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Aging Phillies strengthen MLB's best rotation

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports
Aging Phillies strengthen MLB's best rotation
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Phillies GM Ruben Amaro (left) silenced critics when he brought Cliff Lee back

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Philadelphia Phillies.

2010 record: 97-65
Finish: First place, NL East
2010 final payroll: $145.5 million
Estimated 2011 opening day payroll: $167 million

Offseason action

In mid-November, the Phillies welcomed back reliever Jose Contreras(notes) for two more years. Less than two months later, they re-signed J.C. Romero(notes) to plug their left-handed relief hole.

Oh, and they brought back some other guy, too.

Of course, Cliff Lee's(notes) return wasn't met with the shrugs of Contreras' and yawns of Romero's. Philadelphia damn near spontaneously combusted with excitement. The Phanatic did 32 consecutive hours of its anatomically dubious pelvic thrusts. All of the vitriol toward GM Ruben Amaro for trading Lee in the first place disappeared, because Clifton Phifer Lee was back, and he was joining the sliced bread of rotations.

We learned a few things from Lee's signing. He really, really digs Philadelphia, to the point where he left two guaranteed years and tens of millions in guaranteed money on the table. That is not insignificant. Nobody knows what Lee's elbow will do in his third start with the Phillies, or his shoulder in his 33rd start, or his back in his 133rd. Pitchers break down. Careers end long before a pitcher's 37th birthday, which Lee will celebrate during the final season of his deal.

We also now understand where the Phillies are in baseball's hierarchy: Right alongside the Yankees and Red Sox, among the überteams that populate an echelon above upper. These are the superpowers that have little slap fights amongst each other, and when one of the plebeians tries to interfere in their business, they get smacked down. The Phillies have translated their success into financial muscle and a culture that intrigues other players. What pitcher wouldn't want to throw alongside Roy Halladay(notes), Cole Hamels(notes) and Roy Oswalt(notes)?

Jose Contreras did. Same with J.C. Romero. And some other guy, too, who could take this 97-win team well into triple digits, even with the NL East positioning itself as a worthy rival for its AL counterpart going forward.

Reality check

Part of the intrigue in watching the Phillies build this empire is the potential for a spectacular, calamitous fall.

Let's look at the ages of the four Phillies signed past 2012:

Ryan Howard(notes): 32 now, 36 upon expiration
Chase Utley(notes): 32 now, 34 upon expiration
Roy Halladay: 33 now, 36 upon expiration (37 if option exercised)
Cliff Lee: 32 now, 37 upon expiration (38 if option exercised)

Another harrowing list is who could leave over the next two offseasons: Hamels, Oswalt, shortstop Jimmy Rollins(notes), center fielder Shane Victorino(notes), starter Joe Blanton(notes), relievers Brad Lidge(notes) and Ryan Madson(notes) and outfielder Raul Ibanez(notes).

Now, the Phillies will welcome Ibanez's departure, and they probably won't lose tears if Blanton and Lidge leave. Any such purge of talent, however, changes a team's attitude and demeanor, and whether there's anything to it, Phillies players do believe they owe a great amount of success to their clubhouse dynamic.

What they don't want is to become a team like the Yankees of the mid-2000s, a group of overpaid and old men, a compendium of names rather than performance. Should any of the four long-term deals turn sour because of injury or performance – history says the Phillies aren't going 4 for 4 – it is the sort of budgetary nuisance that wouldn't cripple the team as much as hinder it. And perhaps force it to spend foolishly to fill that hole.

Amaro and his lieutenants have built a tremendous farm system, one that molds athletes into ballplayers, and outfielder Domonic Brown(notes) will be one of the rare Phillies prospects who doesn't get flipped for established talent. They need him to succeed. The 772 runs the Phillies scored last year were their fewest since 2002. Brown will be the only position player in his 20s – and the Phillies have foolishly considered a right-handed platoon for him.

Whatever the future, this year should be damn fun. The Phillies are the Miami Heat of baseball, a group of supremely talented players at the top of their games aiming for greatness. Only they aren't the villains, not even close. They're just a team, a real team, with its mind on this year and this year alone.

Phillies in haiku

Inhaling cheesesteaks
And watching Doc, Cliff, Cole, Roy
Is heaven on earth

Next: Milwaukee Brewers