit in? Are the Phillies odds on favorites to win it all? Are the Yankees still pissed and the Mets still solvent?
On and on, the questions, the articles and the words flowed up to, and then into Spring Training. Press conferences were held, the games eventually began, and finally, the starters unveiled their arms in various stages of ready. And guess what?
Despite what I deem as some slight bumps in the road, as of this writing (Friday night 3/25), the Phillies have played at a six-twenty winning percentage, which is tied for the best in The Grapefruit League.
And they've done this without their All-Star closer (Brad Lidge) and without their All-Star second baseman (Chase Utley), both of whom are now on the DL. They've also done this with an alleged vacuum in rightfield created by the departure of Jason "I took the money but I regret it already" Werth, and a third baseman (Placido Polanco) with a bum elbow.
This leads me to think that most of the aforementioned questions were asked in vain and that this was just an unusually busy hot stove season with rhetoric ad nauseum.
I mean really.
Even without Chase, even with Ryan Madson closing, this team will win 88 games simple because their starting eight is as good or better than most of the teams in the NL; because they have Ryan Howard; and because this starting staff will prove what most people believe: They are very, very good.
The key questions to me are simply, will the Phillies win the Division? The NL Pennant? And the World Series?
These are the burning questions the local media and talking heads should have been trying to answer for the last month or so instead of pondering the starting staff and their historical position. But fret not. I am here to provide you with the answers.
Yes, the Phillies will win the East Division, and yes, the Phillies will get to the NLCS, but whether they win the pennant and the World Series depends on three things.
First, a fresh Chase Utley. For the last three years, hardcore, knowledgeable Phillies fans have complained that #26 has looked absolutely beat come the end of September.
This year, that concern will not exist.
Come the end of the regular season and into the playoffs, Chase Utley will be well rested and ready to replicate his 2009 Yankee World Series stretch of 5 homeruns and 8 RBI in 6 games. His injury should actually be a blessing. The two month delay to the beginning of this season will prevent Chase from killing himself; everyone knows how hard he plays and that this wears his body down; not this year.
If Chase is ready by the end of June, or the middle of July, it will be a giant plus for the Phightins.
Second, the bullpen only needs to be average. Forget the cries of the local media. Their job is to sell air time and print space.
Brad Lidge on the DL? Big deal.
Two out of the last three years Lidge has started the season on the DL, and still the Phillies have made it to the NLCS each of those years.
Let Brad Lidge alone and let him get healthy.
The Fab Five, for the most part, will go deep into most games and Charlie will have multiple options in how he uses the bullpen.
Madson is in a walk year and wants to prove he can close. Contrares is a good soldier. And the idea of by committee can work with this starting staff.
If Brad doesn't return, if his injury is career ending, or at least career delaying, the Phillies can use Madson and sign someone in the off season. Again, this is not an insurmountable concern and may end up being a blessing.
The most important thing, finally, that needs to go well for the Phillies to win the pennant and World Series is #5.
Jimmy Rollins always give his team a Gold Glove caliber shortstop; he has also always provided proven leadership; if the Phillies want to win the NLCS and the World Series, Rollins must return to his 2008 form at the plate.
He had 15% more stolen bases (47 to 41) in 25 less games; he had the same amount of doubles (38) in 153 less at-bats; and even though his batting average was 19 points less in 2008, his OBP was the highest of his career (.349). Rollins won the MVP in 2007 because he hit 30 home runs. He won the World Series in 2008 because he walked more, struck out less, and was on base more, something he must do for the Phillies this year.
Even if J-Roll bats third until Chase gets back, he must be patient and make pitchers work longer and work harder. This gives the guys on deck more looks at the pitcher and Jimmy more of an opportunity to see something he can drive.
Jimmy Rollins is the key to the Phillies winning the pennant and the World Series.
And he is the type of player that knows this, and relishes in it.
He too, is in a walk year. And that may bode very well for the local nine.
If these three things break the Phillies way, their second World Series in four years is a given.