Cliff Lee deal with Phillies proves we know less than we think we do

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 11:52 PM

Not so fast. When everybody knows the future, be careful.

Last month, everybody in the Ballpark in Texas as the World Series ended was almost certain they knew what uniforms Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth were going to be wearing after they signed the biggest free agent contracts of the offseason: Yankees, Angels and Red Sox, respectively. And Lee to New York was a lock.

Instead, it's turned out to be the Phillies, Red Sox and Nationals that get to hold the holiday news conferences and toast themselves.

Everybody, as is so often the case in baseball, was dead wrong, just as they (we) were wrong about a Ranger-Giants Series. No one saw it coming. These days, that seems to be the new norm.

In the early hours after Lee's out-of-the-blue signing with the Phillies, everybody in baseball is now full of certainty once again. They (we) know who will be in the '11 World Series and probably win it, too. The Phils with their Four Aces - Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels - have just been anointed.

In the blissful aftermath of seeing Lee turn down an extra $30 million not to become a Yankee, there's widespread holiday cheer. Never before has a $120 million deal - that's $24 million a year for a 32-year-old pitcher who's gone 14-13 and 12-9 the last two years - been hailed as healthy for baseball. Apparently, anything that blocks the Yanks from buying a world title is good for ball.

Besides, the prospect of a World Series between the Phillies and the winter's other big winner, the Red Sox, has the appeal of novelty. Have these ancient franchises ever met in the World Series? Not since 1915. Just a handful of years ago, the Red Sox hadn't won a Series in 86 years and the Phillies had won only one championship in more than a century.

"I almost feel sorry for the Yankees," a general manager said a few days ago. "They have to pay Lee anything he wants because the starting rotation they have now is just awful."

That was the voice of "everyone" - and a very knowledgeable insider. Perhaps Lee saw the same staff disease in the Bronx. CC Sabathia and his 290 pounds have a bad knee. A.J. Burnett flopped to 10-15. Phillip Hughes faded under innings weight. Do you really want to lock yourself into that maelstrom for seven years?

Now, in a matter of hours, the Phils have been transformed. Yesterday, they were a team with an aging everybody-over-30 lineup that had a suspect bullpen and had just lost a key cog in Werth. How were they going to match up against that young Giants pitching rotation of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Sanchez, with Barry Zito viable, too?

Now (all together), everybody sees a Phils dynasty that will dominate the National League for years and become - in a phrase that has gained instant currency - The New Yankees.

Once again, not so fast.

The Phils are going to win a ton of games the next couple of years, even though Halladay, Oswalt and Lee will be 33, 33 and 32 on opening day of '11. Those ages are the back end of a pitcher's prime. Add three years, if the Phils can keep them healthy and together that long, and they're well into the hurling twilight zone.

We should enjoy what the Phillies will be serving up in '11 because history says that nothing is an unbeatable hand in baseball - not even four aces. The royal flush of baseball is good fortune in the postseason. And that's never guaranteed.

Ask the '71 Orioles, the team made famous by its four 20-game winners: Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson. Yes, they made the World Series that year after winning it the year before, but they didn't win it in '71. Even in that era before free agency when it was less difficult to keep rosters together, the '70 title was the only Baltimore flag between '66 and '83. Magazine covers hailed them as The Best Damn Team in Baseball. And they were. But, strictly speaking, only once.

Even more to the point, ask the Braves of '93 to '02. That is the team that really educates us about the realistic hopes, and fears, of the current Phillies. The signing of free agent Greg Maddux by the Braves just six days before Christmas of '92 is the true parallel to the Phils' coup in grabbing Lee away from the Yankees.

That's the last time baseball saw four starting pitchers on the same staff with this much glamour and postseason experience. Except those Braves were much, much younger and seemed even more certain to dominate, even warp the sport than these Phillies.

The Maddux signing was the "Cliffmas" signing of the '90s.

The deal was supposed to ice a whole chunk of the decade for the Braves. Atlanta had lost the two previous Series in tough battles. They had back-to-back 20-game winner Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, whose postseason work in '91-92 (nine starts, 5-0 record, 2.13 ERA) gave him the dominant big-game credibility that Lee now has. And they had southpaw Steve Avery, as coveted then as Hamels now, whose 18-8 season in '91 helped them to the Series.

Most staggering were the ages of those aces: 27, 27, 26 and Avery, 23. Unlike the Phils, they all came with low mileage and hadn't even reached their primes. How could they fail?

They didn't. Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz pitched together for 10 seasons and will all presumably waltz into the Hall of Fame. And, a fact many forget, they got plenty of help from different fourth starters who truly did make them Four Aces in several years.

In '93, Avery went 18-6. In '97, Denny Neagle was 20-5. And in '98, Neagle was 16-11 and Kevin Millwood went 17-8 while the Big Three were 55-18. But in all three of those years, when their four top starters had exactly the kind of years the Phils hope to see in '11, the Braves never got past the NL Championship Series.

True, the Braves finished first in the NL East for 14 straight seasons. But perhaps their most unique distinction was winning only one Series. Maybe that's the record that never gets broken.

Now, everyone gets to guess the remaining mega-moves that this winter holds. Forget how wrong everybody has been so far. The Cubs were supposed to sign Adam Dunn, while the White Sox lost Paul Konerko. Guess what: They're both White Sox now.

So, who ends up with Adrian Beltre? Do Matt Garza and Zack Greinke get traded? Since the Nationals overbid for Werth to make themselves a credible home for more free agents, whom do they ambush next? And what do all those teams that had budget space left open for Lee or Crawford or Werth do now?

Here's the good news. We really don't know. And the fireworks aren't over yet.

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